Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite, by Julie Burchill
Unbound Books, 192 pages, £13 (hardcover), £10 (e-book)
Julie Burchill has a theory about philo-Semitism. “Philo-Semites are as wildly disparate as Cicero and Lindsay Lohan, but I can’t help noticing that, over the centuries, a disproportionate number of attractive, kind, clever people are drawn to Jews,” she writes in her new memoir, “Unchosen: Memoirs of a Philo-Semite.”
To drive her point home, she helpfully supplies a sample of other well-known admirers of the Jewish people: “Marilyn [Monroe], Ava [Gardner], Liz [Taylor], Felicity Kendal, Martha Gellhorn, Martin Luther King, me – what a sumptuous banquet of radiant humanity we look upon.”
Tongue in cheek or not – and it is genuinely difficult to tell, one way or the other – some context is needed to understand why Burchill seems so cocksure about the matter of philo-Semitism.
Unfortunately, that background is only sporadically evoked in her book, the latest addition to an oeuvre that includes monographs about Princess Diana and the footballer David Beckham; a bonkbuster called “Ambition”; a best-selling YA novel; and one other memoir, simply entitled “I Knew I Was Right.”
For a while in the 1990s and the first decade of this century, Burchill was probably – no, certainly – the most controversial journalist in England. Her entire professional career up to that point had prepared her for this role: Right from her first journalistic break – as a 17-year-old staff writer on the influential music weekly NME in the late '70s – Burchill has consistently wielded the authorial “I” like a sledgehammer, in columns, criticism and feature writing. The detritus she left behind is substantial: lawsuits, enduring feuds, abruptly terminated professional engagements.
There is a body of high-quality, opinionated writing amid the carnage, but all the same, Burchill’s career is primarily defined by disdain for the weakness of contemplative uncertainty. Taking this into account, readers of a gentle disposition might do well to put “Unchosen” aside unread. When Burchill declares that she is going to explain “Just why I love the Jews so much,” it’s only fair to expect fireworks.
For the rest of us, though, it’s reasonable to ask: Why, Julie Burchill, do you love “the Jews”? She says it started in the early '70s, when she was a precocious teenager outgrowing provincial Bristol and looking to escape. “The World at War,” a 26-part television history of World War II, was the broadcasting highlight of English television over the autumn and winter of ‘73-‘74.
Burchill didn’t watch the 20th episode, simply entitled “Genocide,” as it happens. It was only later, leafing through the partwork (weekly subscription) magazine that accompanied the series, that she discovered the photographs and words that tried to describe the horror of the Final Solution.
It’s not quite as facile as it might seem, querying the connection between the Holocaust and Burchill’s path toward philo-Semitism. If nothing else, the act of genocide actually says nothing about its victims but everything about its inflictors.
Burchill, however, frames the moment as a personal awakening. “I remember going into the bathroom and staring at my blank, big-eyed face in the mirror and being surprised that I hadn’t changed on the outside, when the rest of me was so different.” And in this sentence, perhaps, lies the problem with Julie Burchill, with her philo-Semitism and indeed with the whole of “Unbound”: It’s all about her.
Her real favorite topic
True, we had been warned. Even so, “Unbound” feels retrofitted, personal history adjusted to fit the contours of her claims to life-long philo-Semitism. There’s nothing at all unusual about this – most memoirs are, to a greater or lesser extent, exercises in wish fulfillment – but this after-the-fact reevaluation comes across as awkward and incomplete.
It’s not just that there should be no points to be won for one’s philo-Semitic longevity; it’s also that Burchill takes it as a given that the reader already knows all about her and her turbulent career. “Unbound” charges along, only lightly mediated by the exigencies of chronology and thematic development, an unstoppable melange of partial reminiscence that assumes everything but serves to explain very little, even if you happen to be particularly clued up about Burchill’s favorite topic, herself.
She does come up with evidence of something, if not quite philo-Semitism. As a young journalist on the make in London, she simpers embarrassingly over a much older colleague, partly because she believes that he is a Jew. For a while, she passes herself off as a Member of the Tribe, insinuating (no, lying) that her mother was Elizabieta Grynszpan, apparently a cousin of Herschel Grynszpan. You know, the young man who assassinated German diplomat Ernst von Rath in Paris in 1938, providing the pretext for Kristallnacht, etc. Yes, that Grynszpan. Even then, it seems, Burchill had an intuitive knack for chutzpah.
There are also moments of admirable display of principle. In 1978, a year into her stint at NME, Burchill reviewed a new album by punk darlings Siouxsie and the Banshees. A mainstay of Siouxsie’s energetic live set at the time was a song containing the obnoxious line “Too many Jews for my liking.” Burchill didn’t hesitate. “I, self-righteous square than I am, consider [this] to be the most disgusting and unforgivable lyric line ever written,” Burchill’s review observed. “[Siouxsie] is well into her twenties, so ignorant youth is no excuse, however lame. Therefore she must be either evil or retarded.”
Calling out a bigot when everyone else seems to be cool with her takes guts, one must acknowledge. Groupthink, especially in journalism, can be both insidious and impossibly restrictive. Still, something in Burchill’s outspokeness suggests a concurrent agenda, one that becomes a little clearer in the last line of the review: “Well, take your shocking song and stick it up your rude white ass, Sioux, because here’s a review that doesn’t believe in running with the pack.”
One thing we do learn about Burchill from “Unbound” is that she is actually a tribal animal by nature, the real issue being the pack she chooses to run with. The working classes, the unfairly excluded, the honest everyday folk marginalized by the smug bourgeoisie: These are her people. Sticking one up Siouxsie, one feels, was as much thumbing her nose at the middle-class writers and tastemakers who had by then appropriated punk as their own, as it was a simple statement about the vileness of anti-Semitism.
Charles Saatchi wonders
This isn’t to say that Burchill took up championing the Jewish cause simply because it helped establish outsider credentials. There are much easier ways to go about that, after all. (Charles Saatchi, the advertising guru and patron of the arts, once made much the same point to Burchill, she reports. “Why are you doing this – siding with the Jews?” Saatchi asks her. “Do you really need to go looking for trouble that much!”).
But any good intentions are undercut through her insistent, limited characterization of her chosen people. Jews, in her estimation, are hyper-clever working-class boys and girls, of superior stock to the gentiles around them, who have transcended humble immigrant roots and institutional discrimination to become very successful and very rich, very quickly. (I paraphrase only very slightly.) This is much as Burchill imagines herself, one suspects, the inconvenience of her non-kosher birth aside.
But so what? None of this makes her brand of philo-Semitism a bad thing, merely vapid and shallow. Still, there is a problem. Having established an entertaining but essentially lazy stereotype of the plucky underdog, she now uses it as a cudgel with which she beats her opponents into the ground.
Turning an ostensibly affectionate sentiment into something so bilious takes some doing, but Burchill manages it with ease. Burchill has made many enemies over the years; I’d guess that every single one who has said anything that could be construed as unsympathetic to the Jewish people makes an appearance here. There are ex-husbands and in-laws, ex-colleagues and ex-acquaintances, anyone who makes the mistake of mentioning Muslims sympathetically in her presence. (Burchill isn’t very keen on Muslims. Her call. But I’m not entirely sure what this has to do with loving Jews. She certainly never deigns to explain.)
Along the way, her love for the Jewish people is cemented by visiting Israel, getting drunk on the local vintage, visiting Yad Vashem, and reflecting on how proud she is “to have chosen her side so unconditionally.” Strange that -- anyone would think she was talking about a football match, rather than the rich tapestry of culture and tradition stretching back thousands of years. Unsurprisingly, she frequently conflates philo-Semitism with philo-Zionism (and yes, while there is significant overlap in personnel, they are far from being the same thing). It’s all the same to her.
I, for one, don’t think that philo-Semitism is in itself a bad thing. Perhaps it isn’t always thoughtful or intelligent or curious or inquiring. But neither are Anglophilia or Francophilia, to name but two parallel sentiments. And you don’t find proponents of either being accused of walking in step with xenophobes, as Burchill reminds us repeatedly.
Still, the reactionary solipsism of “Unbound” is far removed from the affectionate warmness that a love of the Jewish people can be. It is Burchill’s right to write about herself as much as she pleases, and if she can find people to pay for this, good luck to her. But to dress a hundred and ninety-odd pages of dyspeptic abuse up as a paean to philo-Semitism simply won’t do. Haven’t the Jewish People suffered enough?
Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor based in Tel Aviv.