OPINION - I was called 'the Jew' on a London street — since when is this okay?

David Ellis (Natasha Pszenicki)
David Ellis (Natasha Pszenicki)

Given this job evokes a hefty dose of stress, steals too much sleep and facilitates a rather irregular diet — my weekly butter intake must be, what, three blocks? And let’s not get into the booze — lately, I’ve been skittish about my health. I’m 34, but my biological age? It must be vampiric.

One upshot is that I’ve taken to doing a few of those ‘how-fit-are-you-really?’ tests — can I balance for more than a minute, run a mile without collapse, resist chaining the entire pack of fags, that sort of thing.

Which goes some way to explain how last week I found myself on Oxford Street in the waning sunlight of late afternoon, in front of a sizeable crowd, handing over a tenner to a canny hustler. Hang from a bar for 100 seconds, he said, win £100. The catch — the bar is not static but rolls — renders a relative doddle in the gym a near impossibility, as I discovered fairly sharpish.

But not that sharpish. And not so sharpish that the crowd didn’t murmur a little. Bravo, Ellis. Forty-five seconds in and a boy, late teens, turned to his mate. “The Jew is doing well,” he said. I was the only one to flinch.

‘The Jew is doing well,’ he said. I was the only one to flinch. No-one murmured at that

No-one murmured at that. And sure, it barely registers on the antisemitic scale — spitting on the bus this was not, and any tweets about this column will be worse. Certainly, it felt less nauseating than, say, the torrent of “from the river to the sea” Instagram stories that did the rounds a little while back (people’s ability to mindlessly bandwagon on subjects they know almost nothing about never ceases to disappoint). It lacked the frothing hostility of the protests.

Instead, what shocked was the flippancy — the idle reduction, the easy willingness to categorise, the insouciant stripping of my individuality. What was wrong with “he’s doing well”? Perhaps, I surmised, that would make me feel too alike. The boy wanted me to be other. To be The Jew. Or perhaps he just called it as he saw it. Oy vey. Five words; I’m not fretting about it.

I have to admit, though, that I was surprised at the immediacy of his classification — or, to be frank, the racial profiling. I wasn’t wearing a kippah or carrying a tallit bag, which is to say, in the parlance of another rotten-tasting row, I am not “openly Jewish”. Sure, sure, there’s the nose. I like salt beef and Jackie Mason jokes. But I wouldn’t falsely claim to know the Jewish experience, because I don’t. I’m certainly not kosher: my dad had me baptised, for Chrissake. I’m just proud that it’s in the blood, from my mother’s side.

It made me worry for anyone who is Jewish. This isn’t about the boy. It’s about the crowd’s complete indifference. The slur may seem slight, but look, if it was only 80-odd years ago that a continent rubbed its hands and gleefully tried to eradicate your ancestors, you’d be touchy about the definite article too.

I said something then, yes? I stood my ground? Not on your life — or mine. Within the crowd’s apathy was a chokehold, given the tacit admission that the prejudice, however casual, didn’t matter. I understood at that moment that if I said something, I’d be on my own.

What I’m finding hard to swallow now is that our society, once so much better than this, has regressed to the point that the boy felt his off-the-cuff bigotry could be voiced aloud. That it was permissible, unremarkable. And he was right, it was. There wasn’t a word in objection. Me? I wandered off, hardly the reckoning of the year.

The five words are small fry. But they’re an indicator. Last night, a colleague told me they’d stopped wearing their Star of David necklace: “Better not to be a target.” But those on the lookout will always spot what they’re seeking. And when they do, London’s Jews need those close by not to sit back. Idle ignorance gives the floor for hate to fester. Trust me, we’ve seen this one before.

Brand's Thames baptism feels fitting

Russell Brand, the irritant comedian turned conspiracy theorist, has been baptised in the Thames. The experience, he told his followers, left him “changed” and “transitioned”.

Given the recent well-publicised state of the river, it feels fitting. After all, he built his fame on his verbose, cheeky-chappy persona, complete with s***-eating grin.

David Ellis is the Evening Standard’s Going Out editor