I’ll be praying for a better Britain

September 22, 2000

ON the morning after your birthday party you open the window to let out the old air. There are plates smeared with the traces of food, stacked and slotted in the sink.

Glasses puddled with old wine and kissed with stale lipstick teeter on every surface.

The party is over. And you wonder how so much fun could have been enjoyed in this same, weary, sickly-smelling room.

The distance between past and present, and the way that time bundles itself into packages that don’t seem to relate to each other — these phenomena are never more shocking than after a party.

The fun was yesterday; the debris is today. All over the world, the Millennium party is over, and millions of people seem to be slouched over a weak instant coffee, without the energy even to run a hot tap.

In Britain, I have been charting the depth of post-millennial blues with a growing sense of unease. The initial reaction was to be expected — midnight struck, Year 2000 began, fireworks erupted and the Thames failed to burst into flame. The euphoria would soon begin to fade. When expectations are high, disappointment is felt more keenly. And expectations were colossal, though most people did not know quite what they were expecting. It was just a date, their logical minds kept repeating. But their emotional minds answered, ‘‘It’s more than a date. It’s the beginning of an epoch. This is history projected on the sky.’’

Many people believed they would witness the end of the world — an emotional response to an emotive date, and one which their logical minds struggle to fit into a scientific context.

In the growing hysteria, the Millennium Bug was devised, a worldwide and incurable computer fault which would unfailing destroy the digital network and leave us helpless without our artificial brain — the response of a time-conscious deity angered by our technological arrogance.

As it turned out, a handful of truckers with a grievance and a simple plan were far more able to bring a nation to its knees. The failure of this phantom virus gave me the first whiff of post-party blues. People seemed let down that the apocalypse had been postponed.

The Millennium Dome backlash followed, and the cynicism became palpable. People were prepared to hate that upturned saucer and its caverns of educational entertainment, not because it was on the wrong side of London or because some of its exhibits were broken, but because the whole project epitomised the naivete of 1999.

The Dome belongs to yesterday, when the party was in riotous swing. It is a weird white anomaly today.

I believe the New Labour government will stand or fall with the Dome. If it is bulldozed during the next few months, Labour will lose the General Election. If they can keep the structure intact, a second term is possible.

Refugees from the war-strafed Baltic states, many of them bombed out of their homes by British and American planes, were straggling into this country through the winter and spring, to meet a racism which was tribal in its hatred.

I had never seen the people of the United Kingdom snarling in disgust at visitors from other nations. Now that the party was over, gatecrashers would be beaten and spat upon. If they starved, it was their own fault.

If they suffocated in a refrigerator wagon, they had brought it on themselves. I have felt antisemitism in Britain since I moved here in the mid-80s, especially in some sectors of TV management.

But undisguised racism on the streets — this has shocked me. Perhaps, as an Israeli who was brought up in an era of passionate racial conflict, I am more sensitive to the distant rumble of guns.

I was a baby in Tel Aviv during the fight for independence, an adolescent in Cyprus during the civil war, and a soldier when the Arab-Israeli hatred boiled over. I know when violence is coming. It is coming now, on a foul-smelling wind blowing from Europe. In the scowling, sneering faces filmed on protest lines outside oil refineries last week, I saw the same emotions that excite gangs of bully-boys in eastern Germany and southern France.

Right-wing, racist, thuggish politics are on the rise again.

On the Continent they are openly identified with Fascism already. Do not pretend it cannot happen in Britain too. We cannot bring the party days back. 1999 is over. But the Jewish community, the most peace-loving people in Britain, can play a powerful part in putting love back into everyday life.

The real New Year is about to begin. January 1 was a champagne celebration — Rosh Hashana is a spiritual rebirth.

Our prayers next week will be for kindness and caring to flow more easily in our hearts, and for comfort and warmth to embrace all those we love. This year my prayers will be extended, not only to my family and my dear friends, and outward to all those who worship as I do — but to the Muslim women in peasant dresses and headscarves, who crouch with their children and beg for pennies outside Underground stations and to the well-fed people who hurl foul language and even cigarette ends at them.

This year my prayers go to the nurses and doctors, the teachers and school bus drivers, who fear a handful of militants will once again prevent them from doing their vital work and to the farmers, hauliers and fishermen who believe their own livelihoods are threatened by 2p on a litre of diesel.

In 2000 my prayers are for Britain. May we all be inscribed for a good year.


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