As a child, I was fond of a catchy little ditty called ‘I’m An Indian Too’ (‘A Sioux!’) Though she’s 10 years older than me, I wonder whether this ear-worm also stuck in the consciousness of the Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, whose claim of Native American descent has recently been rubbished by both a DNA test which revealed her to be around 1/1024th of this persuasion (most of us are more unicorn than this, surely?) and the Cherokee Nation Secretary of State, Chuck Hoskin Jr, who accused Warren of ‘undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.’
Warren’s reveal-without-reservation as a fork-tongued pale-face recalled the embarrassment of her countrywoman Rachel Dolezal, who three years ago was found to be whiter-than-white after years of living as a black American to the extent that she was the president of her local branch of the NAACP. (Though she also claimed to have been born in a teepee and hunted for her family’s food with a bow and arrow – make your mind up, missy!) In both cases I felt the warm glow of judgmentalism – followed by a swift dart of embarrassment. For I too once pretended to be of a race other than my own. Unlike these sticky-fingered identity-thieves, however, I snapped out of it before I was old enough to vote, which I am greatly relieved about because, like love-bites and Maoism, what can appear charming on the young looks distinctly embarrassing on grown-ups.
My brief life as a Pretend Jew started with the best intentions – as Warren and Dolezal did, I simply lost my heart to an entire people in a short space of time when I found out about the Shoah, watched the Munich Massacre being played out at the Olympics on the television news each night and and saw the triumph of tiny Israel in the 20-day Yom Kippur War against a whopping coalition of nine of their nasty neighbours. My father was a Communist but he backed Israel unreservedly; unlike the snobbish, expensively-educated pro-Palestine snowflakes of today, he understood that they represented the Little Man.
But I wanted to go further than being on their side – as I moved from being a starry-eyed child to a bolshy teenager, I wanted to be one of them. I was a bright, ambitious outsider in my working-class home, school and neighbourhood – unlike the people I admired, my malaise came not from being forced to wander, but from being so rooted in my community that it felt like drowning on a daily basis. When at the age of 17 I got a job at the New Musical Express, I dyed my blonde hair black, gave myself an exotic Jewish mother and made my debut as a Red Sea Pedestrian – disloyally, I took a special delight when none of the three Jews on the staff saw through my disguise. It’s so weird when you meet a stupid Jew – like meeting a gay man with two left feet.
My day in the Levantine sun was brief, however; at the age of 18 I became engaged to a young man whose shrewd, well-travelled father said to his son after first meeting me ‘She’s a lovely girl – but if she’s Jewish, I’m a Chinaman.’ There were a few tears and promises never to fib again and our teenage wedding seemed set to last – until I embarked on an adulterous affair with an actual Jew! This marriage too worked out fine for a bit – yes, I fetishised him, but he fetishised me right back as the anything-goes sex-crazed shiksa of his dreams. When we saw past the stereotypes, our marriage couldn’t stand the awful truth that we were both very alike – extremely self-dramatising and short-tempered people. What we had in common was too great for our Other-ness to keep working its strange magic.
But that was many decades ago now and in my old age I’m happy to show my continuing admiration for this astonishing people by attending weekly Hebrew classes, brawling with pro-Palestinian activists and spending like a sailor on shore leave whenever I hit the watering holes of Tel Aviv. I’ll always love the Jews, but I’ll never be one of them – and that’s fine by me. There’s something really shady about attempting to wear the scars of a persecuted people as your own, no matter how good your intentions. And while I can live with being a bad Christian, it would break my black little heart to be a bad Jew.
Julie Burchill’s book Unchosen: Memoirs of a Philo-Semite is published by Unbound. She will appear on a panel discussing the new film Why the Jews? at the UK Jewish Film Festival on November 14.