I am a British Jew. I am not planning on, or even vaguely considering, leaving Britain. I believe Jews in Britain have never had it so good. I believe Britain has been a success story for the Jews – and still is. I believe that Israel needs in Britain a strong, self-confident and independently minded Jewish community.
In line with the current trend for expressing solidarity through French Twitter hashtags, I say to my readers: #JeSuisUnJuifBritannique.
So, why do I feel the need to make this public declaration?
If you’re a British Jew it’s time to be afraid. Or is it?
Here’s the case for pessimism.
In a representative poll of 3,411 British adults, almost half (45%) believed that at least one of the following statements were true.
The sample of the general public was statistically reliable and the fieldwork was carried out by YouGov, a highly respected polling agency in Britain.
However, the survey of the British Jewish community was self-selecting and done ‘in-house’ by the CAA using social media sites and promotion via the main synagogue denominations. The survey was ‘live’ between 23 December 2014 and 11 January 2015 which means it covered the time during which the terrorist murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket took place in Paris. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that this would have influenced the responses and the sense of fear and foreboding by Jews on this side of the Channel tunnel.
So what’s going on? And is life in Britain for Jews really as perilous as the CAA wants people to believe?
If you look at the detail of the findings it starts to look a lot less scary than the spun headline that presents half the country as rabid anti-Semitics.
For example, the survey reports that only 10% agreed with the statement: “I would be unhappy if a family member married a Jew”. Which, I assume, means that 90% of the population wouldn’t have much of a problem with a Jewish brother-law. So how deeply felt can this anti-Semitism really be? As for the first statement on the list: “Jews think they are better than other people”– well I’m pretty sure that Yorkshiremen think they are better than Lancastrians and the Scots would certainly say they were superior to the English. But Britain no longer gets torn apart by such thinking.
From personal experience, having reached the age of 49 and lived about half that time in London and half in the north of England, the findings don’t ring true.
Perhaps I’ve just been fortunate, but for me Britain has lived up to its reputation for tolerance and a ‘live and let live’ approach to neighbourliness.
Overwhelmingly, I have found my non Jewish friends and work colleagues either indifferent to or respectful and interested in my Judaism and Jewish identity. Over the years my children’s schools and youth groups have welcomed my annual explanations of Passover and Hanukkah as have the Church groups I’ve spoken to. Any anti-Semitism I have encountered has been mild and clearly founded on ignorance rather than some kind of hatred innately hard-wired into the European DNA.
And I’d go further.
I believe that Jews in Britain have been living through a Golden Age of acceptance and accomplishment, more impressive than even the medieval Spain of Maimonides or the Vienna of Sigmund Freud.
The British Jews surveyed appear to have a very poor sense of historical perspective about the country in which we live.
Go back a few centuries and it was a different story. But when have Jews in Britain been more secure and successful than over the last 70 years?
It’s true though that something is happening. Things are changing.
Physical attacks on Jews on the streets of London and elsewhere in Britain are on the increase. Synagogues are being daubed with graffiti. Jewish cemeteries are being vandalised. We have not suffered the terrorist murders of Jews in France in recent years but it’s still serious.
But if we fail to understand the context for the change or pretend we are just seeing a continuation of traditional hatred of the Jew as alien outsider, then we are being foolish in the extreme.
This week’s Jewish Chronicle is packed full of reaction to the terror attack at the Paris Kosher supermarket in which Philippe Braham, Yoann Cohen, Yoav Hattab and Francois-Michel Saada were murdered.
However, the paper chooses in its main editorial to deny the obvious facts. The headline for this week’s leader comment is: “It wasn’t about Israel. It was about Jews, as Jews”. The JC insists that these four men were killed: “simply for doing their Kosher shopping”. The editorial concludes with this: “Until we grasp the true nature of the threat we face, we have no chance of repelling it.”
But failing to grasp the true nature of the threat is exactly what the JC, and most establishment voices in the British Jewish community are currently doing. Pointing the figure only at fanatical Muslims is too easy and deliberately attempts to obscure that responsibility may rest elsewhere too.
Don’t get me wrong. Islamist terrorism is real. It is an ugly strain of Islam with growing support among young Muslims in the West. In the short term it needs vigilance and good intelligence to defeat its most dangerous manifestations. In the longer term there are issues of disaffection with mainstream Islamic teaching and with liberal democratic values that have to be tackled. Easier said than done, I know. But putting more police outside Jewish schools and synagogues will only get us so far.
What’s clearly nonsense is to claim that Israel’s behavior plays no part in the political and cultural dynamic that is provoking growing racism against Jews. When things kick off in Israel and the Occupied Territories anti-Semitic attacks spike in Western Europe. When peace is being talked about, with real plausibility, anti-Semitism in Europe dies down.
And before I go any further let me be clear that I am not falling into the mindset of blaming the victims or apologising for the killers. Nothing done by the State of Israel justifies the murder of Jews in Paris or London or anywhere. But attempting to describe what’s going on as just another manifestation of ‘the age old hatred against the Jews’ just doesn’t help. Even the Campaign Against Antisemitism’s report acknowledges the connection: “Antisemitism is usually most visible in Great Britain during crises involving Israel but the sentiment behind it does not simply disappear when the crises end.” That’s true but the reason the sentiment does not end is because the root cause of the sentiment remains unresolved. And increasingly the general public understand who has power and who does not in this particular conflict.
Thirty years ago most people still saw Israel as an admirable project of healing and renewal for a people broken by the Holocaust. Now that view is questioned and challenged. A state that was once seen as the underdog of the Middle East is now the regional superpower and the local bully. The big losers are recognised as the Palestinians who have become the new archetype for a dispossessed and downtrodden people. And as for the Jewish Israelis, David has become Goliath.
Watching the nightly news from Gaza last summer it wasn’t difficult for viewers in Britain to reach the conclusion that the on-going dispute between Israel and the Palestinians must be the most asymmetrical conflict of all time. And if Western leaders choose to adopt double standards on human rights and territorial occupations, is it any wonder that respect for liberal democracies becomes undermined.
Despite all that is changing for British Jews I still believe that we live in an exceptionally tolerant and understanding country. Even when our Jewish establishment leadership choose to defend the indefensible (as they did last summer over Gaza) and Israeli Prime Ministers present themselves as spokesmen for Jews worldwide, the British people can recognise the difference between Israeli actions and British Jews. In fact I was amazed that 80% of the CAA survey of the general public rejected the statement: “Jews’ loyalty to Israel makes them less loyal to Britain than other British people”.
I don’t accept that Jewish life in Britain is becoming untenable – it’s nowhere near it. And I don’t seem to be the only Jew in Britain that thinks this. This week the Jewish Chronicle also conducted its own poll of Jewish views post Paris, this time using a more scientifically selected sample than the CAA’s. In the JC poll nine out of ten – 88% – said that they have not considered quitting Britain since last week’s atrocities. If I’m worried about anything it’s that some people are choosing to overstate anti-Semitism in Britain as a way to deflect criticism of Israel.
So to return to my opening statement of identity, I am a British Jew and I believe the Jews of Britain have learnt a great deal about what it takes to create a society that respects and protects all of its citizens. It may not be perfect but we know what multi-culturalism and religious pluralism should look like within the big tent of a liberal democracy.
Israel, in marked contrast, is struggling to work out how to be both Jewish and Democratic. In fact it’s not sure if it even wants to be both things anymore. The very principles that have allowed diaspora Jewry to thrive in Western democracies are being rejected by the State that was created to normalise and make life safe as a Jew.
So #JeSuisTolerance #JeSuisRespect #JeSuisPluralism and #JeSuisUnJuifBritannique.