Jack Mendel
The Online Editor at the Jewish News

A harmless debate that became a time-honoured game of ‘who is a Jew?’

When I heard that Alan Turing is to be the new face of the £50 note, I took to Twitter to ask a hypothetical question with endless possible answers:

Q. Which British-Jewish icon may one day follow suit?

Quicker than you can say ‘Enigma!”, this polite and curious enquiry was and politicised by trolls. It seems British Jews are not even entitled to determine who they consider formative to their community without abuse.

Alan is a hero of mine. From what I’ve read he will also be the first LGBT figure immortalised on money.

There are infinite Jewish options; from the worlds of art and politics, academia, faith and music.

Within minutes of posing the question, all sorts of great names were flying at me.

Rosalind Franklin. Licoricia of Winchester. Sir Anish Kapoor. Isaiah Berlin. Harold Pinter. Sir Nicholas Winton. And, even, Mrs Elswood (the pickled cucumber lady).

And that’s just scratching the surface.

But a seemingly well-meaning and harmless debate turned into a time honoured game of ‘who is a Jew?’

First Jewdas, the left-wing group, jokingly suggested it should be ‘Craig David’ on currency.  Inoffensive and funny, but I started to get micky-taking responses, such as David Baddiel, Matt Lucas and Vanessa Feltz.

Then Jeremy Corbyn-supporting journalist Aaron Bastani, who has ten times more followers than I, replied ‘Karl Marx’.

And so it began.

I turned down his suggestion, saying I was looking for specifically British Jews.

Any British Jew would be eligible in my make-believe shortlist of icons. But two criteria must be fulfilled: Is the person Jewish and British?

Both are necessary requirements to varying degrees. Disraeli was baptised and Berlin was not born in the UK, but it’s hard to argue either weren’t viewed as ‘British Jews’. They were widely put forward.

Marx was not ruled out due to his views, nor the fact he was German-born, nor the fact he was not a practising Jew.

Karl Marx was not British. He was stateless after 1845. He may have lived in Britain, died and been buried here, but was never naturalised as a citizen, and actively sought revolution here.

But the pile-on-ers weren’t interested in debate.

They were convinced I said no because I have some ulterior motive, and they knew best, who is a British Jewish icon.

Bastani ‘explained’ to me, that Marx, the Prussian-born father of Communism “was a Jewish immigrant to Britain sure but he spent half his life in Britain, had kids here etc. More British than Prussian I’d argue. Equally as British as Ralph Miliband.”

Thanks for history lesson, Aaron.

My Twitter feed then became a hard left pile-on, with more than 250 replies so far.

It went from funny suggestions like Mrs Elswood and Matt Lucas, to ridiculous and offensive ones, such as Jackie Walker, Sir Gerald Kaufman and Marx, repeatedly.

You have to be a bit of a crank, to think that someone who was expelled from Labour over antisemitism (Walker), or who caused controversy with remarks about “Jewish money”, accusing Israel of “cynically exploiting” the Holocaust (Kaufman); would be an appropriate pick.

I also had my intentions questioned, with one tweeter accusing me of not ‘getting the answer I was looking for” when rejecting Marx, Walker and Kaufman.

Another claimed, I was “saying first generation immigrants can’t be British?”, for rejecting Marx; which isn’t what I said at all.

Indeed, I said Sir Ben Helfgott and Judith Kerr would be great examples – both not UK-born.

It was infuriating to see this honest venture into British-Jewish history turned into a leftist Twitter coup.

For a while people came forward with interesting takes for our local icons worthy of national recognition.

It fell apart when trolls saw an opportunity to disrupt an honest question and make political capital out of celebrating British-Jewish history.

About the Author
Jack Mendel is the Online Editor at the Jewish News.
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