Alex Brummer
Alex Brummer

A little knowledge is no defence against anti-Semitism

Every year thousands of British schoolchildren of all ages troop through shuls all over the country as part of their religious education instruction. Rabbis, teachers and knowledgeable community volunteers report the children are held raptured as the ark is opened, a Torah scroll removed and the content explained. 

The Jewish Way Of Life exhibition, organised by the Board of Deputies as part of its outreach, tours the country moving from Richmond in Surrey to north Wales, seeking to give citizens insights into the way Jews live their lives from the simple Shabbat meal to barmitzvah, batmitzvah and marriage. 

Jewish school in areas such as south London, where there are not enough children of the faith to fill the classes, gladly open their doors to non-Jewish children who are then exposed to Judaism as part of their daily lives.

Hopefully, this exposure to Judaism is helpful in removing the mysteries around the religion and is a force against the prejudices currently reinforced by the attitudes of Jeremy Corbyn and the extreme left of the Labour Party. Yet we sort of know, from the history of the Shoah, that knowledge of Judaism is not necessarily a defence against anti-Semitism. 

In the shtetls and towns of pre-Second World War Europe, Jews often lived cheek-by- jowl with non-Jewish citizens who had intimate knowledge of their ways of life. Yet that did not stop neighbour betraying neighbour and citizens turning a blind eye to the destruction of families going on around them.

 In spite of all that we would like to think our fellow citizens know and understand about Judaism it is sometimes easy to forget that wrapped up we can become in our own narrow affairs. 

The limits of knowledge even among the most educated Britons can be astonishing. Indeed, one supposes that may be among the reasons that anti-Semitism on the extreme right and left finds such an easy market. 

I was very conscious of this at a high level economic/geopolitical seminar attended last weekend. 

A conversation with a female BBC producer turned into an interrogation. Having lived almost all of her life in Britain, worked in an organisation which employs Jews in jobs at all levels the profound ignorance was mind blowing. Where did the laws of kashrut come from? Why do we celebrate the Jewish festival? How to Jews regard Jesus? Did they consider him a prophet? Are our children less Jewish than we are? 

 All of these were perfectly good questions and answered with as much care and elucidation as could be mustered but were a reminder of how little Britain’s chattering classes know about our religion. 

When examined through this prism you come to realise how profoundly unhelpful the schisms in our own community are when we need a unity of purpose and presence. 

Questions of whether or not to reach out to Jeremy Corbyn may loom large for Jewish Labour supporters, but it is probably a lost cause knowing what we already know from the experience of Baroness Chakrabarti’s ill-fated report into anti-Semitism. 

The debate about Rabbi Dweck’s liberal attitudes towards same-sex relationships may have gone to the world’s highest rabbinical authorities, but it is an unnecessary luxury in a British Jewish community which already struggles on points of difference. 

As prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu commands support in our community for the courage of the office he holds in an often hostile environment. 

Yet he divides diaspora Jews with his self-interested, politicised ruling on prayers at the Western Wall.

All of these debates may be hugely important to us. But they are as nothing when we consider how little our friends, neighbours and co-workers know, understand and care about our community.

About the Author
Alex Brummer is the Daily Mail's City Editor
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