A turning point for British Jews?

There’s a cartoon I remember seeing at Cheder, they showed it at Chanukah. It took place during the Hellenic period and happy assimilated Jews enjoyed the good life in Greek society. Their comfort was only disrupted by a small yud that would appear on their shoulder. Every time they tried to push it away, the golden letter kept returning.

For years I laughed at this propaganda film, except that stories I’d hear kept bringing back its memory. A colleague told me that although her mother was Jewish she wasn’t. And a particularly telling anecdote about the local village quiz when every time a question was asked about Judaism or Israel, the other residents would instinctively pester her mum for an answer even though she would deny her Jewishness.

How British Jews choose to live is up to them but I’d question those who think that abandoning their identity is a passport to integration. Even Disraeli who was baptized at birth couldn’t avoid the anti-Semitic slurs and Anne Widdecombe said that Michael Howard had the “night about him.”

And now we have John Lansman, the Jewish founder of Momentum, unable to accept that the movement he gave birth to detests who he is. For some Jewish die hard Corbynistas it’s hard to know how bad anti-Semitism has to get for them to accept its existence. 

Members of Parliament such as Luciana Berger should be commended for calling out anti-Semitism in their own party.  But if John Lansman can’t see anti-Semitism when it’s staring him in the face why do the MPs opposing anti-Semitism in their own party not realise that remaining where they are is more, not less likely to advance a Corbyn government? People in abusive relationships don’t solve the problem by telling everyone how awful their partner is, they leave.

We British Jews should be proud of our defiance in the face of Labour anti-Semitism. For a community that is less than half a percent of the UK population it is impressive that this scandal has managed to dominate newspaper headlines in the way it has. The stiff upper lip of British Jewry whose Rabbis once wore dog collars so keen they were to be accepted into British society has evolved into a proud political force, made up of nearly as many organisations fighting anti-Semitism as there are Jews.

This is a positive development but for a sustainable future, the community needs to be more proactive than reactive. Accusing the BBC and Labour of being anti-Israel is not an excuse for not attempting to present a compelling and positive story about what it means to be a Jew and Zionist today.

I once asked someone to critique my C.V. which I was sending to the firm where he worked. He told me I shouldn’t mention my Master dissertation because it was on a Jewish theme and it might not serve me well.  The dissertation explored the range of attitudes towards the North West London Eruv. The dividing line between the pro and anti-Eruv groups was at heart about the role of Jewish identify in Britain today. One fuming opponent told me that religious observance was for the home only and there shouldn’t be a sign of it in the public space.  This begs the question –  if we’re not proud about who we are, should we be surprised when those outside the community don’t respect us? This is no excuse for anti-Semitism but in my view it’s less likely to occur if the only narrative people have of Jews is their efforts fighting anti-Semitism.

 If we believe,  as I do, that Zionism is a beautiful idea and not the version that has been defiled by the hard left,  we have to work harder to present a picture of Israel that is less about the conflict and more about its tremendous positive contribution to the region, technology, science, intelligence sharing and winning Eurovision song contests.

 This work must begin with Jewish education which could provide a greater role for the teaching of Hebrew as well as explaining the inexorable link between Judaism and Israel. Having lived there for a couple of years I noticed how Jews from places like South Africa arrived fluent in the language. And Jews from Australia across the religious spectrum had an inbuilt sense of identify with Israel. They had a deeper understanding of its history, language and culture.

 We need to advocate for and provide teaching resources about Israel where its relevant in the broader curriculum both in schools and University. Cabinet members from the political parties must go on trips to the Middle East which would be a win win for both Israelis and Palestinians who would take advantage of the opportunity to explain their side of the conflict to a political leader.

While many of us speak of leaving the UK were Corbyn to be elected leader, the truth is that such a move would be very challenging for a lot of people, not just financially  but the immense difficulties of simply relocating our families. We need to imagine and realise a proud vibrant Jewish life that sees no conflict between our religion and national identity.

Gazing at the Succa in my garden which is as odd to describe to a colleague as it is to be seen by neighbours, I can’t help but feel that there is an underlying message to this commandment. You can’t hide who you are, so live it with pride.

About the Author
Born in London, Ethan lived in Israel for a few years. He is an experienced social researcher in government and the charity sector, and has also advised Jewish organisation doing their own surveys.
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