They banged pots and pans, booing and hissing from the windows of their homes, pelting the opposition with rotten vegetables and stones.
These British Jews, alongside their neighbours, defeated the Nazi-affiliated British Union of Fascists, who wanted to free the country of foreigners “be they Hebrew or any other form of alien”, dispersing their three thousand-strong rally. Jewish workers ensured the “Blackshirts” were the only aliens on British turf. The so-called Battle of Cable Street took place in 1936.
Yesterday, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism claimed that more than half of Jews believe anti-Semitism in Britain now echoes that decade, the 1930s. The survey reported that almost half of Jews fear they have no future in Britain, while a quarter have thought about leaving the country.
The findings depict a Jewish community of fear and fatalism, but they worried me for another reason. They demonstrated a disconnect between a particular perception of Jewish life — and the lived experiences of most British Jews. I was not alone. Yesterday, British Jews publicly rejected the “Fortress Judaism” narrative and the self-definition of Jewish life through perceived danger and discrimination.
The Institute for Jewish Policy Research reported that although the existence of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism reflects genuine concerns within the community — it was founded by activists last year — but its report “fell short in terms of its methodology and its analysis”. The Jewish Chronicle reported that the vast majority of Jews, in fact, had not considered leaving Britain. Surveys like this ultimately speak to far broader issues within British Jewry. They demand a binary interpretation of events: you either do or do not believe Jews have a future here; you either do or do not think Britain is a country that hates Jews, and do or do not think extremism is a real and present threat to our community.
The joy of being a British Jew is holding many identities at once. There are concerns about anti-Semitism that really make me anxious. Last summer during Operation Protective Edge, London experienced its highest level of hate-crime on record — more than nine tenths was aimed at Jews. In cyberspace, the Nazi hashtag “HitlerWasRight” trended on Twitter. That provoked questions no British Jew wanted to answer and revealed interfaith relationships that need improving.
Being a British Jew is a blessing. My colleague, Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, told the BBC that the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism portrait of British Jewry “did not compute at all with our experience”. How could it, when there is so much to celebrate? We have beautiful and improving relationships with Muslims and Christians, a robust voice in public discourse and the lowest levels of anti-Semitism in Western Europe. I recently witnessed a microcosm of British Jewry at Limmud Conference, where three thousand people celebrated being Jewish: studying, singing, schmoozing. Our synagogues, our youth movements and our cross-communal institutions are not only a model for minority life in Britain, but Jewish life across the world. This is not the 1930s. I am safe as a British Jew.
The murders at Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarkets sent tremors of tragedy across the Diaspora — they forced Jews to reflect on their place in society, everywhere. The best response to those events is not turning inward. It is not accepting Netanyahu’s narrative: “Come home to Israel from terrible European anti-Semitism.” The danger of discrimination does not necessitate desertion, but devotion. It demands we work even harder to ensure Britain remains a safe place for Jews, and does not import division and discrimination from elsewhere. This is not the 1930s — although when it was, Jews took up their pots, pans and pebbles before declaring their time was up.