Don’t Allow Us To Be Your Canaries

I have a story to tell:

In October 1910, in the town of Miechov, Poland, then under Russian control, my maternal great grandfather was in the process of building his Succah (traditional temporary hut built for the festival of Tabernacles) when a Cossack came along and tied his horse to one of the wooden poles. An argument ensued as the Cossack refused to untie his horse. The next day, fearing for his and his families life, he took his family and fled Poland. First to Belgium, and then with the outbreak of World War I to London.

My maternal grandmother’s grandparents had fled from Russia under similar trying circumstances as the Pograms swept across the Pale of Settlement from the late 1880s onwards and Jews fled on masse. They also found a safe home in London.

Both of my maternal grandparents were proud Brits. My grandfather despite not being born here was patriotic to his core, loving the best of Englishness and cheering on England (and Chelsea) whatever they competed in. Tea with my grandmother was the equivalent to tea with the Queen, properly presented in a cup and saucer. Both of them felt safe and secure in Britain and proud not just to call it their home but to be the Brits they were and embrace its culture in entirety.

My paternal great-grandfather left Russian controlled Lithuania on his own as a 14 year old for similar reasons and arrived in Dublin in the 1890s, then a part of the British Empire. My paternal great grandparents on the other side similarly had made the journey to Dublin from other reaches of the Russian Pale of Settlement.

Many of all of their respective grand/great/great-grandchildren still reside in Britain or chose to move their lives from Ireland to Britain because of the richness of Jewish life and safety they felt in living there. I moved to Manchester and then London from Dublin in search of a greater Jewish life, of which despite my happy growing up, was not available in a similar vein there. I felt safe to be a jew in London and proud to represent.

But my story is not a unique one.

I could ask each and every one of my Jewish friends to share their stories.

Some would tell you of how their grandparents or parents survived the camps or fled Nazi Europe just in time.

Others would tell you of similar migrations and escapes to my family from the Russian Pogroms.

Some others would tell how in the 1950s, 60s and 70s their parents and grandparents fled Arab countries as they clamped down on their Jewish population in the 100s of thousands. Some fleeing over the Iraqi border hidden in trucks to avoid capture by security services, others fleeing in the middle of the night in boats from the North African coast.

Some others, from the Spanish & Portuguese community would be able to trace their roots back in Britain by 300 years or so, but also in the knowledge of their ancestors original flight from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 at threat of death or conversion (via the Netherlands).

We all know at some stage our families were forced to flee their homes because of antisemitism, we may not know the full story and we may not even know the exact location as from where, but we know it was why they left. We also know that they came to Britain, or the British Empire, because (whilst in some periods prejudice may have existed at the time) they knew they would be safer.

We also know the cost for a large number of those who stayed.
My grandmothers extended family burned to death with the rest of their town as they were locked in their Synagogue.

Those others sent to Nazi death camps, often exposed as Jews by those who previously were their neighbours.

The Jews killed by Cossacks and their Russian neighbours in anti Jewish Pograms. Those who survived the Pograms or the Nazis were then left to face further persecution under the Soviets.

Anti-Jewish riots and persecution limiting their movements and lives across Arab countries.

Forced conversions or brutal death by the Spanish at the hands of the Inquisition.

In all of these countries previously, we did too feel safe.

Jewish life thrived in medieval Spain as part of a golden age for the Iberian Peninsula until the ultimate Spanish expulsion of the Moors.

Jews in Germany were a part of every part of society, fully assimilated and contributing proudly to the army in WWI, to science, culture and prosperity.

Jews in Arab countries lived normal lives with regular involvement in business, politics and society of all kind.

History has taught us, to feel safe for centuries is not enough.

None of the explicit reasons for our families leaving happened overnight. The signs were there, brewing, often ignored until it became unbearable, the final trigger or excuse serving to push things over the precipice.

Why are we afraid now? Our own personal history has taught us we need to be afraid, that to ignore those first signs without action never ends well.

There are approximately 260,000 Jews in Britain who, like my grandparents were, are proud to be British and proud of the role Britain played in being a safe haven for centuries. I am an Irish Jew in Britain who is proud in the role it played in keeping my family safe and providing me with a good home and life. But that safety is being threatened more than has since the 1930s. Whether that slow burn of antisemitism, which is rising more as a result of the Labour party’s attraction of antisemites to its cause and forefront, turns into that moment where ultimately it does feel unsafe for us to be here is yet to come. But that moment may very well approach quicker should Labour be elected into power in 2 weeks time. It is not the likelihood of an immediate suffering we expect, but history has taught us once antisemites and their enablers come to power, the road to our open persecution most often follow. All the signs indicate this will be no different.

There’s is often an analogy used, I’ve heard it recently by the venerable John Mann and Rabbi Sacks, that Jews are the canary in the coal mine — That when the Jews in a place are persecuted it is always a warning sign that everyone else in that society will suffer too.

But as someone posted on Twitter recently, the miners only care after the canary is dead.

We have no interest in being the dead canaries in your coal mine. We would rather you act to extinguish the noxious fumes before we’re overcome.

About the Author
Jeff Gross lives in London having grown up in Ireland. Sharing his thoughts on anti-Semitism and Israel.
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