My mother died recently. She was buried next to my father and not far from her own parents in one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in London. The grave of her paternal grandmother – her namesake – can also be found there dating from 1918. I stare at the beautiful limestone inscription in both Hebrew and English that mentions my great-grandfather born in Sokoly, Poland, recently from Paris. His son – my maternal grandfather – had brought his widowed mother to England at the turn of the century. That means that my family has been in England for almost 140 years.
Without a doubt, the 20th century was a period of prosperity for Jews in this country. The 19th century wasn’t too bad either with Benjamin Disraeli reaching the highest office in the land, albeit with the caveat that had he not converted to Christianity, he probably would not have been admitted to Parliament at all. Indeed, in my experience, anti-Semitism has always bubbled under the surface in Britain – quotas for Jews at the local golf club and private grammar schools for example were always dismissed as just background noise, nothing too serious. There was also the occasional “you killed Jesus”, but even the accusation of Deicide was considered a bit medieval. So we shrugged these things off and just worked harder to place in the top percent. As a result, we thrived in the academy, in business, in the judiciary, and in medicine. But with my mother’s passing at the age of 93, it is painfully clear to me that the golden age of opportunity for Jews in Britain has also passed; it has been underlined; instead I see a green and pleasant land that is now blatantly hostile to Jews.
About three summers ago when the row over anti-Semitism in the Labour party had just begun, I was shocked to see every front page of the broadsheets and every TV screen unrelentingly blaring the name of the oldest minority in England, every single day. Unlike in America, where immigrants proudly proclaim their origin from the rooftops, we British Jews have traditionally gone about our business quietly, head down, careful not to draw too much attention. Suddenly the word ‘Jew’ was plastered everywhere you looked. It was appalling. Jews reddened when a colleague would ask them if they were Jewish; the traditional skull cap was now never on display. On a visit from Israel where I have lived for the last 35 years, I could not understand this new obsession with us. What on earth was going on?
Labour supporters, please, do not tell me that the entire anti-Semitism tumult is an effort to unseat the as-yet unseated Jeremy Corbyn. That is a ridiculous position seeing as it is thought that most British Jews are pro-remain and a Corbyn victory would no doubt result in a second referendum. I am not going to cite here each slight against the Jewish community from within the ranks of the Labour Party as they are well documented, but there are a few that resonate with me in particular: the absurdly superficial Chakrabarti Inquiry considered a ‘whitewash’ by the majority of the Jewish community followed by the meteoric rise of Chakarbarti herself to a peerage; the patently antisemitic mural that Corbyn refused to condemn depicting hook-nosed Jews on the backs of slaves ruling the financial market; and the very recent Jew baiting by a Labour parliamentary candidate for Clacton when he called a Jewish councillor “Shylock”.
Despite Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s raillery against the apparent non-existent depictions of antisemitic tropes, the last two of these are indeed such examples. One evokes the 1903 Russian forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion purporting Jewish global domination, and the other recalls Shakespeare’s masterpiece, but clearly based on such an ignorant reading that I doubt the candidate has ever barely scanned it. I am Head of English Studies at a leading college of engineering in Jerusalem. I recently offered an open course in English entitled: Was Shakespeare Racist? The Merchant of Venice (1598). Despite an acerbic portrait of the Jew, Shylock also suffers baiting, theft, exclusion and perhaps worst of all, the assimilation of his daughter. For me the most significant line is: “The villainy you teach me I will execute – and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” Simplified, Shylock’s reaction to events is a mirror image to the gentile environment in which he lives. Many of the play’s nuances are based on the blood libel – a fatal Red Letter if you will, incidents of which occurred in England prior to the Expulsion in 1290, but also in late 15th century Italy, as well as 16th and 17th century Germany, and became embedded in the religious consciousness. Given that this is Shakespeare, it is likely that such evocations are written tongue in cheek to highlight the irrationality of the myths surrounding Jews in Europe at the time. In short, the play is a cry for difference, for respectful pluralism. Both Arab and Jewish students who attended this course were riveted and the discussions that ensued did more for integration than the Clacton contender ever could. Clearly, he thinks it is quite alright to place the libelous Red Letter of shame and exclusion on the breast of his Jewish interlocutor. He would do well to review this play and learn from it.
My paternal grandfather was a founder and leader of two thriving communities that contributed to British life. From his surviving writings it is clear that it never occurred to him that what was happening in Germany in the 1930s would ever find its way to Albion. Once anti-Semitism becomes institutionalized there are fewer choices and there really is no way to fight it – the Jews of Germany attest to that. “Oh”, you retort – “surely you’re not equating England with Nazi Germany!” Perish the thought. Nonetheless, I recently learned an eerie statistic: The 1939 census in Germany recorded a paltry total of 318,000 Jews. Another source claims that because of early emigration, that number was reduced to 214,000 by the eve of the war. 35 years ago, we numbered approximately 450,000 in Britain; the Jewish community is now barely 250,000.
It is not my intention here to equate the Labour Party with the National Socialist Party of 1930s Germany. But from my perspective – on the outside looking in – I see a new universalism plaguing the country that blurs the fine line between pluralism and assimilation – the same line that Shakespeare warns against crossing. Be careful if you don’t go along with the three-pronged narrative of Islamophobia, anthropogenic climate warming, and of course colonial Israel – which brings me to my next point.
The argument goes that the Labour Party is not antisemitic, just anti-Israel. I was seriously shaken by images of the 2019 Labour Party conference that showed all the attendees waving the national flag – not of Great Britain, but of the currently unratified State of Palestine – and screaming ‘from the river to sea’, the Palestinian call for their own state at the expense of the destruction of the State of Israel – mmm …. no open borders in that scenario, no Jews at all actually. So much for the left’s apparent inclusive ideology. The reality of anti-Semitism in Britain is that it has morphed into legitimacy in the form of anti-Zionism where anti-Semites have piggy-backed on a split synonym. The trouble with splitting one’s Jewishness from the Jewish State, though, is simply that it cannot be done. It would be like separating your Chinese features from China. It requires denial of our right to our ancestral home, and our ancestors themselves – in essence, self-annihilation.
This new anti-Semitism has not occurred in a vacuum, of course. Let’s remind ourselves of Adam Boulton’s interview with Chief Rabbi Mirvis on International Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27, 2015 when he asked the Rabbi if he didn’t agree that the rise in anti-Semitism was provoked by Israel’s actions, while showing recent footage of the 2014 war against Hamas in Gaza. This is surely yet another example of antisemitic tropism. Do Britons feel anxiety or hostility towards Islamic Britons in the wake of Islamist terror attacks on British soil? Do Britons feel anxiety or hostility towards Syrians living in Britain in the wake of Syria’s grossly ignored civil war and use of chemical weapons against its own people? Do Britons feel anxiety or hostility towards British Russians in the wake of the annexation of Ukraine or towards Chinese Britons in the wake of the annexation of Tibet to which neither peoples has any historical ancestral claim? Yet, vitriol against the Jews of Britain is perfectly acceptable when the annexation of East Jerusalem is called into question despite the fact that it always had a Jewish majority until the 19 years of Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, that it was reclaimed in a defensive war, and that the city lies at the heart of Judaism, the very raison d’etre for the Jewish homeland.
As to barrier fences and defensive walls, do Britons feel hostility towards the Spanish for setting up the Melilla Border Fence to keep out refugees from Syria and other illegal immigrants? Are the myriad Brits with holiday homes in Spain giving them up and boycotting the country in protest? Israel has indeed built a very large wall along the border with Gaza that has proven extremely effective in foiling terror attacks amongst Israel’s civilian population. This, despite Banksy’s blatant 2005 exhortation that Israel is big, bad and mean. Oh, Israel doesn’t allow cement to be brought into Gaza for the building of infrastructure, he cries – that, Bansky, is because it isn’t used for building civilian infrastructure; it is used for building underground tunnels into Israel that can accommodate actual vehicles and facilitate terror attacks – and, by the way, they are built with child labour using those who are small enough to dig. It is a tragic trait of war, but a majority that remains silent doesn’t run the agenda, and we have to deal with those who do.
Perhaps it is the press, not Israel, that plays the most crucial part in driving anti-Jewish sentiment in Britain today. It is, after all, the press that writes the daily narrative. And then there is that word, ‘narrative’. I really dislike that word. It is a term that is supposed to enable equivalence between competing histories. The problem with that is when all positions are made equal, facts disappear – even historical verifiable ones. According to the Webster dictionary, ‘narrative’ denotes a story or “a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values”. In other words, ‘narrative’ is interpretation at its most subjective and self-indulgent. It is fiction packaged as fact. This double-speak, mushroomed from within an ideology of multiculturalism and moral equivalency, is what has facilitated the growth of the oldest and most irrational of hatreds.
I left England 35 years ago because I am a Semite, because I felt my future lay where my genealogical past began but, paradoxically, I never considered myself an ex-patriate. I have always loved the England I grew up in: its language, its literature, its art, and the haunting landscape of the Yorkshire moors where I spent my formative years. I am culturally still very English. But that was then; now, on the very eve of the general election in England, I find myself grateful that my children are Israelis, proud of their Nation State, and that they are free of European anti-Semitism which is once again on a roll. Mostly, though, I am profoundly sad as I watch the Britain I knew lose its way while it embraces a new demographic accompanied by an inexorable spiral towards its own demise.