“We breathe easily now” was the headline in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, as England’s Jewish community shared an enormous sense of relief at the national election outcome.
Unlike Israel, Britain’s elections yielded a clear result. Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is widely regarded as an antisemite, was soundly defeated and the community felt – at least in the short-term – that its security had been restored.
The English Jewish community has a long and proud history. Jews are believed to have first come across in 1066 with William the Conqueror, and although they were expelled in 1290, they gradually returned. By the 17th century, there was a recognisable and recognised Jewish community.
Britain’s Jews established communities and synagogues – Sephardi and Ashkenazi; Jews rose to the tops of their professions and amassed wealth and prestige. The office of the Chief Rabbi was established in the 18th Century to represent the community to the monarchy and parliament. British Jews also opened institutions of Jewish learning, including a prestigious Yeshiva in Gateshead and Jews College in London.
And British Jewry founded Limmud. In 1980, the first Limmud was held for 300 people. It grew each year, reaching attendance of 1,500 in 1998. In 1999, the first Limmud outside the UK was also held for 300 people – in Sydney, Australia. Now, 40,000 people attend a Limmud event somewhere in the world each year.
I have just returned from Limmud UK, the most exciting and diverse Jewish learning experience existing. Before the Festival, I had the opportunity to visit London, my mother’s birthplace, where I spoke to Jews and non-Jews about their feelings.
Several of my relatives said they were distressed to have to vote against the Labor Party, the party that had been preferred by most Jews for generations. It could be noted that there has been a global move to the right and disillusionment with the left. However, these voters did not feel themselves part of the trend and they certainly do not adhere to a right-wing ideology. The shift in their vote was as Jews, despite and not because of their political leanings. It is interesting to see a similar trend in Australia (my birthplace) and in the United States. In those places, it is Israel that is the issue. Jews increasingly vote for the party most sympathetic to Israel. But in England, it was not about Israel. The threat was to the welfare and security of the local Jewish community.
We had one unpleasant interaction with a passing motor-cyclist, who identified us as Israeli. In general, I did not feel safe discussing Israel with the wider population although I was less worried about identifying as a Jew. However, we saw some neo-Nazi graffiti, which has to be worrying.
I spoke to Christians and Muslims, too. A fellow hair-coverer, a British convert to Islam, felt that the threat to the Jewish community was part of a more widespread xenophobia sweeping Britain. Muslim, Jews, Sikhs and other minorities all feel threatened.
My Christian friends, in all cases deeply religious and with a strong affinity to Judaism, feel that the threat to Jews is still real and connected with secularism and extreme left-wing politics. Britain, in their opinion, has lost its truly Christian values. Were they to be at the heart of the social and political discourse, then Jews would be valued and honoured for their contribution to civilisation.
A fellow customer at the Ruben’s kosher restaurant in the center of London was jubilant about the election result. “It proves how good the English are,” he said. “They voted against Labor to protect us and to keep us here.”
Despite his enthusiasm, many Jews in England are not so certain. The presence of not only the local Jewish Community Security Team in large numbers at Limmud but also very visible teams of police patrolling at all time, highlighted the real threats. We were grateful for security checks, people kept their badges visible and were cautious about strangers and unattended baggage. Occasionally, it reminded me of the atmosphere here during the second Intifada.
If the election result had been different, hundreds is not thousands of English Jews were preparing to pack up their homes and move to Israel. Now, they feel that they can stay – at least, for the moment. However, their confidence has been shaken.
Limmud was a wonderful bubble. One of my Israeli colleagues there noted that this was the last UK Limmud Festival in Europe (a reference to Brexit). Let’s hope that it is not the end of an era for British Jewry because despite the election results, the undercurrents of antisemitism have not disappeared.