Julie Russell

To Jews Everywhere: I’m Sorry I Hadn’t a Clue

Ordinary People in London: Atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims? Who knows?
Ordinary People in London: Atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims? Who knows?

My shortened name is Ju, but I’m not, and never have been, a Jew. Indeed, I’m not proud to admit that I managed to get through most of my life knowing very little about Jews. I describe myself as agnostic, despite attending a selection of convent schools where everyone in the world was either ‘Catholic’ or ‘Non-Catholic’. Religions haven’t worked for me – too much reliance on blind belief in unevidenced facts, although I respect that religion brings great comfort to many people.

I’d assumed being ‘Jewish’ was simply belonging to a religion that believed the narratives of Old Testament books. I knew Jews went to synagogues, ate Kosher meat and practiced circumcision, both of which seemed a bit brutal, but neither was of any personal consequence to me. When I was a child, people who were mean with money were described as “a bit Jewish”, but that was an era when illogical comments were “a bit Irish” and any man wearing pastel colours was “a bit of a poof”.

After moving to North London I was sometimes spoken to in Hebrew by men reading the Torah on the Tube. I assumed that was because I have a big nose – because Jews have big noses, don’t they? Living briefly in Stamford Hill in the 1980s was a revelation – en masse Jews in bizarre black clothes, spectacular fur hats for men, women in unattractive wigs weighed down by hordes of children, many looking etiolated and pasty-faced. Different from the ‘normal’ Jews I’d encountered, these Jews kept themselves to themselves. I don’t think I spoke more than a couple of words to any of my Hasidic neighbours during the six months I lived there.

So that was Jews for me – generally normal people, probably with big noses, religious, go to the synagogue on Fridays, likely to be a bit mean with money; some a bit inbred and odd – but essentially harmless.

Everyone enjoys Alexander Palace regardless of religion
Image courtesy of author

Then, a couple of years ago I made a new friend; a man who identifies as Jewish although he has a perfectly normal nose, is generous with buying me coffee and has never attended a synagogue in his life. He explained that his father’s ancestors evacuated from Poland to the UK to escape the Nazi Death Chambers and that he wouldn’t exist but for his family’s escape. A mutual acquaintance, an elderly Jewish woman, interjected that he couldn’t be a real Jew because his ancestry wasn’t through the matriarchal line. This was particularly hurtful, as well as contradictory, because previously she’d professed to being a proponent of Liberal Judaism – which apparently explained why it was acceptable for her to have tattoos.

I persisted with questioning my friend. “I get that you’re Jewish, but if you’re not religious, how exactly are you a Jew?” He explained that it’s slightly more complicated than that: “Jewishness is belonging to the Jewish race or practicing the religion, or both, and it’s hard to explain. Jews have been persecuted throughout eternity yet somehow survived. I’m not ashamed, I’m proud of my heritage”.

I didn’t understand this, so I took it upon myself to research ‘Jewishness’. It’s taken me months and I unearthed a history that’s one of the saddest stories ever told.

I was horrified to discover a narrative that I’m sure most Jews know only too well. I learned that Jews have been blamed for so many of the world’s problems, from killing Jesus Christ more than 2000 years ago to spreading COVID in 2020. So-called Christians began by hounding Jews as perceived enemies of Christ; even my rudimentary knowledge of Christianity suggests misplaced revenge tactics aren’t compatible with Jesus’s teachings.

In the Middle Ages, Jews were still being denied equal status with Christians, banned from many professions and, in some cities had to choose between baptism or death. Jews were compelled to wear distinctive clothing and marginalised like beggars, lepers and prostitutes.

Although Christians were forbidden from engaging in the ‘sinful’ practice of lending money at interest, an 11th-century Papal ruling explicitly allowed Jews to do this. This privilege became a scourge as Jews were scapegoated and blamed for economic decline; Jews were either too rich or too poor. Nevertheless, Jews were actively encouraged to come to England after the Norman Conquest in 1066. William I needed to borrow money to consolidate his position as King, but this welcome was short-lived. Soon enough, Jews were once again despised, excluded by their Christian neighbours, and many were expelled from the country. In fact, Jews were banished from multiple cities across Europe, falsely accused of poisoning wells, causing the Black Death and ritually murdering children for blood to make matzah.

Jews were blamed for the Black Death
Image taken in Museum of London by author

But it wasn’t only Christians who showed contempt for Jews. Muslim Morocco in 1280 was one of the first to segregate Jews, transferring them to ‘millahs’, the North African precursor to the Venetian ghetto (gettare). Ghettos, as introduced in 1516, were areas where Jewish people were forced to live. Traditionally enclosed within gated walls, ghettos were locked at night and, although Jewish people were permitted a degree of autonomy inside the ghettos and allowed to continue their traditions and religious practices, many ghettos were marked by poverty and disease. When the people living in the ghettos ventured outside the walls they were compelled to wear symbols identifying them as Jewish, and as such were reviled and in danger of being attacked.

Across Europe in the 14th century, many cities prohibited Jews from building synagogues, forced them to wear badges to distinguish them as Jewish and banned them from touching food in the markets. Jews had to marry within their communities. Prostitutes who served Jews risked banishment and non-Jewish women who were intimate with Jews were publicly humiliated by being made to wear pointed Jewish hats.

Rembrandt 1629: Middle Ages antisemitism?
Image taken by the author

In the arts, Jews were frequently portrayed with yellow clothing, signifying envy and arrogance, with hooked noses to equate them with Satan who was traditionally depicted with a large, hooked nose. Literature played its part too: there were very few Jews in England during Shakespeare’s era so his chances of meeting a Jew were slim, yet Shylock seems to tick all the stereotypical Jewish boxes.

Age of Enlightenment
Princess Road Synagogue, Liverpool: Home to a Hebrew Congregation since 1874
Image courtesy of author

A degree of Jewish emancipation followed the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and during the 19th century, ghettos were progressively abolished. Nevertheless, the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1880s Russia resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 Jews and drove thousands to flee west, particularly to the UK, France and the US. During the early 1900s, Jewish immigrants who settled in England held a range of occupations although many were particularly associated with garment and retail trades, not the finance industry.

Photo image of illustration from author’s copy of ‘Spirit of the Ghetto’, 1902, Hutchins Hapgood
Photo  courtesy of the author

The Third Reich took hatred of Jews to a new level in the 20th century, recreating ghettos, usually in the most poverty-stricken areas of European cities, and using hooked-nosed greedy banker images in their antisemitic propaganda. The Nazi extermination of Jews, the Holocaust, still in living memory for a few, led to the necessary creation of Israel, a homeland for Jewish people.

But has Israel itself become a gilded ghetto? The desire for Jewish extermination continues, with terrorist groups such as Hamas vowing to annihilate Israel and kill Jews. All Israelis, Jews and non-Jews alike, live under the constant threat of attack from belligerent neighbours, and elsewhere descriptions persist in the press of Christians attacking and murdering Jews. In the US there are still fanatics seeking ‘payback’ for the Jews’ alleged involvement in the crucifixion of Christ. The current rise in antisemitic rhetoric, physical attacks and conspiracy theories in the supposedly progressive West is largely neglected as a cause for concern, even by the so-called liberal left. Maybe they believe the age-old stereotypes: Jews are greedy and wealthy; Jews are mean; Jews are ugly with big noses. At least some of those people must know that persecution and stigmatisation of Jews persists, but too many choose to ignore this inconveniently shameful fact.

If only this were true
Image courtesy of the author

I travelled to Israel with my Jewish friend in October 2023. The unspeakably vile massacre of Jewish people by Hamas terrorists happened whilst we were staying in Tel Aviv. The people we met there were as diverse as any population in any cosmopolitan city: black, white, brown, gay and straight, right-wing, left-wing, rich and poor, deeply religious and insular, secular and liberal, noses of all sizes. Mostly Jewish, they represent the diaspora of Jewish people from across the ages. My experience of meeting individual Jews, whether in the UK, US, Israel or elsewhere, is that they are essentially the same as the rest of the human race – generally kind, thoughtful and helpful although, in common with every other group, I’ve also met a couple of toxic Jewish people in my time. I know now why so many Jews take pride in their ancestry despite having that inbuilt sombre knowledge that, at any time, they may be loathed simply for being Jewish.

Spot the Jews – bet you cant! Image courtesy of the author

There are fewer than 16 million Jews in the world today, and even now, despite significant research, and because I’m sceptical about Old Testament biblical stories, I’m not sure I comprehend fully how non-religious Jews from the Middle East, Europe, Africa and China are genetically or racially related. But I do understand that ‘being Jewish’ is hugely important for many secular and non-secular Jews alike. I can’t identify another group of people who have been so unfairly reviled for thousands of years. Hatred of Jews undoubtedly persists in the 21st century and the complacency and presumed ignorance about this, particularly by those who fight passionately against the oppression of other minority groups, is a colossal cause for concern. So it’s time for me, as a non-Jew, to make myself heard.

To Jewish people in general, and to my proudly Jewish friend in particular, I have to say: “I promise to speak out against antisemitism and dismantle antisemitic stereotypes whenever I can. And I’m so very sorry – I simply hadn’t a clue”.

About the Author
I am a former clinical microbiologist, now working as a qualified English Language teacher teaching English to refugees and migrants in London. I have travelled worldwide both for pleasure and as part of my former scientific role. I have lived in London for more than 30 years. I love to run and workout in the gym. I write these blogs with my best friend, Tom Waterton-Smith