Zoe Ornstein
Mother. PR. Writer. Aspiring Founder. Mostly winging it.

Why I March: Being British and Jewish today

Growing up in London in the 90s, my dad always raised me with the mantra that if you wanted to get along with everyone in polite society, the topics to avoid were religion and politics. All other discussions around history, arts, music, literature, food were acceptable but the best diplomatic route when meeting new people and making new friends was to keep private my Judaism until I knew them sufficiently well.

It wasn’t from a shame perspective, far from it, but from a “don’t look for trouble” perspective. That option was easy at a multi-faith school where we all made friends at eleven, but at university I discovered it to be much harder. It felt like concealing something – the tricky inner question of when exactly to confess my Jewish identity to new friends. Most people were worldly, educated and accepting and it was a non-issue, but every now and then you’d get the odd surprising, but mostly insidious, response. One Eton educated boy laughed and nicknamed me bagel. An attractive, blonde Sloaney friend told me she’d been to Israel on holiday but had found it “a shithole.” To be fair, she had stayed in a filthy hostel with cockroaches, so I winced and forced a chuckle, but inside I felt myself curling up. I was sensitive to any perceived criticism: Israel was beloved to me, a place of heritage, holiness, beach holidays, cousins, Yom Tovim.

There were the occasionally awkward, unexpected conversations – the father of a friend who asked me to justify Israel’s position on the territories at her 21st birthday party. Then later in my twenties, there was the elderly German neighbour who took in a package one day whilst I was at work, and when I collected it she observed “hmm, Ornstein. What kind of name is that? Sounds like a medieval peasant name?” There was the uncomfortable morning a colleague greeted me as I walked into the office with “I see the Israeli army have been pulling down Palestinian houses again.” It was the polite, unexpected coldness that flummoxed my younger self – I could do straight up conversation, I felt about educated enough for it, but only if it began in a non-confrontational manner. “Can I ask you about?…”

Recently, on an otherwise pleasant first date with a worldly, talented and successful photographer, he casually announced that I was saved in his phone as “Zoe Jewish chick.” Now 47, I was able to counter easily. “Do you want to change that?” I asked pointedly. “Why, is it antisemitic?” he asked, simultaneously goading and flirting with me. “No,” I said, “not overtly. But it’s either mocking or laughing at me. I wouldn’t save you on my contacts as ‘Henry black dude’ or ‘Henry Indian geezer.’ It’s just a basic disrespect.” He apologized, genuinely, and changed it, citing a moment of puerile humour. Despite the 21 texts that greeted me when I got up the next morning and the profuse apology, I didn’t want a second date.

But the reality remains that being Jewish in modern Britain – or indeed anywhere outside of Israel – has become much harder. I am fifth generation British, my children sixth. I have a full family tree here with roots in Scotland and Bristol. I have sent three children to non-Jewish schools and have mixed half and half in Jewish and non-Jewish friendship circles all my adult life. I received many messages of love, support and friendship in the aftermath of 7 October, going back to my university days and up to mum friendships made at school gates. Their solidarity gives me sustenance against the madness of noisy, ignorant Jew and Israel hate pouring in through my screen over the past seven weeks, which is of a far more virulent nature than the more subtle variety of my youth.

The shape-shifting nature of antisemitism of “It’s not antisemitic to be against the Israeli government” here (as elsewhere) has been clear for all those willing to see it since the Corbyn years, but the majority of non-Jews I know didn’t not vote for him because of his unflinching 1970’s student politics and willingness to share a platform with terrorists, but because they found he made Labour unelectable: bad for the economy, weak, not a statesman for the international stage and tainted by bad associations. Likewise, my non-Jewish friends gave me words of support after October 7 because they wanted me to feel their essential humanity and decency, to let me know that what happened was utterly appalling and devastating in their eyes, too. I went to the first vigils because I wanted the hostages home and I wanted the Qataris to leverage their influence, not because I was worried that trouble in the Middle East would affect me or my kids. I didn’t feel afraid or take down my mezuzah, or tell my kids not to get involved in difficult conversations (unless there was an obvious danger involved): I wanted them to speak up and have the difficult conversations, and to feel Jewish pride and own their identities, however hard that might be.

But now, as the weeks wear on and as the war in Gaza has unfolded, it has been impossible to see those terrible scenes of human catastrophe without deep compassion and heartache, too. And I march now for a different reason. I want those fair-minded, intellectually strong, good people here to understand what they are seeing through my eyes: a horrible war with a terrible human cost brought about as a result of a brilliantly strategic publicity campaign masterminded over 20-plus years in creating a revisionist history that is underpinned by Jew hatred: a propaganda war of “alternative facts” which has fused militant Islamist jihadi theory with 1970’s Communist dogma.

This strain of antisemitism is subversive and very clever: it’s not predicated on blood libels and harvesting organs and poisoning wells and controlling the mainstream media and stereotypes of money grabbing bankers (even if they might crop up from time to time) – it’s not even presented as a geopolitical struggle for ownership of a holy land with contesting narratives, or debate around the validities of peace offers made around territorial lines drawn up over multiple wars. This version relies on a different stereotype: “the bad-Jew as white imperialist oppressor, victims of Nazis who became like Nazis, a psychological inversion” narratives. Here, the language of “occupation, resistance, apartheid, genocide and colonization” are parroted by well-intentioned activists high on Wikipedia knowledge and TikTok, a fashionable cause du jour that also comes from a place of genuine well-meaning in their Western minds. Its adherents do not realise that they have been fed a structural narrative of identity politics, once born specifically to describe the African American experience, that has been manipulated by fundamentalist Islamist theocrats and hard left militants to fit the framework of an entirely different scenario.

The reframing of the historical narrative, of seeing the emergence of Hamas as a legitimate resistance movement, of ripping down posters of missing Jewish babies or children in Israel in the belief that the public seeing their faces somehow negates the heartache of innocent children suffering and dying in Gaza, and in many cases also literally refusing to accept the sexual violence of Hamas against Israeli women – despite extensive video evidence that Hamas themselves shot on their GoPros and phones and proudly sent to their families – shows a chilling callousness of attitudes that I don’t recognize from earlier generations. Maybe that’s why I feel obliged to march now: for a less vitriolic, less hateful, more emotionally mature society.

Those organisations marching with us in solidarity have recognized that what they saw on 7th October was a pure hate crime, designed to inflict maximum atrocity. Some of us marched to counter the simplistic, misguided, wishful narrative that the fault lies with Israel’s current government or that this will not have happened had there been a two-state solution. That Oct 7 and the conflict since wasn’t ever about Palestine and Israel, or the type of viable land share that I’ve grown up discussing since I was 12 years old. They marched because Jewish life has value: our sisters in Israel were raped so violently that their pelvises broke – and none would wish that upon their British daughters, or anyone else’s, anywhere – and because children don’t deserve to be taken from their beds and kidnapped – neither despite, nor because of, notwithstanding anything in any previous years, full stop – and because babies do not deserve to have their throats slit, or to be burnt in ovens, or to be cut out of their mothers uteruses.

All marched because there is no justification, no contextualization, no whataboutery on this planet that will facilitate resolution to any political conflict without a basic understanding that training for, practicing, and then committing those hate crimes came from an ideology of naked hatred towards the Jewish people, faith and land, as written in the Koran, and taken as literal truth by the hardliners, inculcated in Islamist teaching in madrassas and classrooms. And I march because I believe terrorism has to be defeated: because I believe that deradicalization is at the heart of the problem. We cannot have another generation of children being brought up in Israel/Palestine or anywhere else on this earth to believe that jihadism and martyrdom are values to die for.

I march because I want the foundation of what made this country home to my ancestors to remain tolerant, fair and enlightened: tea drinking, weather obsessed and decent, regardless of a changing demographic of who lives here. There is a place for us all, and good lives to be had, if we subscribe to values of tolerance and respect. I march as much to express my Jewishness as my Britishness and to reassert the deep and abiding gratitude I have for my life in the UK – an imperfect but free, democratic society which grants inclusion to all its citizens with laws that do not allow for incitement of hatred. I march because keeping my bloody head down and not marching isn’t an option any longer, because I want to see an end to these ideologically extremist, racist, misogynistic, politics of division that afflict many regions of the world – with their attendant lies and the resultant human cruelties and failings they engender – and a return to politics of moderation, or else an alternative: a new era of modern politics which grants lives of peace, prosperity, hope. That would be a march worth attending.

About the Author
I am a PR and occasional writer in the field of Interior Design. Usually my remit is focused around saying 'they took the back of the house off and replaced it with a wall of glass' but on Sunday I turned my focus to the more cerebral and existential topic of why I march against antisemitism and the changing experiences I've had with antisemitism over twenty five years: the subtle nature of how it used to appear compared to the overt nature today.
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