A lens on British Jewry

Two-part BBC documentary brings together a diverse group of UK Jews - and takes them to Israel.

September 7, 2018 21:14
3 minute read.
A lens on British Jewry

Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose anti-Semitism, in Parliament Square in London, Britain, March 26, 2018.. (photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)


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On a chilly day in February, a group of eight people sit down for a meal in Manchester, England. On the surface, they have little in common – they range in age from their 20s to their 70s, from fervently religious to avowed atheists, from conservative to liberal, and hail from all across the United Kingdom.

But they are all British Jews. And they all took part in a new two-part documentary series that aired on the BBC last week titled We Are British Jews.

Three of them are religiously observant – Sylvia, a sheitel-wearing grandmother; Joseph, a professional advocate for Israel; and Ella, a young, outspoken Zionist (who has moved to Israel since filming).

Alan, 77, is “partial to a bacon sandwich – but boy, I’m a Jew,” while Damon is a secular, fervent defender of Israel – a country he has never visited. Simon grew up in Manchester, comfortable with his Jewish identity but ambivalent about its prominence in his life, and Emma, a Reform university student, feels strongly that “there’s more to being a British Jew than Israel.”

And then there’s Lily, a young Cambridge graduate who has spent time volunteering in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank.

“I hear the word Israel, and I just instantly feel uncomfortable, because I’m so invested in human rights,” she says.

The group first meets up in Manchester, and eats a meal at Ta’am, a kosher restaurant that has been the victim of an arson attack. They begin to get to know each other, and express their differences of opinion – and their experiences.

Sylvia says she was once egged while she walked home from synagogue on a Saturday. Simon says he disagrees with some of the things the Israeli government does but it’s “borderline antisemitism” to only criticize Israel. Damon says on occasion he’s been taunted as a “Jew boy” during sporting events, and responds by showing them who’s boss. They argue over Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party, debating if they could still vote for the party for domestic reasons.
The group celebrate Purim together, in their different ways, before packing up to head to Israel (with the exception of Sylvia, who had a death in the family).

And therein lies the problem. A BBC documentary essentially about the British Jewish experience feels the need to bring this diverse group to Israel for filming. More than half of the two-part series is devoted to their time in Israel, and even more than that to discussing Israel.

In essence, the documentary is saying, Jewish identity is defined through the lens of your views on Israel. The show – aired during one of the most tense times for British Jews in decades – can’t seem to grasp that British Jews are more than just Zionist conduits.
In Israel, the group stays on a kibbutz up North, meeting a young American woman who moved to Israel and volunteered for the IDF, something that makes Lily uncomfortable. She is also uncomfortable eating in the kibbutz’s dining room, which is festooned with support for the IDF.

The group continue in their travels, meeting settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank, traveling to Hebron, and meeting those on both sides who have lost family members to the conflict. Ella and Damon both grow upset during a meeting in Hebron and walk out of the room.

Later, Emma visits the Western Wall and prays with a tallit, prompting shouts from other worshipers, something she says she has experienced in the past.

We Are British Jews is an intriguing documentary series about a diverse group of people. But it’s not a treatise on British Jewry. It’s an exploration of Israel through their eyes. Viewers – and its producers – would be wise to understand the difference.

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