Grapevine: Taking the Jew(s) out of Britain

Well-known journalist and author Melanie Phillips, who also writes for The Jerusalem Post, emphasized that antisemitism didn’t start with Corbyn and won’t end with him.

MARK LEWIS, flanked by Eylon Levy (left) and Mandy Blumenthal. (Elisa Wirtschafter) (photo credit: ELISA WIRTSCHAFTER)
MARK LEWIS, flanked by Eylon Levy (left) and Mandy Blumenthal. (Elisa Wirtschafter)
(photo credit: ELISA WIRTSCHAFTER)
You can take the Jew out of Britain, but you can’t take Britain out of the Anglo Jew, regardless of where he or she chooses to reside. There were Brits galore from many parts of Israel and, previously, from many parts of England who filled the auditorium at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People on Sunday of this week. What brought them all together, notwithstanding political differences, generation gaps or degrees of religious observance, was a mutual concern over rising antisemitism in England.
Organized by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and co-sponsored by UK Lawyers for Israel; Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association; and the Israel-Britain Chamber of Commerce, the event, by way of a panel discussion, was sold out more than a week in advance.
The catalyst for the get-together was the much publicized aliyah from England by high-profile lawyer Mark Lewis and his partner, Mandy Blumenthal, who decided to learn the lesson of history and to pack up and go before it was too late.
The couple, outspokenly opposed to verbal and physical onslaughts against Israel and the Jewish people, had been subjected to persistent and aggressive hostility. There had been hate mail on social media, threatening phone calls and more – so much so that Lewis was advised by police to change his route to work.
When panel moderator Eylon Levy, an investigative journalist with i24 News, suggested that Lewis was perhaps exaggerating the gravity of the situation in England, Lewis replied that if their respective grandfathers had been having a similar conversation in Germany in the early 1930s, they would have shrugged off the prevailing political environment as a passing phenomenon – and that’s what a lot of Jews in Britain are doing today, even though a poll indicated that 85% of British Jews believe that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is antisemitic, and 40% of British Jews would consider moving to Israel if Corbyn becomes prime minister.
Asked by Levy whether he considers himself to be a refugee, Lewis replied that in some sense he does, “because Israel is a place of refuge for Jews.”
Blumenthal dismissed the refugee concept by asking “How can you be a refugee in your own home?”
She said that she never expected some of the frightening things that had happened to her. “It was horrendous.” She cited threatening phone calls in which the callers said “Mandy don’t forget, we know where you live.”
A video clip was shown of Lewis and Blumenthal being interviewed on the BBC by Victoria Derbyshire during the controversy over the definition of antisemitism. Derbyshire supposedly wanted to know why they think that England is no longer a safe place for Jews to live. But, in asking her questions, she threw in one about membership in the UK Zionist Party. When corrected and told that there is no such political party for which the general public votes, she offered an airy apology, saying that her notes had been prepared for her. But Blumenthal is convinced that Derbyshire was clearly against them and had an agenda.
Well-known journalist and author Melanie Phillips, who also writes for The Jerusalem Post, emphasized that antisemitism didn’t start with Corbyn and won’t end with him.
“The UK has a troubling history of antisemitism,” she said, and today it comes from the Left, Muslims and the far Right. She commented that most British people perceive Jews to be much more numerous and powerful than they really are. If you tell someone in Britain that there are only 280,000 Jews in England, they will be incredulous, she observed. “They can’t get their heads around that, because Jews are always jumping up and down about Israel. Most British people don’t want to hear about Jews, Israel or antisemitism. They just want it all to go away.”
According to Lewis “Israel is not the cause of antisemitism. Antisemitism is the cause of Israel to exist.”
Tamara Berens, a third-year undergraduate at King’s College, said that on campus “antisemitism far outstrips everything else going on in the world.”
Blumenthal said that it’s everywhere. It’s individual, it’s institutional and it is even disseminated through lies from cathedral pulpits. “It’s from all sides. It’s socially and institutionally acceptable to be antisemitic.”
Hadar Sela, the managing editor of CAMERA BBC Watch, said that too many journalists are unaware of what constitutes antisemitism.
Asked toward the end of the evening whether aliyah is the only sensible response to antisemitism, Lewis replied that if he had a chance to have an audience with every single Jew in Britain, “I’d tell them to leave.”
Blumenthal said: “It used to be that Israel needs the Jews in the Diaspora. It’s changed. Jews in the Diaspora need Israel.”
■ ON A somewhat lighter note from Britain, albeit for a very serious cause, is the Shabbaton Choir, which is in Israel to commemorate the 18th anniversary of the murder by terrorists of adolescents Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish Ran. Proceeds will be used for the Camp Koby V’Yosef summer camp, which provides a safe and healing environment for bereaved youngsters who have lost parents and/or siblings to terrorism.
The Shabbaton Choir, which has been appearing before audiences in Britain and around the world for more than 30 years, will be singing at the Tiferet Avot synagogue in Efrat on Saturday night, February 16. Under the title of “Solidarity through song,” the concert will feature solo performances by cantors Shimon Cramer, Lionel Rosenfeld and Jonny Turgel, whose repertoire includes cantorial melodies, traditional Jewish favorites and modern Jewish compositions.
■ JUST AS Israel is sensitive to distortions of its history and the image that it attempts to convey, so, too, is Poland sensitive to distortions of its history and image – especially with regard to the manner in which it is perceived in and by Israel.
Poland is rarely presented in a positive light by the Israeli media, a factor that prompted Polish Ambassador Marek Magierowski, who is himself a journalist of long standing, to commission a survey measuring the attitudes of the Israeli public toward Poland.
The findings by Keevoon Research Strategy and Communications were revealed last week at a media conference at the Polish Embassy ahead of this week’s Warsaw summit, which is being co-hosted by the United States. Aimed at promoting peace and security in the Middle East, the summit is also an unofficial coalition against Iran, and a strong indication that Poland is interested in becoming a major player in the region. Next week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki will visit Israel for talks about new horizons and new opportunities in relations between the two countries.
What has irked Poland ever since the end of the Second World War is being charged with blame for the Holocaust, when it was in fact Nazi Germany that invaded Poland and committed its atrocities on Polish soil.
Magierowski does not deny that there were Polish nationals who collaborated with the Germans, but Poles were not Nazis. There have been so many distortions, he says, that in the course of time, people will forget who actually started the war and which country was invaded.
Being politically correct, Magierowski spoke of lack of awareness rather than ignorance on which so much Israeli public opinion is based.
“History is inescapable,” he said. “We’ll always be talking about historical links between Poles and Jews, and the six tragic years in which Jews were killed in Poland by German Nazis, but there are other things in contemporary Poland to talk about.”
Magierowski underscored that as a member state of the European Union, Poland is very supportive of Israel at the EU. Poland condemns terrorist acts against Israelis. At the same time, he doesn’t hide the fact that it is interested in having good relations with Arab countries, while relating to Israel as “our most important partner in the Middle East.”
He also made the point that Poland is one of the few countries in Europe where Jews who visit can feel safe.
Referring to the findings in the survey, Magierowski was amazed at the number of respondents who still have the perception of Poland as a drab post-Communist country instead of a vibrant Western democracy.
Though not unexpected, what really bothered Magierowski was that 67% of respondents believe that Poland has been reluctant to fully accept responsibility for the role its citizens played during the Holocaust. “That shows that we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” said Magierowski. On the other hand, 72% of respondents believe that Poles were also victims of Nazi oppression.
According to Keevoon’s Mitchell Barak, ultra-Orthodox Jews are the least negatively disposed to Poland, because so many great rabbinical dynasties originated in Poland, whereas Germany was the cradle of the Reform movement, and it was the country where the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was formulated.
Barak also revealed a little-known fact that among the fleets of buses in Israel are some that were manufactured in Poland. Subsequent surfing on the Internet, brought to light an even closer public transport relationship between Israel and Poland. In 2006 Egged purchased the Polish bus company Mobilis and operates some 1,500 buses in different parts of Poland, including 40 routes in Warsaw alone.
■ COMING TO Israel at the same time as the Polish prime minister is Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini, who will be in Jerusalem to celebrate the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Slovakia and Israel.
Israel was among the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Slovakia after Czechoslovakia split into two republics. Before that, Czechoslovakia was among the first of the former Soviet bloc countries to renew diplomatic ties with Israel.
Also coming to Israel in the same week are Andrej Babis, prime minister of the Czech Republic, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. All four countries are members of the Visegrad Group, EU and NATO, and cooperate with one another in military, cultural, economic and energy matters. The group takes its name from the site of its first meeting in February 1991 in the Hungarian town of Visegrad. Historically, the royal leaders of these countries met in the same city in 1335 for the purpose of establishing new trade routes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a year ago began lobbying for the hosting by Israel of a Visegrad summit – and his efforts have borne fruit.
THE NETANYAHUS with cadets at the Yonatan Pre-Military Academy. (Haim Zach/GPO)
■ ON A much more personal level, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, last Thursday participated in the cornerstone-laying ceremony at Kibbutz Alumim, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, for a permanent academy to be named the Yonatan Pre-military Academy, after Yoni Netanyahu, the prime minister’s late brother, who was killed in July 1976 in a daring rescue operation known as Operation Entebbe.
Addressing the young men and women who will soon take their places in the IDF, Netanyahu, who is also the defense minister, said: “The pre-military academies break down barriers and create true partnership between all sectors of the population. When I meet pre-military academy graduates in uniform, as I will meet you soon, I am impressed by their leadership, their marching forward, motivation, excitement, and all of this is accompanied by the great spirit that pre-military academy cadets absorb between the academy walls. Here, adjacent to the Gaza Strip, you have been doing this for eight years already; therefore, it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the academies and of assuring their future.
“Occasionally tragedies happen,” he continued. “As you know, it happened to one of the [other] pre-military academies, to our sorrow. I met the parents, their pain is unimaginable, and the loss of their daughters and one son is a pain that is familiar to me. They asked me to form a committee of inquiry to look into the mishap, to ensure that this kind of thing does not recur, so that the future of the pre-military academies will be assured. I intend to meet their request as soon as the police investigation is over, so the legal officials tell me. We will form a government inquiry committee to ensure that the work of the pre-military academies may be carried out for generations to come. I think that they are so important. I am sure that this will help.”
Following the official proceedings, Netanyahu held a frank conversation with the academy cadets, in which he told them that while the identities of the haters of Israel may change, the hatred itself has not disappeared, and there are constantly new enemies working in the same way.
In referring to his late older brother, he said: “This spirit of Yoni, of fighting and understanding the range of our history, all generations of the Jewish people, that in the end leads to responsibility, is what we are doing to ensure the continued existence of our people. Today it is as clear as the sun that the Jewish people has no existence without our existence here in the State of Israel in the Land of Israel.”
Within the framework of the event, the Netanyahus brought with them a new Torah scroll in memory of Yoni Netanyahu. The scroll was donated by the Trabelsi family, and written by the late Pinchas Trabelsi, who died several months ago after suffering a serious illness.
Also present at the event were Sdot Negev Regional Council head Tamir Idan, Yonatan Pre-Military Academy director Itzik Yablonski, Alumim Rabbi Amit Kola and academy members and cadets.
■ AMONG THE nominees for the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles this month was an album under the title of Yiddish Glory: the Lost Songs of World War II. It didn’t win, but it did generate a lot of interest and publicity.
It all started less than 10 years ago when Anna Shternshis, a Russian-born musicologist and Yiddish studies professor at the University of Toronto, was in Ukraine perusing old Yiddish documents in the Verdansky National Library in Kiev. At the time Shternshis was researching a project on the decline of Yiddish in the Soviet Union. A helpful librarian brought a number of Yiddish songs to her attention. It was almost by way of a miracle, because the material had barely been catalogued.
Some of the works seemed familiar to Shternshis, but that was because she was already aware of the work of ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovsky, who had dedicated his life to the documentation and preservation of early 20th-century Jewish music and song. What she held in her hands was part of Beregovsky’s legacy. He was arrested during the postwar Stalin purges and died in 1961.
On reading the texts it became clear to her that the writers had written their final testimonies in poetic form.
What there was available gave her a fresh understanding of how Jews lived in the Soviet Union during the war, and it also gave her the impetus for more in-depth research.
Some of the songs were written by Jewish soldiers of the Red Army. Others were written by widows and even by children.
Jews have always been known to inject black humor or simply humor in its purest form into writings of fear and persecution, and the writings into which Shternshis delved were no exception, with writers presenting images of Stalin, Lenin and Hitler that brought a smile and a laugh despite the evil atrocities of which all three were guilty.
Mass killings of Jews imply that they went meekly like lambs to the slaughter. But the writings they left behind tell a different story of defiance, courage, hope and hopelessness, loss and mourning and determination.
One of the important discoveries was that although Stalin attempted to obliterate religion in the Soviet Union, he failed not only there but also in the sphere of traditional languages. Contrary to so-called popular wisdom, Jews had not forgotten the language of their ancestors and had continued to speak, read and write in Yiddish. This factor contributed to a radical change in viewing and reviewing the history of Soviet Jewry.
Shternshis realized that unless something further would be done to preserve and simultaneously disseminate these songs, they would once again be forgotten and even destroyed. She collaborated with researcher and performer Psoy Korolenko, violinist, singer and composer Sergei Erdenko, and CD producer Dan Rosenfeld to produce an anthology of 17 of the songs, only a few of which had already been set to music. To create appropriate melodies for the rest, the group engaged in an intensive study of Russian and Jewish music.
In addition to Korolenko and Erdenko, performers of the songs include Sophie Milman, a Russian-born singer, who grew up in Israel and lives in Canada, and 12-year-old Isaac Rosenberg. The finished product is a joy to the ear and a tribute not only to those who salvaged a piece of the past, but a monument to those who left part of their creativity to posterity, hoping that someone would find it. Someone did, and not quite by accident.
■ TWO OF the most famous of Yiddish comedians, Szymon Dzigan and Yisroel Shumacher, were both born in Lodz, Poland, where in the mid-1930s they put together a cabaret act which they kept updating to suit changing circumstances. They also starred in Yiddish films. Following the German invasion of Poland, they went to Russia, where they developed a vast following. However, when they attempted to leave the Soviet Union with Anders Army, they were arrested and imprisoned for four years. Even so, they were permitted to perform. After their release in 1946, they returned to Poland, where they were again arrested, but it was only a short-term inconvenience, and in 1947 they reached Warsaw, where they starred in postwar Yiddish films, before arriving in Israel in 1950.
David Ben-Gurion did his utmost to stifle Yiddish culture, but there were many Holocaust survivors in Israel who remembered Dzigan and Shumacher from before the war, and flocked to hear them, as did Yiddish-speaking audiences around the world when they went on tour. But the partnership which had endured under the most stressful conditions fell asunder in Israel. The two stopped talking to each other, but continued to perform together until the final break in 1960, when each went his own way. Shumacher died a year later, but Dzigan continued to entertain until his own death in 1980.
Yiddishpiel has revived some of the Dzigan and Shumacher skits to parody the upcoming Knesset elections. Taking the roles of the original duo are Moti Giladi and Yaakov Bodo, who have updated some of the material and added to it, but for the most part it’s been left intact and is as relevant today as it was half a century ago.
Yiddish-speakers will roll in the aisles, and even those members of the audience who have to rely on translations will also allow themselves a belly laugh or two. One of their songs, which calls for change, aims for the government to speak Yiddish.
It doesn’t take much to understand that this a reversal of the usual ethnic genie who keeps popping out of the bottle to complain about the Ashkenazi hierarchy – which is certainly evident among the people heading the Likud Knesset list. But there is significant North African representation in the Knesset, including the most prominent of the women on the Likud list.
■ PROPORTIONATELY, THE Labor Party seems to be doing better than the Likud as far as gender equality is concerned, but another interesting factor is that sexual orientation for socially qualifying or disqualifying candidates for the Knesset no longer matters. The Likud’s Amir Ohana is openly gay; Itzik Shmuli, who was elected to the top of Labor’s list for the April 9 election, is also gay; and last week, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid announced that Idan Roll, who heads Yesh Atid’s gay lobby, has been added to Yesh Atid’s list for the Knesset elections.
What’s interesting is that legislators representing the ultra-Orthodox parties seem to have no problem sitting with gay MKs in the plenum or in the various Knesset committees. But they still have to be persuaded to allow gay men to father children in Israel with surrogate mothers, although there is an Internet site on which men and women who want to become parents but haven’t found the right life partner meet to see if they’re compatible, and if they click, they find a way to jointly bring a baby into the world, with each accepting parental responsibility but not necessarily getting married to each other. That’s how Labor MK Michal Biran became pregnant. She met the father of her baby through the Internet.