LIFE, LIFE, LIFE: Forever England

This summer three separate Jewish newspapers published a combined editorial declaring antisemitism in England an existential threat.

(photo credit: NATHAN LILIENFELD)
Right in the heart of lovely London, the bucolic homes of Hampstead Garden Suburb snuggle up to the Heath. Shiny new cars – Mercs and Jags – glide silently around, drivers giving way with smiles and waves. And there, in one of the most peaceful streets on the planet, my late father-in-law carved out the number 50 in his privet hedge, making his mark on this iconic area of Jewish London.
The topiary still stands proudly in Kingsley Way, clipped with geometrical precision, though my husband’s family left long ago. Roughly 270,000 Jews live in England today, still contributing greatly in every possible sphere of business and art, still unafraid to walk the streets to shul with kippot in place, still proud to be British.
My late husband was a Londoner; every year we’d leave the harried heat of the Holy Land for a break of tea and scones and waitresses who “Okay, my love-d” us there.
We’d drop into Norrice Lea shul for a no tso- quick davening of a Shabbat morn, and mingle with Martin’s childhood friends over fish balls and bits of herring impaled on toothpicks. And we’d marvel at the ease of living, the opulence, the style, the manicured flower beds and the holiday homes abroad. Everyone seemed so nice in London, everyone seemed so happy. Everyone seemed to be doing so very well.
It wasn’t always so, of course. Although Jews first came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, they were not protected by the Magna Carta and barred from most places of work. It’s a familiar story; Jews perforce became moneylenders, were despised for it, were persecuted.
Then came King Edward I, a monarch with a mania for Crusades, who, despite adoring the Holy Land, was not so partial to the Jews who funded his exploits there.
In 1290 by the Edict of Expulsion he kicked them all out, after killing many of their menfolk. Only 350 years later were Jews allowed back into the Land of Hope and Glory when Oliver Cromwell realized what the country was missing.
Since 1655, however, except for some hiccups such as Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts who roamed the East End before World War II, Jews have thrived in Britain.
And I have to say, perhaps not proudly, that it was with a certain amount of envy that we’d visit Mart’s childhood haunts, wondering why we didn’t live in the Suburb too, gifting our girls with gorgeous accents and the art of queuing up without angst.
BUT THIS August things felt different.
Marks and Spencer still stocks stunning size 10 skinny jeans, and Tesco’s aisles are chock-full of cheddar cheeses of multiple gradients of maturity. Everyone still drinks Tetley’s tea. But the teatime chat has changed. First of all, it was bloody boiling in London, with temperatures sometimes toppling our records. But there is something chilling the blood of many Jewish Brits, and that is Jeremy Corbyn – the friends-with-Hamas, wreath-laying-on-terrorists’-graves, possible- next-prime-minister head of the British Labour Party.
On top of the heat, and the financial fears of a “hard Brexit,” British Jews seem, if not really fearful, certainly concerned at the thought of a Labour victory in the next election. For a kickoff there’s the party’s contentious refusal to ratify the entire working definition of antisemitism as set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
While the party’s guidelines do accept that some behaviors drawn from the IHRA’s set of examples are antisemitic – calling for the killing of Jews is condemned, as is making allegations of a Jewish conspiracy or control of the media and economy – and while Holocaust denial and the “blood libel” are defined as antisemitic, four behaviors on the IHRA list were left out. For the Labour Party, accusing Jewish people of being more loyal to Israel than to their home country is not antisemitic, nor is claiming that Israel’s existence as a state is a racist endeavor. Requiring of Israel standards of behavior higher than those required of other nations was also left off the list, as was comparing contemporary Israeli policies to those of the Nazis.
This, coupled with the daily revelations about Corbyn – his worrying wreath-laying, his labeling of Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, his cozying up to terrorists – are causing the stiff upper lips of many Jewish Brits to tremble. And some of them, like businessman Gideon Falter, are fighting back.
In 2009, while working out in a gym in central London, “I heard a voice ranting on about Israelis and Jews in a particularly hideous way,” recalls Falter, 35, who can hardly bring himself to frame the four-letter expletives used to describe Israel. The foul-mouthed shouter turned out to be an employee of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Falter reported him to the police who, after initial reluctance, eventually charged him; eventually the swearer was convicted.
When that conviction was overturned, not long before placards proclaiming that Hitler was right were paraded on Oxford Street, Falter became active in the Campaign Against Antisemitism – a group that he now heads. The organization, comprised almost entirely of volunteers, including top lawyers and journalists, now pushes for the prosecution of the likes Jeremy Bedford-Turner, who Falter says claimed in public that Jews were responsible, among other things, for the bubonic plague and the French Revolution. That’s when they break from drinking Christian blood. According to Falter the Jews sued the state for the first time in history after this speech, and succeeded in putting Bedford- Turner behind bars.
This summer three separate Jewish newspapers published a combined editorial declaring antisemitism in England an existential threat. And while, in the cool living rooms of our London friends, the Community Security Trust report of 727 antisemitic incidents in the first six months of 2018 seems hard to believe, the world does seem to be very different today.
Take the homeward-bound experience: Heathrow’s VAT-refunds queue was so long – and so reminiscent of Saudi Arabia – that after almost two hours I surrendered my few pounds sterling and opted for the calm, collected El Al counter, where smiling security personnel checked us in efficiently and politely.
The young haredi man seated next to me didn’t ask to move, despite my sleeveless shirt; he watched a movie on his iPhone en route to his Jerusalem yeshiva – a movie that, my peeking eye confirmed, contained some lips-meet-lips action. I felt I was flying home to sanity and safety and civilization.
Many of our friends are buying “boltholes” in the Holy Land, “just in case.”
How I wish Martin was with me now, to discuss the way truth is stranger than fiction.
I bought a suitcase full of tea for our projected visitors, and I hope they come and join us here – for positive reasons, not because they feel forced to go.
And I fervently, fervently hope that when they get here, they’ll find a country that welcomes Jews of all religiosities and affiliations, and allows all of them to marry here and build their schools and shuls – not just those belonging to the United Synagogue.
But that’s another discussion.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl College and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.