Borderline Views: Winds of change felt by UK Jewry

The winds of change are here for all to see, and while members of the community should not be over paranoid about the situation, neither can they sit in self-complacency as though business is normal.

A Jewish man and boys in London (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Jewish man and boys in London
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Two very contrasting events will be taking place in the UK this coming week. Taken together they are indicative of the internal dilemmas and soul searching which is being faced by the Anglo-Jewish community as it experiences a period of questioning concerning its present and future status.
Starting next Sunday, Jewish Book Week will host a myriad of cultural and literary events and panel discussions, focusing on books which have been published during the past year on topics related to Jews, Judaism and Israel and other topics by prominent Jewish authors. Following less than two months after the impressive Limmud conference, Jewish Book Week has, during the past decade, become transformed into a major cultural and intellectual experience. Different in nature to Limmud, one complements the other as evidence of the internal dynamism of the Anglo Jewish community and the thirst for knowledge, discussion and debate in the very best of Jewish traditions. Almost all of its events are sold out in advance, as a diverse and heterogeneous audience come to hear authors and speakers, some of whom have come from as far afield as North America or Israel to present their latest literary or research achievements.
At precisely the same time, universities and other institutions throughout the country will host Israel Apartheid Week which, according to its website, is an international series of events that seeks to raise awareness about Israel’s apartheid policies toward the Palestinians and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The so called charity “War on Want” supports this struggle for “justice, freedom and equality” by offering students for Israel “apartheid” week an “Apartheid Wall” display which includes four cardboard/paper-mache guns measuring 1.5 meters each.
This follows on other events which have been taking place around the country, such as a three-day international law conference at the University of Southampton to examine the “legality, validity and legitimacy” of the State of Israel, a much-publicized appearance of Norman Finkelstein at a seminar convened by the International Relations Society and Friends of Palestine at the University of Warwick, and a hostile reception received by Israel’s excellent ambassador to the UK, Daniel Taub, at the prestigious London School of Economics, all within a very short space of time. On Sunday it was announced that 700 British artists had pledged to boycott Israel.
This is of concern to a Jewish community which prides itself on its Zionist affiliations and its support of Israel. The present UK chief rabbi, Efraim Mirvis, essentially a religious leader, has stressed the importance of Israel to Jewish identity and has already, in the short space of 18 months in office, led a number of missions of both rabbis and lay leaders to Israel, to gain knowledge and to strengthen the links between the two communities.
The idea that Jewish identity is detached from attitudes toward, and support of, Israel – as has been argued by some fringe elements – is nonsensical.
One does not have to support specific policies or actions of the Israeli government to make one’s concern for, and support of, the State of Israel any less legitimate. Just this past weekend I was witness to an amazing show of support for young Israelis who had experienced trauma during their army service and, as part of the programs organized by the Herzog Center for Trauma in Jerusalem, were hosted by one of the leading Orthodox synagogues in London, St. Johns Wood, for a week of events and therapy in the UK.
For members of the synagogue, holding a wide range of views concerning Israel and its policies, arranging and organizing this week-long event, at no small expense, was an integral part of their Jewish identity. One could feel the pride that members of the community felt for these young men who, ostensibly with little in common in terms of their daily life practices or religious behavior, were present in their synagogue and taking part in their Shabbat morning service. Each came out strengthened by the mutual support shown and demonstrated by the other. Being Jewish and supportive of Israel were intricately bound up with each other.
The annual report of the Community Security Trust which monitors anti-Semitism and provides security for community institutions and events points to a significant rise in the incidence of anti-Semitic events throughout the UK. While the community is self-assured and self-confident and enjoys the support of the government and the police authorities, the sorts of questions which are being raised by some leading community figures are evidence of a an uncertainty which has probably not been experienced since the pre-World War II days and the fascism of Oswald Mosley.
None of this was helped by the fact that last week a major political debate broke out between the head of the Labour Party and contender for prime minister at the forthcoming national elections, Ed Miliband, and a senior figure in the Conservative Party, former party treasurer and now member of the House of Lords, Lord Stanley Fink, concerning the morality and ethics of avoiding tax payments, even when it is done within the framework of the law.
While it was not openly stated as such in the mass media coverage of this bitter political exchange between two leading public figures, the fact that both are Jews made most people around the Shabbat table uncomfortable. It was felt that there was an anti-Semitic undertone to the public debate about two Jews who had achieved positions of prominence in the world of politics (Miliband) and finance (Fink), disproportionate to their overall representation within the British population.
A survey published last week showed that most Britons believed there to be some five million Jews in the UK, although the real number, which has declined significantly during the past 30 years largely due to assimilation, along with migration elsewhere including Israel, is no more than an estimated 260,000-280,000 people. It is a community which, during the past century, has indeed excelled in almost all fields of British life, from politics, to education, from media to law, and from public service to the philanthropic, arts and culture. There is almost no walk of life in which members of the Jewish community, most of them second- or third-generation immigrants from persecution and poverty, have striven upwards, worked hard and made their mark on British society, despite their relatively small numbers. Their contribution to British life is something which has been rightly praised by national leaders of all political persuasions, from Margaret Thatcher on the far Right to Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party.
But it is ironic that while there are those who will not vote for Miliband because he is Jewish, there are also many Jews who will not do so, despite a tradition of voting for socialist parties who care for the poor and the underprivileged, because they prefer not to see a Jew as the scapegoat of failed policies and/or because of the fact that Miliband is, in their eyes, over-critical of Israel.
There are those, including this writer, who are not always prepared to attribute all incidents of anti-Semitism to criticism of Israel and its policies vis a vis the Palestinians. But there can be no doubt that the borders between the two are becoming increasingly blurred as many anti-Israel activities and demonstrations are becoming overtly anti-Semitic in nature, and are resulting in attacks on Jewish institutions and individuals. It has not reached the level which we are witnessing in France – and ironically it is because of this that many French Jews have been moving to the UK in recent years, such that there are now French-speaking Sephardi synagogues and a demand for French-language education in some of the Jewish day schools – but there are those who are looking through the Eurostar tunnel at what is happening in France and raising questions concerning what may happen in the UK a few years down the road.
Equally there are many community leaders and prominent personalities who are not prepared to become engulfed in what they see as an atmosphere of paranoia. While they accept the fact that there is more anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment than in the past, they do not see this as any way threatening the longer-term stability and dynamism of the community.
They accuse some of the community institutions as whipping up a threat over and beyond that which really exists, and they are particularly scathing with regard to some Israeli leaders and media whom, they believe, do not serve the best interests of Diaspora communities by taking it upon themselves to speak out on behalf of Jews everywhere and are using the situation on the ground as a justification for trying to influence them, largely unsuccessfully, to pack up their belongings and come home to a “safe and secure” Israel.
The debate within the community was reflected in two columns which appeared in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, the major media outlet of the UK Jewish community. Two well known Jewish personalities, both of whom are known for the rightof- center and neo-con views concerning Israel, the Palestinians and the perceived “Muslim threat” to Western society, columnist Melanie Phillips and academic Geoffrey Alderman, posited alternative views on whether Jews should start selling up and moving to Israel. Philips was adamant that there is no future for Jews in the UK, while Alderman argued that there was no need to panic, although he did suggest that if certain legislation, such as the potential banning of kosher slaughter, were to go ahead in the future, he would have to reconsider his position.
When we grew up in the UK of the 1960s, there was no need for security personnel at the gates of every synagogue or Jewish school. Beyond the very occasional and rare anti-Semitic slur by a member of the public, there was never any problem in walking the streets, riding the public transport or attending a Jewish or Israel society event at university with a kippa on one’s head and advertising one’s own ethnic and religious affiliation. For many this is still the case and I cannot say that I, or my many other Israeli colleagues, who undertake joint research and teaching, and guest lectures, at UK universities have experienced the sort of mob rule experienced by the ambassador last week, when we appear as bona fide Israeli academics with the title of our Israeli universities on the websites and posters advertising our lectures.
UK universities are, mostly, places which are welcoming to top scientists and academics as they jointly seek to pursue joint research and teaching agendas, despite the attempts by some faculty and some students groups to prevent this from happening.
But neither can one be blind or naïve about the events taking place, and due to which many are fearful. Increasingly Jewish students on campus are made to feel uncomfortable at holding Jewish- or Israel-related events and, in some cases, have been subject to verbal attacks aimed at preventing their activities from taking place.
The community is strong in its institutions (of which there are far too many) and feels confident in its ability to stand up for itself. It is aware that while anti-Israel activities and anti-Semitism are not always one and the same thing and should not always be seen as such, there is a blurring of the borders between the two and they have increasingly been taking on the same mantle. They are not over pleased about Israeli leaders who speak in their name and, on some occasions, do them more harm than good – while at the same time holding opening the doors to what they present as the “safe bolt hole,” as though that is all what Israel is about.
Nor are they prepared, under any circumstance, to accept the more radical critique of their position that they are as blind to what is happening in the UK as the proud and self-assured Jewish community in Germany was when Hitler came to power in the early 1930s. They reject any such comparison out of hand, if only because in the case of Britain today, the government and the police authorities stand firmly behind them and are partners in their fight against racism, hate crimes and anti-Semitism, unlike Germany where it was the government and the police authorities who were the instigators of the anti-Jewish discrimination.
I do not believe that the long-term future of this small but dynamic and vibrant community is in danger. I would like to see more of my British compatriots join me in Israel, not because they’re escaping anti-Semitism but because they believe that Israel is a place where a Jewish life can be fulfilled in a way which is impossible in the Diaspora – and that is equally true for those who are critical of particular Israeli government policies as those that support them blindly. It should be even more true for religious communities, for whom settling in Israel is often the one part of religious practice which is all too conveniently set aside.
But the winds of change in Albion are here for all to see, and while members of the community should not be over paranoid about the situation, seeking anti-Semites under every stone and behind every bush, neither can they sit in self-complacency (as indeed many of Germany’s Jews did in the early stages of the third Reich) as though business is normal.
The writer, originally from the UK and a frequent visitor, is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.