Is Britain good for the Jews?

Its anti-Semitism must be seen in the context of other forms of racism in British society.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
At the beginning of June my wife, who is American, received another e-mail from an anxious relative asking whether it was true, as he had heard in a chain e-mail, that the UK government had taken the Holocaust off the national curriculum in response to Muslim pressure.This e-mail was a slightly changed version of a similar chain e-mail that circulated in 2007. The truth was that a UK government report on education had reported that one department in one school had decided to avoid teaching the Holocaust in order not to have to deal with Muslim denials. What was significant here was not the lie, but that it was so easily believed. There seems to be a belief held by many within American and Israeli Jewry that European Jewry is imperiled by a serious and dangerous wave of anti-Semitic assaults. Whereas the American and Israeli Jewish communities are treated as alive and viable, the UK, like the rest of Europe, is treated as as good as judenrein. In this context, the most pernicious rumors are easily believed. THERE IS of course something to be concerned about. Here in the UK we have faced a significant upsurge in recorded anti-Semitic attacks. There is a tendency for anti-Semitic rhetorical tropes to infect criticisms (sometimes otherwise legitimate criticisms) of Israel. Most upsetting is the recent decision passed by the congress of the University and College Union that "colleagues be asked to consider the moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions" and that a discussion be initiated into "the appropriateness of continued educational links with Israeli academic institutions." The resolution has rightly been the subject of worldwide condemnation by prominent Jewish leaders and thinkers. However, some of these condemnations are disturbingly ignorant of the wider context of British society and of Anglo-Jewry and have resorted to hyperbolic language. For example, in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Robert Wistrich the Hebrew University's respected expert on anti-Semitism accuses the UK of being "a European leader in several areas of anti-Semitism in the new century." Wistrich paints a portrait of the UK as a sinister place in which a losing battle is being fought against a rising tide of anti-Jewish hatred. True, he does commend Tony Blair's friendship support for Israel and the recent parliamentary enquiry into anti-Semitism, but there is little else positive in the picture he paints. IT IS important to put British anti-Semitism in the context of other forms of racism in British society and in the wider world. While anti-Semitic incidents in Britain have been rising, they remain relatively small compared to the virulent racism that British Asians, Afro-Caribbeans and asylum seekers from various countries face in Britain. Moreover, British Jews have faced less severe anti-Semitic violence than French and some other European Jews have. Nor is the United States free from anti-Semitism - it is home to some of the most militant neo-Nazi groups in the world. Anti-Semitism in Britain has no advocates among senior political leaders and the Jewish community is legally well protected from most forms of discrimination. Anti-Zionism and strong criticism of Israel (which, depending on your opinion, are the same as anti-Semitism) are espoused largely among marginal political groups and figures of the fringes of the major political parties. Nor is the British Jewish community helpless in the face of the supposed anti-Semitic assault. The latest academic boycott attempt is being vigorously opposed by the UK Jewish communities' Stop The Boycott Campaign and by the largely Jewish-led pressure group Engage. The Jewish communities' defense organization the Community Security Trust is respected by the police, government and indeed by other religious and ethnic communities. FOR THOSE who would care to look beyond the rhetoric, the UK Jewish community has in fact never been healthier. Recent figures shows that the community's previous decline in numbers appears to have been arrested, although there is considerable debate over whether this is simply due to the growth of the UK haredi population. All the research that has been done on the identities of UK Jews suggests a community that feels settled and comfortable. In research that Steven Cohen and I conducted in 2002-3 - at the height of the second intifada - the "moderately engaged" Jews we interviewed were concerned about anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel but nevertheless felt perfectly integrated into the UK. Institutionally, there is ample evidence of a renewed self-confidence in the UK Jewish community in recent years. There has been an unprecedented growth in the numbers attending Jewish day schools and in London two new high school projects are under way. There is growing interest in adult education as well, with the Limmud conference inspiring thousands both inside and outside the UK. There has been an extraordinary growth in interest and participation in Jewish cultural activities with Jewish Book Week and the Jewish Film Festival attracting large numbers of visitors. A multi-million pound Jewish Community Center is currently being constructed that promises to be every bit the equal of its Manhattan equivalent. I do not believe that these expressions of a self-confident, creative and forward-looking Jewishness are proceeding "in denial" of the reality of a community imperiled by anti-Semitism. Rather, anti-Semitism is a manageable problem that the Jewish community is capable of facing while maintaining a positive outlook and building for a future in the UK. In a recent research project I interviewed a number of senior British Jewish communal leaders. All of them felt that the Jewish community was in a healthy state. None of them felt that anti-Semitism was an imminent threat to the survival of UK Jewry. Rather it was a challenge that a vigorous and self-confident community was capable of meeting head-on. Those outside Britain who wish to support the Jewish community here should recognize that it has a bright future ahead of it. The fight against the recent manifestations of anti-Semitism in Britain should not take place in ignorance of the everyday reality of British Jews. The writer is a sociologist based at Goldsmiths College, London. He is the convenor of New Jewish Thought.