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Why Have British Jews Been Shaken by a Bunch of Losers?

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Stamford Hill, North London, U.K., November 2013.Credit: Tal Cohen

LONDON – I wasn’t totally sure what to expect on returning to Britain after a two-month absence. After reading (and writing) from afar on the wave of anti-Semitism in Western Europe in the wake of the Gaza fighting I wasn’t exactly apprehensive, more intrigued at whether I would notice anything different.

One of the first news reports I read upon landing and going online was that a branch manager of the Sainsbury’s supermarket chain had removed kosher food from his store shelves from fear of anti-Israel protestors outside. This was, of course, a scandalous piece of news: What kind of an idiot manager hides his kosher produce (much of which isn’t even manufactured in Israel) instead of doing the sensible thing and placing security personnel to make sure no rioters disturb the peace? But I had a more pressing concern – what about the vaflim?

When I’m in Israel, months can go by without my touching a vafel. But for some reason, the flaky Israeli wafers with their low-grade chocolate filling are at the top of my shopping list as soon as I touch down in Britain. Somehow the morning coffee in London isn’t as consoling without. Rushing to my local Sainsbury’s I made for the fifth aisle where the kosher food is prominently displayed on the first row of shelves, and all was well. The piles of vaflim were still there. I was so relieved I almost purchased some chicken soup powder and pickles as well. Somehow I managed to resist that urge.

It was just one pusillanimous low-level employee, but the rest of London’s retail sector remained true. My faith in British decency was restored.

But over the next few days I was hearing a different story from Jewish friends living in England. “My entire generation is gripped by this hysteria, we never felt before that Jews are under threat in Britain,” said one 20-something acquaintance who has already achieved far more professional success than others twice his age. Eager to hear more, I asked for examples of anti-Semitism he and his friends had personally experienced but he didn’t have any, except for nasty stuff he saw on Twitter.

“Anti-Semitism here has never been so bad,” complained another friend over dinner at a South London Thai restaurant where he and his family were warmly welcomed by the owners. I pressed him as well for examples, and all he came up with was the media coverage of the fighting in Gaza. He was surprised to hear that Israeli spokespeople had told me that compared to previous rounds of warfare in Gaza and south Lebanon, the British press were much fairer to Israel this time around.

Of course, there is no shortage of examples. Synagogues have had windows broken and “Child Killers” sprayed on their walls. Jews were shoved and shouted at in the street. At some of the rallies held in solidarity with Gaza comparisons were made between Israel and the Nazis. According to the Community Security Trust, anti-Semitic incidents doubled last month. All of this is extremely nasty, but at the same time we have seen a complete and utter denunciation from the British media (including from fierce critics of Israel), from nearly the entire political establishment and resolute action from police.

Very few Jews were actually inconvenienced in any concrete way, much less threatened or harmed. Not one Jewish person has so far been reported to claim that his civil liberties or job prospects are limited due to his religious or ethnic identity. Aside from a tiny handful of washed-up and marginal politicians and pundits, not one prominent figure in Britain has in any way lent support of any kind to the wave of anti-Semitism. It has all come from the furthest margins of British society, or as Ben Judah described them in a column this week in the Sunday Times: “the new British Jew baiters – hundreds of online trolls, some clueless extreme leftists, maybe a thousand brainwashed Islamist teenagers, some old soak Liberal Democrats and one painful-to-watch human car crash, whom they still like to call Mr. George Galloway.”

So why has a successful and well-integrated British Jewish community been pushed off-balance by this bunch of losers?

In many ways the Jewish reaction to the rise in hate crimes against Jews is another symptom of the curse of success. For centuries, even in countries that were “relatively” benign to their Jewish minorities, we were defined first and foremost by those who hated us and sought, usually successfully, to keep us out of mainstream society. When you belong to a group that is identified, vilified and ostracized, you have no identity struggles. You know exactly who you are; stray from within the confines of your community and you will be immediately reminded.

A generation ago – when memories of persecution and dislocation were still very much alive and real, and among British Jews were still living many who had found refuge from Czarist and then Bolshevik Russia, from the Holocaust in Europe and then from the systematic expulsion of Jews from Arab lands in the 1950s – that identity was still clear. This was largely a community of refugees landed on the Sceptred Isle’s (sometimes) hospitable shores. They were still defined by adversity and foreignness.

But when their children grew up without an accent, and then their grandchildren, they were astonished to discover that in a post-war Britain where the class system had to a large degree collapsed, there were no obstacles whatsoever to their success as Jews in this kingdom. No Numerus Clausus limiting the number of bright Jewish boys and girls at Oxford and Cambridge. No government department, seat in parliament, board of directors, club membership or exalted position in the arts and media closed to them.

In some ways, the incredible success of British Jews caught this minority – which over the centuries accepted persecution and hatred for granted – by surprise. Hence the astonishment today of younger Jews that anti-Semitism is still lurking in some places and the resulting hysteria.

The tendency therefore to overreact at the way a pathetic group of marginal haters have used Gaza as an excuse to break cover is totally understandable. But it is an overreaction and we must hope that British Jewry will very soon recover its self-confidence and realize that this latest wave of hatred is not a real threat, rather a symptom of illness and inadequacy in some peripheral parts of the United Kingdom. A symptom to which the rest of British society has on the whole reacted to in an admirably healthy way.

Nine months from now, Britain’s first Jewish prime minister could well be living in Downing Street (and before you say that Benjamin Disraeli was the first, bear in mind that he would never have been prime minister if his father hadn’t baptized him. We have advanced since Victorian times). If Ed Miliband fails to win the general election, it will have nothing to do with his Jewishness; only his and his party’s political shortcomings. What is more, a large proportion of the British Jewish community, perhaps even the majority, will be glad if he fails as they are more comfortable with the non-Jewish David Cameron, as well as with other senior Tories such as George Osborne, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond and Michael Gove. They feel the Conservative Party leadership is closer to the community, more attuned to their beliefs and less critical of Israel’s current policies than Miliband’s front bench.

If anyone had told our grandparents, who knew a thing or two about suffering for their identity, that in our time the choice for the country’s next leader was between a Jew and a goy who arguably may be even better for the Jews, they would have been astonished. If we said that at the same time we are suffering the worst bout of anti-Semitism since their generation, they would have told us we’re nuts.

This summer’s atmosphere has been unpleasant, but by every possible parameter, Jews in Britain have never had it better. A few groups of foaming-at-the-mouth racists barely capable of concealing their Jew-hatred behind a thin facade of “anti-Zionism” and a few cowards abetting them are not about to change that.

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