How Israel Makes Life Complicated for British Jews

Never before so successful and well-integrated, the Jews of Britain now seem uncertain of where they belong in their society. Is Israel the reason? The Cossacks Aren't Coming: A special series on the future of European Jews.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Members of the Jewish community collect their children from school in north London, January 20, 2015.
Members of the Jewish community collect their children from school in north London, January 20, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

March 12, 2014 was a red-letter day for British Jewry. In the narrow foyer of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, the great and good of the community establishment, the cream of the machers (Yiddish colloquialism for fixer; Anglo-Jewish for mover and shaker), huddled over canapés and cheap Israeli wine. They had flown in especially to watch Prime Minister David Cameron address Israel’s parliament. They were not to be disappointed.

Cameron’s eloquent speech highlighted the warm ties between the two countries, affirmed his support of Israel’s democracy and security, and made just a tiny mention of any disagreement over the settlements.

But the highlight for the overseas guests was when he commented on the Jewish community in England, which he described as “an absolute exemplar in integrating into British life in every way.” He promised to personally defend its religious rights and fight anti-Semitism.

Cameron’s speechwriters included all the elements that would endear him to the worthies of the community. All was bright in Britain’s Jewish future, and they flew back to London basking in a warm feeling of acceptance and appreciation.

Five months later, those same community leaders would be heckled at open meetings and angrily accused of not doing enough to defend Israel and fight anti-Semitism.

The criticism in the British media of the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer and the corresponding rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents had shaken the self-confidence of British Jews to the core.

Young “grassroots” groups were challenging the establishment, from left and right; polls appeared indicating that half of Britain’s Jews felt they were back in the 1930s and were considering emigration. The methodology was dubious, at best, but the fact that the dodgy polls had even been commissioned was telling.

Read parts 1-9 of “The Cossacks aren’t coming" here:
Part 1, Krakow: The Jewish Community Center on the doorstep of Auschwitz
Part 2, Krakow, continued: An unexpected generation of Polish Jews is coming out of the closet
Part 3, Budapest: Fork in the road for young Jews in Budapest: Tradition or Tikkun olam
Part 4, Denmark: A wake-up call for Danish Jewry, not a siren call to head for Israel
Part 5, Budapest: Hungarian Jews more worried about threat to democracy than anti-Semitism
Part 6, Paris: The New Jewish Children of the Republic: Jews reexamine their place in France
Part 7, Paris: From the Seine to the Jordan: Is there a French Jewish exodus?
Part 8, Sarcelles: Did the 21st century’s first pogrom take place near Paris?
Part 9, London: Rising anti-Semitism in Britain – between nuance and hysteria

Speaking to friends in London at the time, I was astonished how British Jews who had never seemed very interested in communal affairs or Israeli politics were worked up. They felt under attack, and though none of them had experienced any direct form of threat themselves, something in their sense of security had cracked.

Protesters chant during a pro-Gaza demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in London August 1, 2014. Photo by Reuters

In the following months, the number of anti-Semitic incidents returned to its normal, relatively low, level, but the terror attacks on Jews in Paris and Denmark, while happening in other European countries, have kept the tensions alive.

Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote in The Wall Street Journal last October, “Today, Jews are beginning to ask, ‘Will we have English grandchildren?’” And, speaking at a memorial event for the four Jews killed in the January attack on a Paris kosher supermarket, Home Secretary Theresa May said, "I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom would say they were fearful of remaining here in the United Kingdom."

Where was all this coming from? Was it simply an understandable fear of jihadist attacks, or was something deeper wrong with the self-confidence of British Jews?

Thriving Jewish schools

On the surface, things have never been better for Britain’s Jews. There has probably never been a more friendly and attentive government in power, and even if Cameron loses the election on May 7, the next potential prime minister, Ed Miliband (Labor), is himself Jewish. Jews are represented like never before in parliament, business, academia, media and just about every other corner of public life. And even though there are no Jewish footballers in the Premier League, some of the top clubs, like Manchester United and Chelsea, are owned by Jews.

A swanky new community center, JW3, has opened in northwest London, presenting cutting-edge cultural events to packed audiences; Jewish schools of every denomination are thriving; Limmud, the annual festival of Jewish learning, has become a global brand, imitated in communities across the world; and the national census in 2011 indicated that, after decades of declining birthrates and emigration, the number of British Jews is growing once again. And while most of the growth has been among the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) community, the progressive streams are seeing healthier membership rates as well.

For years I have heard Jewish officials moaning about how “the best and brightest of our young generation are leaving.” Yet the numbers, especially the aliyah figures from Britain – which have remained pretty static at around 500-600 annually – don’t bear this out.

“There’s no pattern of people fleeing,” says Dave Rich, deputy director of communications for the Community Security Trust, a nonprofit that safeguards the Jewish community in Britain. “But at the same time,” he adds, “it does seem that, for the first time, a significant number of British Jews are looking at the papers and at what happened in Paris and saying, ‘My God! What if we do have to leave?’”

So, have British Jews started to mentally take the suitcases down from the loft? “When people say they’re thinking of leaving, it's a way of responding,” says Keith Kahn-Harris, a sociologist and researcher at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. “It's more a cry for attention.”

Such cries are being heard from many different directions. In January, the veteran actor Maureen Lipman said in a radio interview that the anti-Israel rhetoric in Britain was due to anti-Semitism, and that, “When the going gets tough, the Jews get packing.” Despite her privileged status, the 68-year-old added, “It crossed my mind that it’s time to have a look around for another place to live. I’ve thought about going to New York, I’ve thought about going to Israel.”

Two weeks later, under the headline “We’re leaving Britain – Jews aren’t safe here any more,” The Daily Telegraph told the story of the Gould family from Manchester in northwest England, who claimed to be moving to the United States due to the rise in anti-Semitism.

Police officers patrol a Jewish neighborhood in north London January 17, 2015. Photo by Reuters

Lipman isn’t leaving quite yet. In fact, she’s currently appearing in a new production of “Harvey” in the West End. And it transpires that Simon Gould has been planning his move to the United States for years and used the Telegraph interview as a cynical publicity stunt for his website, which offers assistance to U.K. citizens interested in getting a Green Card.

But while the vast majority are staying put for now, many are weighing their options.

‘A category error’

“I don’t feel insecure or threatened,” says novelist-journalist Linda Grant, who has written extensively on the British-Jewish experience in her books. “But I do have relatives and friends who feel threatened by the levels of anti-Zionism, and feel they might want to conceal being Jewish for fear of a nasty remark.”

Grant believes part of the problem is that British Jewry has “never been a particularly self-confident community. It’s not like America, where the Jews constructed the national identity – here, Jews arrived too late. For a really long time, the Jews and the Irish were Britain’s only ethnic minorities. And the Irish were from nearby, so the Jews were the only ones who were really different.

“It wasn’t fashionable to be ethnic, and Jews tried very hard to blend in and be the same,” she continues. “In the 1960s and ’70s, when black and Asian immigration began picking up and it was kind of cool to be an ethnic minority, Jews had already been reclassified as nonethnic, because we had succeeded so well. So we’re kind of a category error.”

British Jews weren’t like the Americans, but they weren’t true Europeans, either. They were different from the Jews on the continent, because they hadn’t lived under German occupation during World War II. And while many Holocaust survivors did move to Britain after 1945, for many years they weren’t exactly encouraged to share their experiences. After all, the British had fought the Germans for the entire six years without surrender; this was the nation who could talk of having had “a good war.” The Jewish refugees were supposed to be grateful and work on their accents.

But while the bravery of the war years defined Britain’s self-image for more than a generation – in many ways compensating the British for the loss of empire and relegation from world-power status – 21st-century Britain is a lot less certain of its identity.

Last summer, when Scotland held a referendum over its independence, many in England recognized that while the Scots have a national identity, they themselves don’t. A small majority of Scots voted in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom (55 percent), but Britain is a lot less certain today what it stands for.

“British identity is of itself very amorphous now,” says Grant. “I was born in England, but I’m not English. I’m from Liverpool [northwest England], and most men in England would define their identity by their [soccer] team.”

And if the English don’t really know who they are any more, the Jews of England have even less of a clue.

The new obsession

In today’s multicultural England, every minority is being encouraged to celebrate its origins. “The British are all obsessed now with identity and ethnicity,” says journalist Neerpal Dhaliwal, whose parents emigrated from Punjab to Britain. “Everyone is talking about a parallel otherness rather than working on a common culture. In the past, I never got asked to write about Indian stuff; now, that’s all I’m asked to do.”

And for Jews, celebrating their identity is inextricably linked today with Israel. The argument over where to place the gray lines – where, once crossed, legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies becomes racist and anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism – will probably never be settled.

What is clear is that for many, the relentlessly negative depiction of Israel in the local media has undermined their self-confidence as British Jews.

For those with relatives in Israel, who go there on vacation and closely follow its politics and culture, while many of them despair over the policies of the Benjamin Netanyahu government, it is a deeply personal issue. And many of their non-Jewish friends fail to understand why they feel so hurt by political arguments over Israel. “I’ve tried to say to people that for [them] Israel is an ideology,” says Grant. “But for us it’s a place where we have families and friends, and it’s not a concept.”

But even Jews with little connection to Israel are concerned. “A friend who has no interest in Israel or his Jewishness – his girlfriend isn’t Jewish – came up to me in a bar in Shoreditch [fashionable suburb of East London] and whispered, ‘Are we in danger?’” recalls journalist Ben Judah. “He said, ‘I’m really worried that this back-chatter about Israel will make it difficult for me to be an MP or a CEO if it carries on.’”

U.K. Secretary of State for Communities Eric Pickles and Home Secretary Theresa May hold up signs reading "I am Jewish" during a Board of Deputies of British Jews event in London, January 18, 2015. Photo by Reuters

It isn’t just an issue between Jews and the rest of British society, or a question of to what degree anti-Semitism is now masquerading as condemnation of Israel, with the Jewish State being held to a double standard like no other nation. There is a deeper tension fracturing the community. With no clear identity of their own, since the 1990s Israel has, to a large degree, subsumed the self-consciousness of British Jews. "Whenever I give a talk to a Jewish group," Grant says, "the first question is, ‘How do you justify writing for the Israel-hating Guardian?’”

Using Israel as a measure

As a British Jew, but also as an Israeli, all this makes me very sad. This is a community that established such a well-integrated presence in a country that was not always renowned for its welcome to outsiders. A community that numbers among its sons and daughters some of the brightest, most creative and most successful artists, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators not just in Britain but in the Western world. Yet today it measures itself and its future prospects largely by the current popularity and image of Israel. It is a community that has lost its self-confidence.

If the Jews of Britain don’t realize the magnitude of their achievement, which to everyone else is blindingly obvious, then maybe there is no future for them.

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is on a one-woman mission to restore that self-confidence to British Jews. In an hour-long interview on a Friday afternoon, in her small cluttered kitchen – while cooking a Shabbat meal and working on a sermon – she went some way to restoring my own confidence in them.

Even before her 2011 appointment as senior rabbi for the Movement for Reform Judaism, Janner-Klausner was on her way to becoming one of the most prominent Jewish voices in the wider British public. She is a refreshing and progressive alternative to the mellifluous and always perfectly correct tones of former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Growing up in the 1970s, her family lived with police security due to their father – British Labor Party lawmaker Greville Janner – being on various hit lists of both Palestinian terrorists and National Front fascists. So she’s no stranger to the worst threats of anti-Semitism. She is also an Israeli citizen who lived in Jerusalem for 15 years through long periods of suicide bombings.

Back in the 1970s, Janner-Klausner says, “there was an emotional containment, and now there's a lack of containment. People are worried about anti-Semitism because they care about it – and Baruch HaShem that they care. But for the British people, with their war history, protecting Jews is important – it’s part of their sense of self. So it's great that this on the front page of the newspapers. But it's also a damaging narrative for us, because Jews’ daily experience is not one of physical attack. There’s a difference between unpleasant remarks and fundamentalist terror attacks. When some git sprays a swastika on a shul, it's not an attack – he’s just being a git,” she observes.

Janner-Klausner wants British Jews to remember that “we are really blessed living here, where people are behaving so beautifully.” Both as a Brit and an Israeli, she also wishes that the members of her community were “able to understand that sometimes, though not always, criticism of Israel is just criticism of Israel. We can be proud in our lovely connection with Israel, as well as wanting Israel to be different. But we can turn around and say, ‘Netanyahu doesn’t speak for me.’”

She insists that the real threat to a Jewish future in Britain is not anti-Semitism but the same issues confronting the wider British society. “We don't have the birthrates right now to make a vibrant community viable for another generation,” she explains. “People don’t have that many children, and women’s work patterns are horrendous. The state of British child care is such that you don’t have a sustainable, non-Haredi Jewish future.”

So is the future of British Jewry Haredi (or, as they are known in Britain, “strictly Orthodox”)? There’s no question that the Haredi community is the main factor in the growth of British Jewry over the past decade or so – from barely more than a quarter of a million to around 300,000. Any answer would be premature, as the Haredi community worldwide is in the early stages of dramatic upheaval caused by the weakening of a hierarchy led by geriatric rabbis and the devastating effect of the Internet on a younger generation, which can no longer be shut off from outside influence. For now, at least, though, Haredim in Britain seem to feel at ease.

A normal 9-5 existence

Two of Western Europe’s three main hubs of Haredi life are in Britain: London and Manchester (the third is in Antwerp, Belgium). In many ways, they live in a self-contained world. Shmuel Rubin, who runs an office-supplies company from London, importing printer toner from Dubai and selling it across Europe, feels that “in Israel, the Haredim are being left behind; they are living like parasites, not working. Here, maybe 10 or 15 percent become rabbis and teachers, but the rest work in normal jobs. Thanks to social benefits here, you can start off as a young married person and, through hard work, become more successful and start paying taxes.”

Sam Schwartz, a news editor at the British edition of Hamodia, was born in Vienna and got married in Israel. “I looked for a job in Israel and couldn’t find one, despite speaking three languages fluently and having international experience,” he recalls. “No one looked at me because I was a Haredi in Tel Aviv. After four and a half years in Israel, I moved to London – and within a week I had a job. I felt that I could live here. I miss things [about] Israel; you feel at home and at ease there in many senses – here, you feel a minority.”

Rubin says that often, on business trips to far-flung corners of the British Isles, people will come up to him. “They see me with my beard, payot, black hat and coat, and say, ‘I don’t look it, but I’m Jewish as well, and it makes me proud to see you here.’”

I ask what it means to them to be British. Schwartz says the royal family means something to him. “They give a sense of security and continuity. And besides, I love football and will always support England and Arsenal.” Rubin says he doesn’t feel particularly British, but then admits to a weakness for BBC shows – which, not having a television at home (like most Haredim), he watches on his computer at the office and on his travels.

But are they afraid of anti-Semitism? “I grew up in Vienna with all its Nazi past, so I have some proportion,” says Schwartz. “And I think that most Muslim immigrants here just want to integrate. I also think that people are waking up here to the threat of Islamist terror.”

Rubin is less optimistic and believes that most Muslims “would like to take over Europe, but are happy to let time take its course. The danger is the three percent of radicals.” Not that he thinks other places are necessarily safer. “I was in Israel during the Gaza war; I don’t like having to sit in a bomb shelter.”

Both men are more concerned with the apparent rise of the far-right in Europe and predict that a large number of Haredim will be voting for the nationalist UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) in the parliamentary election next month.

The saddest irony

This is perhaps the saddest irony of contemporary Jewish life: that an anti-immigration party sworn to removing Britain from the European Union is making inroads in a community that is inarguably the biggest success story of immigrants to Britain. And that Jews, who have suffered like no other nation from war in Europe, now see the Union – which has been a central element to 70 years of peace and prosperity in Europe – as their enemy.

Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), speaks during a news conference in London, March 30, 2015. Photo by Bloomberg

At present, it is difficult to gauge the scale of this trend – which is jokingly referred to within the community as “JewKIP.” What is beyond doubt is that it is a reaction to the feeling of many Jews that the criticism of Israel in Britain’s mainstream political parties, and in the various European institutions, is linked to anti-Semitism.

Like other nationalistic parties that have expanded very quickly, UKIP is constantly finding out – typically through social media – that some of its local candidates were not vetted sufficiently in advance and have to be hastily replaced when their extremist views are exposed. This has usually been due to racist, misogynist and homophobic views. But this week, Jeremy Zeid, UKIP’s candidate for Hendon – a North London constituency with a large Jewish community – was forced to step down after he wrote on his Facebook page, “Once Obama is out of office the Israelis should move to extradite the bastard or ‘do an Eichmann’ on him and lock him up for leaking state secrets.”

Zeid was swiftly replaced by another Jewish candidate, Dr. Raymond Shamash. Appealing to Hendon’s voters, UKIP leader Nigel Farage bizarrely found space in the 140 characters of his welcoming tweet to mention that Shamash was not only a National Health Service (NHS) oral surgeon, but also an “Israeli army veteran.” It’s unclear how that has any relevance to Dr. Shamash’s suitability to serve in parliament, but Farage certainly has the measure of his potential Jewish voters.

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