Don't Blame U.K. Jews for anti-Semitism; We Will Not Hide

Falsely categorizing disagreements between British Jews as anti-Semitism during a climate of fear and tension is classic victim-blaming.

Emmanuelle Smith
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Members of the Board of Deputies of British Jews hold up signs reading 'I am Charlie,' 'I am Jewish' and 'I am Ahmed' in London, January 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Emmanuelle Smith

"To be secure Jews in the street, the anti-Semitism must first stop at home," Sara Hirschhorn wrote in Haaretz last week in her opinion piece “U.K. Jews’ own anti-Semitism is stifling the community from within.”

This is a classic example of victim-blaming: British Jews, the argument goes, ought to change their behavior lest they attract discrimination.

Change our behavior how, exactly? Surely Jews, British or otherwise, need not assert their identities in a prescribed way in order to ensure that they are not the target of anti-Semitism? The way in which Jews live and display – or not – their Judaism is a question of choice and liberty. Yes, we may be a smaller minority here than in the United States, and therefore less visible, but that doesn't mean we are hiding.

Quite the opposite is true. JW3, for example, London’s hugely successful Jewish community center, stands tall on a main thoroughfare, offering an exciting, forward-thinking and diverse program of events. Not to mention Limmud, Jewish Book Week and the U.K. Jewish Film Festival. When I attend these events, I feel no need to “skulk around,” and I never feel “bullied and shamed” for exploring different Jewish identities. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis attended Limmud last month for the second year in a row. What greater support or endorsement from the “establishment” could you ask for?

But even if we weren’t “out and proud,” even if we did want to hide (which we don’t), would this really justify any discrimination against us, as Hirschhorn suggests?

Hirschhorn says her experience in the United Kingdom thus far has been “haunted by the in-house anti-Semitism of harbouring ill-will toward other denominations, hating difference, and humiliating those within the community who push boundaries.” In-house anti-Semitism? Really? Sure, within the community there is disunity, religious in-fighting and power struggles of a stuffy establishment. But to label these as anti-Semitic is disingenuous and inaccurate. This word, with its unambiguous meaning, should not be hijacked or appropriated to describe petty, perceived slights that have nothing to do with the essence of being Jewish (which is, remember, what anti-Semites object to).

My own experience of being a British Jew could not be further away from Hirschhorn’s haunted “odyssey” of being a Jew in Britain. I was born and brought up here in London. I have lived here 33 years (to Hirschhorn’s one). I am half-French, half-British – that is, half-Sephardi, half-Ashkenazi. I exist between different cultures, nationalities and ethnicities.

Religiously, too, I have moved between "denominations.” I grew up the member of a Reform synagogue, and as an adult have joined a Liberal one, along with my children and non-Jewish husband, where we have received a warm welcome. My four grandparents attended Orthodox synagogues, and were surprised, but pleasantly so, when I, a girl, was “allowed” to read the Torah for real at my bat mitzvah. And in Brixton, the vibrant, multicultural South London neighbourhood in which I live, Jews are few and far between. I have been exposed to many communities and never, not once, have I witnessed any anti-Semitism, “polite” or otherwise, coming from within or from without. My 64-year-old British father asserts the same.

I’m willing to admit I may have just been lucky. I have always lived a fairly secular life, going to non-religious schools and living in very diverse neighborhoods, and so perhaps I am not an obvious target. But in no British context have I ever felt the need to underplay or hide my Jewish identity. I have never experienced the “ambivalence,” “shame” or “fear” that Hirschhorn postulates.

Because as well as being lucky, I also choose not to interpret the curious looks of strangers as hostile, or the legitimate questions of tired, overworked border patrol staff as unfriendly or anti-Semitic.

And as for “discomfort in daily life?” Come on. I have never met a British Jew who would describe anything remotely uncomfortable in their daily life related specifically to their Judaism. A French cousin of mine once expressed surprise that I would wear a “chai” necklace on the London underground, as she would never dream of it on the Paris Metro. Britain is not France.

Ignorance, however, I do sometimes encounter. Occasionally, I have to explain the difference between being Israeli and being Jewish – to people well-meaning but confused about religion or ethnicity as opposed to nationality.

It is true anti-Semitic attacks in the United Kingdom have risen, and after attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the French kosher supermarket, European Jews, the British included, are understandably a little more nervous than usual. But to use this climate of increased fear and tension to label the prejudices and disagreements between British Jews as "anti-Semitism" is below the belt. British Jews are not anti-Semitic, and, more importantly, they should never be blamed for anti-Semitism.

Emmanuelle Smith is a freelance writer, journalist and teacher living in London. Previously she has worked for the Financial Times and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets at @Emmanusquelle