I grew up in an era where for most British Jews, we were able to find some sort of balance between living with a strong connection to Israel but were able to live comfortably in Britain. Assimilation existed and was a challenge and anti-Semitism was not a daily occurrence.
Living in North London, many Jews could essentially live a Jewish life free from violent anti-Semitism. There were obviously hate crimes, general bigotry and stereotyping that many Jews experienced at some time or another. But this was often explained away as being a phenomena that unfortunately exists, which Jews are not the only minority to experience.
Even if there was still some anti-Semitism, it was probably the lowest level in Jewish history. In spite of it, British Jews put their heads down, kept a low profile and worked hard to rise up the socioeconomic ladder and get on with life.
The anti-Semitism scandal that we are seeing today did not begin with the Labour party. I witnessed the ignorance of peoples bigotry towards Jews from my early adult life. I remember following 9/11, someone at my college saying the Jews were responsible for it. When I was at university, I would constantly hear tropes that all Jews are rich and privileged.
These were not said always as hateful comments. People genuinely believe them to be either simply facts or they are just ignorant of what anti-Semitism is and the various forms it takes. Many insist that saying Jews are powerful, successful and rich is the opposite of anti-Semitic, its a compliment. Notwithstanding the fact that generalizing such notions is part of a conspiracy theory found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that was propagated by the Nazis which lead to Auschwitz.
Recently, the Israel Advocacy Movement produced a video where activists went around Hyde Park asking members of the public about anti-Semitism. One person began condemning anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and then immediately went on to spout Holocaust revisionism, claiming that 6 million Jews couldn’t have been killed in the Holocaust and that he had “seen proof” that the number was much lower.
Not everyone in Britain espouses such views, but unfortunately more do than one would like to think. For a long time these views did not have outlets for expression in a manner that would be considered legitimate. The guise of anti-Zionism or being critical of Israel provided them with such a means to speak against the Jews in polite society.
Jeremy Corbyn was not the first to start normalizing anti-Semitism in the Labour party and in Britain. In 2006, Ken Livingstone compared an Evening Standard journalist, Oliver Finegold, to a Nazi Concentration camp guard. The Jewish community in the UK were outraged then too, the Mayor saw nothing wrong in his behavior and refused to apologize. It is obvious that Livingstone would not behave in such an offensive manor if the subject were not a Jew but were black for example.
The dismissal of offensive remarks towards Jews predates Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to leadership. This is not an issue that can be dealt with simply by Jeremy Corbyn’s promises to root out anti-Semitism from his party. Whilst the issue emanates from within his party, I think these opinions of Jews are more deep rooted.
In my youth movement days, we would discuss Zionist ideology and whether or not one can fully live as a Jew in the Diaspora. A lot of discussion centered on the Holocaust. If the state of Israel had existed at the time, then there at best wouldn’t have been a Holocaust or at least the Jews would have had a place they could have escaped to who would not have turned them away.
The question then is whether it could happen again? In those days, most British Jews did not believe it would happen in Britain and those of us who were not so sure were viewed as paranoid. At the same time, they internalized the need for the existence of a Jewish state. Not all Jews live in countries as free and open as the UK. It is still, at present, a very plausible position that a Holocaust is not likely to take place in Britain in the foreseeable future.
What is not, however, a plausible position to hold anymore, is that anti-Semitism is something of the past that in time will disappear. What was now obvious, was that the issue of anti-Semitism was not improving with time. It was only getting worse.
For me, a major turning point was Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014. The protests over Gaza throughout the world, not just in the UK, unleashed outright Jew hatred both in the public square and on social media. Hashtags praising Hitler were trending, calls to kill the Jews at demonstrations and even Synagogues being rioted in Paris. All piggybacking behind the banner of accusing Israel of committing a “genocide in Gaza.”
I realized that the battle lines of the fight against anti-Semitism had been pushed back. We were no longer going to be able to argue over whether this gross Nazifying of Israel was anti-Semitism or not. Because our focus was now on trying to draw attention to the outright violent expressions hiding among these more “moderate” expressions associated with Israel.
As a result, this allowed a free pass to rise to the surface in society what has been called “Anti-Semitic Anti-Zionism.” We are unable to even reach the stage of discussion of differentiating between what is legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and what is illegitimate criticism that might be considered anti-Semitism.
As such views have penetrated into the mainstream of society, primarily from the left of the political spectrum, it has made it increasingly difficult for people to speak of Israel in a positive way.
As most British Jews feel a strong bond to Israel and for many, it is a central if not the most central aspect of their Jewish identity, it is an attack on their Judaism itself and how Jews do and have expressed their Jewishness in the UK.
Before this scandal emerged in the past few years, many British Jews already felt a need to keep their Judaism to themselves, that they should be Jewish at home and British in public. Largely due to a desire to integrate and be accepted after fleeing pogroms in Russia for being Jews. Now, whatever limited expressions of Jewishness Jews may display publicly is being condemned.
Over recent years, as I have returned to London on visits, having observed these events from Jerusalem, I am assured by my former community members in the UK that Britain is not like France. No, it wasn’t. It is certainly heading that way though.
Anti-Semitism comes in many forms and is not a phenomenon solely of the far right. Which is the only form, the left can clearly recognize, as long as the perpetrators are white. But Anti-Semitism is also an issue coming from Islamic extremism, where you are likely to be branded as an Islamophobe for drawing attention to it. If it comes from other minority groups you might be called a racist. This leaves the Jewish community helpless in being able to protect itself, as self proclaimed anti-racists on the left, or groups that are protected by identity politics either perpetuate anti-Semitism, enable it, turn a blind eye or dismiss it as a smear.
Yes, Britain may not be about to deport Jews to concentration camps. But it doesn’t mean that Britain will continue to be a safe place for Jews to live. Throughout Jewish history Jews have lived in certain countries for centuries and often under fair conditions then a time comes where that ceases to be the case and they leave.
The German Jews ignored Hitler, didn’t take his threats seriously and believed the German people would come to their senses. They too, like British Jews, believed that such hatred was something of the past and they lived in a modern, civilized society now. Today, however, Diaspora Jews, live with the ability to view the events leading up to the Holocaust with hindsight.
In 2014, I saw the warning signs. I always believed that Britain would not forever be a good place for Jews, particularly as the memory of the Holocaust fades. Simultaneously Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism has come out of its remission. What I didn’t foresee was the rate at which these changes would take place. I believed it wouldn’t happen within my lifetime.
The anti-Semitism among anti-Israel demonstrators in 2014, was my Dreyfus affair. By the end of the year, I had returned to Israel. From that date, I gave British Jews a maximum of 20 years before we would see large numbers of them leaving to find new homes elsewhere. This was before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader of the Labour party.
The anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist attitudes that I witnessed subtly throughout my adult life, which on the odd occasion had some expression among politicians such as Jenny Tonge or George Galloway, now through Jeremy Corbyn had become commonplace in one of Britains two major political parties.
At the time of my return to Israel, French Jews were coming to Israel in large numbers, as Charlie Hebdo and the murder of Jews in a Paris Kosher supermarket that same day took place early in 2015 further increasing the numbers. I knew Britain would be next. We once looked across the pond to America in order to see what was coming tomorrow to the UK. Today, even America turns to look at Europe to see what is coming its way tomorrow. I remember when I arrived in Israel hearing Canadian and American Jews discuss how the increase in anti-Semitism had progressed where they came from. They were only a few years behind Britain and France.
These events were not the only factors pushing my exit from the UK to Israel, but they were significant. British Jews must ask themselves whether or not they see a future for themselves as Jews in the UK? What kind of Jewish life can be provided for our children in such an indifferent at best and hostile environment at worst towards the beliefs and values that define modern Jewish identity.
It is not easy to leave our homes and what we know and in many ways love. But I believe that my 20 year time period for British Jews may be cut shorter than I predicted. I dread the thought of another conflict in the Middle East like in 2014, only this time the Prime Minister is Jeremy Corbyn. Add to this scenario some economic hardship, brought about by Brexit, the need for a scapegoat increases and the people know exactly where to look.
I know that not all British Jews will come to Israel, but I do hope they have moved beyond just talk about leaving and have actually started to look at alternative plans for their futures outside of the UK.