Working for the JC has changed the way I think

When I saw the scenes this week from Paris of protesters demonstrating about Jewish influence in France, I was reminded of an encounter during a visit to Yad Vashem a few years ago.

My guide that day was a young British man who had made aliyah, fought in the IDF and now worked for an Israel advocacy organisation.

He had the demeanour and bearing of an English public schoolboy and seemed entirely comfortable in his skin. So I asked him why he had made the move. “I just did not feel entirely safe in Europe,” he told me. “Europe had its chance to make us welcome and blew it.”

Until this point, I had always assumed most Jews felt happy to be in the UK or at least that they should so feel. In my naivety, I had just not realised the scale of everyday antisemitism until I began attending Jewish events and saw the scale of security deemed necessary.

I had also not realised that some hostile individuals genuinely acted as if Israel and the British Jewish “establishment” were the same thing.

This is my final column for the JC. My new job with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation means my attention must be devoted elsewhere.

Before I went to work at the JC, I didn’t really think about my identity: national, ethno-religious or otherwise. I was blissfully, complacently, a white, Anglo-Saxon, lapsed Protestant, two generations away even from any Celtic ancestors.

If it doesn’t sound too melodramatic, my time at the JC, first as political editor and latterly as a columnist, has completely changed the way I think about myself.

In particular, I have been forced to rethink the stories we tell ourselves in Britain about our national identity.

My work on the British prisoners of war in Auschwitz has made me reassess the relationship of this country to the Holocaust and the narratives we treasure of heroism in the face of fascism.

At the same time, the unsophisticated prejudice that seeps into most discussion of Israel in some liberal circles has made me rethink my attitude to the British left.

But I have also learnt that most people in the world do not have the luxury of not thinking about their identity. And more than that: such self-reflection is part of what it is to be human.

I have been reading My Promised Land, by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit. Subtitled “The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”, it is a heartfelt cry of pain about the future of the country he loves.

“I have learned that there are no simple answers in the Middle East,” he writes, “and no quick-fix solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have realised that the Israeli condition is extremely complex, perhaps even tragic.”

If there is one thing I would wish to take away from my experience of working closely with the Jewish community over the past five years, it would be a respect for this kind of honest, self-critical analysis.

Last updated: 10:50am, January 31 2014