There is a world outside antisemitism

By David Cesarani, May 9, 2014
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Jews in Britain have never been so secure and prosperous. Yet we seem to be almost obsessively preoccupied by antisemitism and the Holocaust. What is going on? Why do British Jews appear to associate being Jewish with being a victim? Could it be that the culture of commemoration and our immersion in history is blinding us to the present and crimping our vision for the future?

First, let’s look at some facts. In the recent survey on Jews in the UK conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 91 per cent of respondents said that remembering the Holocaust was very or fairly important to their sense of Jewish identity. For 87 per cent of respondents the same was true for combating antisemitism. These attributes of who we think we are scored respectively second and fourth in importance out of a possible twenty.

By comparison, sharing Jewish festivals with the family ranked sixth and only 50 per cent of respondents maintained that keeping kosher was equally urgent.

Rather shockingly, a mere 46 per cent considered it very important to marry another Jew. Put another way, for a significant slice of the British Jewish population remembering dead Jews is more pressing than marrying live ones and worrying about rishes [malice] takes precedence over celebrating Judaism.

These results are even more intriguing when seen in the light of the Community Security Trust report on antisemitic incidents recorded in January to June 2013. It revealed that the number of reported incidents had fallen to a level not seen since 2005. While the CST cautions against treating declared instances of hostility as foolproof indicators, the trend over the last three years has been downward.

So, if antisemitism is on the wane, why are we so apprehensive about it? Granted that we must never relax our vigilance, why is concern about what Gentiles think of us three times more important than mixing with other Jews? Or twice as important as keeping Shabbat? Is this healthy?

Arguably, our current sense of identity stems in part from an excess of historical consciousness. As a whole we are better educated and better read than ever before. The last two decades have witnessed a stupendous growth of Jewish cultural activities and outreach programmes, much with a historical component.

The Jewish Museums in London and Manchester, Limmud, Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Film Festival, the London Jewish Cultural Centre, have all presented the Jewish past in attractive, accessible formats. A lot of this history has been about the tragic period between 1933 and 1945. Even performances of Jewish music have evoked this era through the revival of composers whom the Nazis persecuted.

The Holocaust Educational Trust and Holocaust Memorial Day have, of course, had a huge impact. While their work has been directed at a national audience, they have powerfully influenced the historical consciousness of British Jews. The Association of Jewish Refugees and ‘45 Aid Society have mobilised the second and third generation, ensuring the continuity of memory and broadening it beyond the survivors and refugees themselves.

Only a sliver of the Jewish history that has been published, exhibited, broadcast or debated in Britain has been about British Jews and much of that has been about the 1930s or the war years. A small academic industry is churning out books on British memory and representation of the war and the Jewish catastrophe.

There has also been steady research into the opposition to Jewish immigration at the turn of the century, antisemitism, and the far-right in Britain. Almost every anti-Jewish figure has been minutely scrutinised.
This phenomenon is relatively fresh. Until the 1990s there were few publications on antisemitism in Britain or British responses to Nazism. Bernard Wasserstein, Geoffrey Alderman, and Martin Gilbert stood virtually alone until a new generation of historians came on the scene. Then we had a wave of important studies by Tony Kushner, Bryan Cheyette, David Feldman, Rickie Burman and others (including myself).

Once these practitioners became established they were able to stimulate and guide research reflecting their interests and expertise. It is indicative that a third of the essays in an important collection published in 2010 and pertinently entitled New Directions in Anglo-Jewish History, are essentially about antisemitism.

The peculiar drift of this historical investigation has been noted abroad. At a conference on British Jewish studies held at Southampton University in 2008, the American Jewish historian Todd Endelman observed that a disproportionate amount of work by historians of the Jews in Britain over the last 30 years has focused on conflict. It has explored conflict between Jews and non-Jews as well as conflicts within Jewish communities.

Endelman chided his British peers for ignoring the wider vistas of Jewish history and culture. He wondered if they felt they had to address tragedy, catastrophe and strife to justify their activity? Could this explain the lack of attention to Jewish institutions, cultural creativity, the development of Judaism in Britain, or the many strands of social history such as gender, leisure, and consumption?

This insight was richly ironic since the new Jewish historians of the 1980s and 1990s, liberated by multiculturalism, defined themselves against the apologetic history writing of their predecessors.
Anglo-Jewish history writing was born in the 1880s largely as a response to the belief that Jews were misunderstood and that such misconceptions supported prejudice. During the years of opposition to mass Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, the newly-founded Jewish Historical Society of England made a cult of Cromwell and the readmission. Addressing the Society in the shadow of fascism and antisemitism, Cecil Roth averred that it was the job of the Jewish historian to refute lies about the Jews.

Roth flattered the English by praising the “alembic of toleration”. He trumpeted the Jewish contribution to British society and avoided any note of dissonance. The Anglo-Jewish past that was purveyed in the 1950s and 1960s alternated between the safety of the distant medieval period and the celebration of more recent success.
Have the newer British Jewish historians over-compensated? Having rightly pointed out and extensively remedied the absence of research on mass immigration, poor Jews, antisemitism, fascism, refugees and the response to Nazism in Britain, have they contributed to a British Jewish identity founded on anxiety and the memory of persecution?

It may seem perverse for a professional historian to make such a suggestion, even more so for one who is involved in various enterprises to disseminate knowledge of the past and, especially, to ensure awareness of the fate of Europe’s Jews in the Nazi era. However, this critical endeavour should not be allowed to occlude the richness of Jewish life in this country over two centuries.

Jews in Europe may have less need for active memory than Jews in Britain because reminders of the Jewish fate are all around them. Nevertheless, they are not imprisoned in the past and have successfully laid the foundations for Jewish generations to come. By comparison we have so much less to feel nervous about. Nor do we need to overcompensate for the good fortune of having avoided German conquest.

It is enough that Britain played an ambivalent part in the Jewish tragedy and that Jews in this country were never granted the luxury of complete acceptance and security. We must never neglect the chequered history of Jews in Britain and we must never relax our efforts to commemorate the destruction of Jewish communities or to understand how the catastrophe unfolded.

At the same, however, perhaps we need to rebalance the resources and the efforts that we devote to remembrance, to researching and representing our past.

This essay is based on a lecture given by Professor Cesarani to a Board of Deputies seminar, sponsored by the JC, on the future of UK Jewish leadership. David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Last updated: 12:34pm, May 9 2014