Being ‘foreign’ in today’s Britain

Reactions to Gaza show that we are in the same boat as Muslims

By Amanda Craig, March 26, 2009

Unlike writer Rhoda Koenig’s friend, as described in her New Statesman article earlier this month, I have never been told at a dinner party that, “if you’re Jewish you can’t be British”. But I am all too aware of what it is like to feel foreign in today’s Britain. Having my father’s Scottish surname, and the Scottish red hair to boot, gives me the experience of being both insider and outsider — which is somehow crucial to the development of a great many writers in this country.

Compared with many minorities, we Jews have had it easy until the great melting pot of multiculturalism got bubbling. One of my children goes to a London school which, within living memory, had a Jewish quota. But his origins or upbringing never came into question in our time. It has been possible to feel so comfortably assimilated in modern Britain that Jewishness has been, for many of us, a kind of optional extra — especially if you are not religious.

However, the bombardment of Gaza by Israel has blown away much of this. There has been a rise in antisemitic incidents, and in antisemitic sentiment, pegged to international outcry over Israel’s conduct of the war and the suffering of Palestinians. All this has made many British Jews feel, for the first time, like foreigners. As the political writer and blogger Norman Geras has put it: “The old poison is once again among us.”

Friendships have been broken, stands taken and British Jews exposed to the kind of comment that many believed to be outdated. Members of the liberal left have attacked the very foundation of Israel. Caryl Churchill has written Seven Jewish Children and the Royal Court has staged it. British Jews both humble and influential have found themselves excoriated by gentiles for the actions of “your” (ie Israeli) government and army, and “your” Prime Minister.

Useless to point out the difference between Jew and Israeli; that both sides are almost certainly guilty of war crimes, and that almost everyone longs ardently for peace in an appalling situation exacerbated by poverty, ideology and obstinacy.

It is a lovely feeling, being unified by dislike of The Other. We have probably all indulged in it, at least privately, perhaps even at a dinner party, at some point in our lives. That delicious feeling of bonding together over a shared dislike of X or Y is as warming and heady as wine, and it can sour just as quickly.

It is the sentiment that is played upon most frequently by the tabloid press when attacking “foreigners”, and one that needs to be countered by one of the best and deepest aspects of the British character — the love of fairness.

It is in that spirit that one also needs to look at Muslims in this country. How many of them, too, have been attacked and scorned because of the actions of governments and individuals in faraway countries? We do not know the exact number because, like Jews, many are frightened of reporting crimes of racial hatred, but their vulnerability is increasing at all levels following 9/11 and 7/7.

I live in an ordinary north-London street, and my near neighbours and friends are both Oxbridge law graduates and Muslim. Every time their children got rejected from local private schools, they wondered whether it was because of their surname. They wondered whether they should explain that they look on the actions of al-Quaida with as much loathing as anyone else; or that their faith is as gentle and family-orientated as my family’s Judaism.

Also at the end of my street is a firm of Muslim mini-cab drivers. I have talked to them over the years about their beliefs, their hopes and their families and found that they are just like any aspirational British people, only poorer.

Like every immigrant community, they know that the only way out of poverty is through education. They long for their children to ascend the professional ladder that Jews climbed a century ago.

To a man, they want to be what they call “21st century” — but how many modern Britons will see them as such? One distinguished fellow-novelist became so spooked by her driver’s miniature Koran dangling from the driver’s mirror last year that she jumped out of his car on the way back from my home.

Once again, useless to point out that not all Muslims are Islamists; that, in the Iraq and Afghan wars, both sides are almost certainly guilty of war crimes; and that almost everyone longs ardently for peace in an appalling situation exacerbated by poverty, ideology and obstinacy.

Nobody wins in these deadly games of prejudice, whether you are an outsider looking in, or an insider looking out.

The complex, marvellous, fascinating business of being a 21st-century Briton is something we all have in common, whatever our origins or beliefs. The only thing that should be foreign to us is hate.

Amanda Craig’s new novel, ‘Hearts and Minds’, will be published by Little, Brown on April 30.

Last updated: 12:44pm, March 26 2009