For British Jews, it is the worst of times but also the best of times

Amid surging antisemitism, Jonathan Freedland finds reasons to be cheerful

May 17, 2019 15:32

It was, I said, the best of times, it was the worst of times. The quotation from Charles Dickens is worn through over-use, but on this occasion it felt too apt to resist. It’s the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, of course, Dickens’ novel of the French revolution set in Paris and London.

If I found it irresistible that’s because I was addressing a group of American Jews on a European tour that had taken them first to the French capital and then to the British one.

They were travelling with the Anti-Defamation League and, naturally, their interest was in rising levels of antisemitism.

I’ve spoken to similar US groups before, and in the past the dynamic was one of concerned pity from the Americans towards their British or European cousins, the latter still battling demons of prejudice that the lucky Jews of the Goldene Medina had long left behind. It wasn’t like that this time.

The memory of the attacks on synagogues in San Diego and Pittsburgh was too fresh, along with a surging white supremacist right that has made Jews, alongside Muslims, African-Americans and immigrants, its target. They live under a president who regularly sends out signals easily decoded by the antisemites who receive them, whether about the hated “globalists” or the supposed international puppet-master, George Soros.

Meanwhile, several rising stars of the opposition party, the Democrats, have recently pushed uncomfortable buttons about Jewish disloyalty, money and influence. So there was no smugness from the visiting Americans.

They were keen to know how things were here — and I surprised myself with my answer. I began by conceding that, sure enough, these often felt like the worst of times.

Rarely a day went by, I said, without a new instance of Labour anti-Jewish racism: a councillor sharing neo-Nazi material here, a newly-discovered text or speech by the party leader there.

But Jews were getting it from the right as well as the left. When we met, new evidence had emerged of Nigel Farage’s joint appearances with the cable TV conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, where the talk was, again, of globalists and Soros, with a bit of “Goldman Sachs” thrown in for good measure.

Farage’s own LBC rantings about the disproportionate power of the Jewish “lobby” are well-documented. And, of course, I noted that the threat of jihadist violence was never far away.

I explained that many of the larger shifts in the political landscape were also alarming to Jews, even when they did not target Jews specifically.

As I’ve written on these pages, I argued that a populist politics — pitting a noble people against a wicked elite — rarely ends well for Jews, who too often have been deemed to stand on the wrong side of that divide.

Talk of betrayal, treachery and an alleged “stab in the back” had an unhappy history for us too. The same goes for denial of facts and the proliferation of conspiracy theory. All of these trends — post-truth and populism — spelled bad news for our community.

And yet, while these might indeed feel like the worst of times, I also said that I see a British Jewish community in rude good health, one fizzing with energy.

I name-checked Limmud, a pioneering festival of Jewish learning that originated in Britain, along with Jewish Book Week and the JW3 cultural centre.

I talked of our extraordinary institutions, from Jewish nurseries and schools to Jewish Care, which offer to tend to our needs as Jews from the cradle to the grave.

I explained that there were Jewish organisations that, between them, run film festivals, counsel those with cancer or mental illness, combat Jewish poverty in Eastern Europe or campaign for civil rights in Israel.

I said that in this relatively tiny community of 250,000 or so, Jewish cultural life was thriving: I noted that on my bedside were new books by two acclaimed Jewish novelists, Howard Jacobson and Linda Grant. I may even have mentioned this newspaper.

Much of that rosy picture has been in place for years. What’s new, I said, was how British Jews had responded to those worst-of-times events. There has been an almost unprecedented degree of unity, typified by that Enough is Enough demo last year and the subsequent joint letter by 68 rabbis, from ultra-progressive to strictly Orthodox, condemning Labour’s handling of anti-Jewish racism.

If nothing else, Jeremy Corbyn has achieved what no rabbi or lay leader ever managed: he has brought Britain’s Jews together.

But what’s also been striking has been the bravery. Gone is the quietism of the Anglo-Jewish past, when the communal leadership chose to keep its head down rather than take on, say, Oswald Mosley at Cable Street. Today’s motto is Be Louder.

Where once Jewish celebrities might have kept their Jewishness on the down low, today the likes of Rachel Riley, Tracy Ann Oberman, David Baddiel and David Schneider lead the online fight against antisemitism.

I told those American visitors to find the video of Emma Barnett tackling Richard Burgon on Newsnight about his “Zionism is the enemy” speech. Plenty of Barnett’s predecessors would have found an excuse to avoid doing what she did.

I said that, unexpectedly, British Jews had become more like American Jews: assertive and, when needed, loud. This is a profound, generational shift and it is one to celebrate.

Yes, these can feel like the worst of times but, not least in the way we have wrestled with them, they are the best of times too.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian

May 17, 2019 15:32

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