Why should we hide the signs of our identity?

'Security and freedom. What is the correct balance? How cautious do we need to be? '

June 20, 2019 14:10

Most of us have done it at some point. Concealed our Jewishness. Hidden it from others because it felt uncomfortable wearing it on our sleeve. Worn a baseball cap instead of a kippah. Slipped our Magen David necklace inside our shirt. Hesitated before putting the Chanukiah in the window. Tucked in our tzitzit.

“Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home” was the Jewish enlightenment creed; it created the possibility of us becoming part of wider society on equal terms. But we often interpreted it slightly differently: wear your Jewishness among Jews when it’s comfortable to do so; don’t draw attention to yourself when out and about. You might attract trouble.

And yet, it seems to me we are much more “out there” than we used to be. There are no long-term data to prove this, but it appears to be much more common to see kippot being worn in public in Britain today than it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s. It looks like our collective self-confidence has increased.

The signs are not only in the clothes we choose to wear or the items we choose to display. They are there in our buildings and events. JW3 captures it perfectly — a large, glass-fronted building on one of the busiest thoroughfares in north London, proudly proclaiming its Jewishness to all who travel past. Then there’s Klezmer in the Park — an open Jewish music festival in Regent’s Park. And Chanukah in the Square — a public celebration of Chanukah in the very heart of London.

But simultaneously, we also seem to be tightening up security everywhere. Cameras outside our buildings. Bollards. Fences. Guards. Enormous sums are currently being invested in these types of measures. We know the dangers that lurk out there. We’re right to be careful.

Security and freedom. What is the correct balance? How cautious do we need to be? How open can we afford to be? Not just with regard to our communal properties and events, but with the small decisions we take every day about how public to be about our Jewishness.

Given rising anxieties about antisemitism, we might expect our personal behaviour to have changed recently. But if it has, it barely registers. When we surveyed British Jews in 2012, we found that, among those who ever wear or display items that might identify them as Jewish, 58 per cent said they avoid doing so, at least “occasionally,” out of fears for their safety. When we repeated the question last year, the equivalent proportion was 60 per cent. So possibly a slight shift towards increased anxiety. But when we look at those who curb their behaviour in this way “frequently” or “all the time,” we see a slight shift in the opposite direction: the proportion fell from 21 per cent in 2012 to 17 per cent in 2018.

Small, inconsistent shifts. Essentially, little has changed in this respect in recent years, in spite of Islamist terrorism, Jeremy Corbyn, or any anti-foreigner sentiment in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Based on this measure of anxiety or caution, we are as we were.

But one insight from these data captures something important. We have just written a report for the European Union about 16-34-year-old Jews in Europe. It’s being published in Brussels next month — I will write more about it in future columns.

But here’s a teaser. In general, young Jewish adults across Europe are more likely than their parents or grandparents to wear or display these kinds of items publicly. Yet, at the same time, they are also more likely to curb doing so, frequently or ‘all the time,’ because they are concerned about their safety. That’s puzzling: they simultaneously appear to be more comfortable than their elders expressing their Jewishness openly, whilst also being more cautious than them about doing so.

But perhaps their paradoxical behaviour reflects our times perfectly. It seems to me that we currently stand at the crossroads between security and freedom. We are either experiencing a brief blip on the path towards greater freedom and openness, or we are feeling the early tremors of a more insecure, threatening and dangerous world. Young people sense that. The fundamental task in the battle to combat antisemitism is to build a world in which we can express our Jewishness openly without fear, and other minorities can express their identities similarly. That’s a vital indicator to look for, and that’s our key challenge.


Jonathan Boyd is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)


June 20, 2019 14:10

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