Why we need a month dedicated to Britain’s Jewry

It’s of course good that the government supports our security but there is more to Jewish life


Rishi Sunak meeting vice chancellors and representatives from the Union of Jewish Students in Downing Street on 9 May (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

May 28, 2024 14:50

Scrolling through my social media feed, which has been filled with Jewish doom and gloom for months, I marvel at the “Celebrate Jewish Stories” announcement on an official Disney Careers page on Facebook. Well, they get me – I click. And I learn that at Disney they’ve spent May recognising and highlighting “Jewish employees, consumers, and fans around the world.”

I read an article condemning Columbia’s crackdown on their encampment and another, conversely, from Jewish students decrying the behaviour of the activists. Then I spy — far less contentious — the National Endowment of the Arts boasting about some of the great Jewish American artists of the century (Judy Chicago, Tony Kushner, Pearl Lang, Max Weber) and affirming their financial commitment to Jewish American organisations. They end their statement encouraging everyone to learn about the contributions to the arts and humanities by Jewish Americans.

No less positive a declaration can be found on the White House website, where you can see President Biden’s proclamation on Jewish American Heritage Month, added on 30 April this year. Biden dates Jewish American settlement to 1654, well before American independence. He reels off a long list of different kinds of Jewish actors that participated meaningfully in the nation’s history: suffragists, activists, leaders in the Civil Rights movement, scientists, doctors, engineers, artists, public servants, entertainers, etc. He quotes Sephardic poet Emma Lazarus to say that Jews “helped write the story of America, making it…a home for the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’” Switching gears, Biden then talks about the suffering of the Jewish community since 7 October, the implications for and fallout on American Jews, and his national strategy to counter antisemitism.

It's true that Disney wants to sell its merch and the NEA likes to promote its work, and that Biden hopes to win the upcoming election — and maybe it’s in part for self-interested reasons, too, that the now retiring MP Nickie Aiken raised the idea of a British Jewish History Month in January.

But as the president of the British and Irish Association for Jewish Studies, who has spent the last couple of months reading through proposals for talks for our annual conference to be held in July, I am struck by the wealth of contributions of British Jewry to this country. Moreover, I am struck by the wealth of expertise academics have accrued about British Jewish history — and literature and visual art and music and food and interfaith relations, among many other things.

I can’t wait to spend three days listening to my colleagues talk about the much-beloved iconoclastic rabbi Lionel Blue; the Oscar Wilde-inspired writings of Israel Zangwill; the Jewish presence in medieval Wales; Black-Jewish relations in postwar Britain; the role of Jews in the golden age of British detective fiction; an analysis of the JC’s depiction of domestic service refugees in the 1930s; the history of the Manchester Jewish Museum…the list goes on.

If we, with our deep expertise, help shape the agenda and shift some attention from the war onto the Jews here in this country, what impact could that have? How might it change the way Jews are regarded and engaged by their non-Jewish peers? How might it change the way Jews feel about themselves?

Every year that I’ve lived here someone has forwarded me a meme claiming Britain refuses to teach the Holocaust. Every year I refute it. The Holocaust is taught — in fact, it’s taught well. But isn’t there so much more about Jewish life, culture, involvement in civic life and the arts, business and government, that we can be teaching? I am grateful that we have Black History Month every October in the UK and although I think it’s vitally important that the transatlantic slave trade is taught, I am glad my children have the opportunity to learn much more than that — and to understand that Black History is also British History.

We too are a fundamental part of this country, just as Black Britons are, just as American Jews are a fundamental part of America. Why shouldn’t the British Library, like the New York Public Library, put out a reading list of Jewish literature every year? (If you don’t like the NYPL’s, there’s also Penguin Random House’s reading list, and California State University’s reading and viewing list, and Goodreads’….). Why shouldn’t collection grants be made available to libraries in honour of a Jewish heritage month, as they are through the American Library Association? Get people talking about Andrew Miller’s family story The Earl of Petticoat Lane, or how about Victoria Goldman’s murder mystery The Redeemer?

It’s good (necessary) that the government has pledged to support the CST and that it’s been working with vice chancellors to de-escalate tensions on UK university campuses where they’ve arisen, but is it possible (please) to also use resources to shed a spotlight on the rich and wide-ranging stories (good, bad, surprising, complicated) and contributions of British Jewry?

May 28, 2024 14:50

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