Life & Culture

Book review: Britain’s Jews: Confidence, Maturity, Anxiety - Too confident, where’s the angst?

An unconvincing survey of modern British Jews, much of which was gleaned from conversations conducted over Zoom during lockdown


Britain’s Jews: Confidence, Maturity, Anxiety
by Harry Freedman
Bloomsbury £20

Harry Freedman’s new book is a survey of the state of British Judaism today, dividing into nine chapters covering different areas of Jewish life.

Much of its content is gleaned from conversations conducted over Zoom during lockdown. In Freedman’s Panglossian version, the community has thrown off its immigrant timidity and English reserve, emerging confident and comfortable in as tolerant a host country as it is possible to find. That it has done so is partly down to Jeremy Corbyn who, pace some dissenters, galvanised the Jewish community against him like an anti-Messiah.

In the view of Freedman, and many he quotes, it is a very good time to be a British Jew.
Freedman has chiefly spoken to Jews like himself who are too comfortably and deeply ensconced within their community to perceive things from a sufficiently independent perspective.

He makes no reference to David Baddiel’s brilliant 2021 polemic, Jews Don’t Count, a cri de coeur lamenting that, in our identity-obsessed era, antisemitism is the only bigotry to receive a pass. Though he quotes Hadley Freeman rehearsing the essentials of Baddiel’s argument, an important vein is not fully explored. Does Baddiel’s thesis undermine Freedman’s rose-tinted account?

One of Freedman’s more illuminating interviewees, the ever-perceptive Jonathan Freedland, says that “Jews are somehow liminal … And there is a perspective, a kind of insight, that you have when you are ever so slightly on the edge, when you are on the outside looking in.” To this important perspective Freedman fails to give sufficient voice.

We hear much from rabbis, community grandees and charity chairmen, but nothing from (or of) Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize-winning novelist and brilliant political commentator, or coruscating intellectuals like Frederic Raphael, the Oscar-winning screenplay writer, whose experience of vicious antisemitism at 1940s Charterhouse (like my own at a 1970s inner-London comprehensive) undermines the notion that Britain is a philosemitic society.

“We were made fun of a bit at school, but it was not hateful; it was kids’ stuff, and we treated it more or less as a joke,” writes Freedman.

Charedi Jews, as closed a Jewish community as one can find, are, by reason of their visibility and the poorer, multi-ethnic areas they often inhabit, more au fait with the truth about antisemitic violence in the UK. To quote headmaster Eli Spitzer, “Our basic perception of reality is one where gentile ambivalence is normal, hostility is frequent and benevolence is an occasional welcome novelty.”

By virtue of their birth-rate, Charedi Jews are, by 2030, likely to be responsible for 50 per cent of all Jewish births. They are, as Eve Sacks points out, a problematic community, frequently uneducated, unregulated and prone to benefit fraud. Freedman’s conclusion? “Overall the community is vibrant and confident.”

We are told that Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks “preached an open-minded Judaism”, but no mention is made of the furore surrounding his refusal to attend the funeral of the eminent Reform rabbi and Holocaust survivor Hugo Gryn, and the great hurt that caused.

Ephraim Mirvis, Sacks’s successor, appears throughout the book distributing blessings, blithely claiming Jews are “masters of integration” despite 2,000 bitter years of evidence to the contrary, mysteriously asserting that“the good is getting better and the bad is getting worse.”

One is reminded of the Wonder Rabbi touring Polish shtetls, preaching, “The world is like a fish”, only to return years later, after one congregation has been unable to ascertain this anywhere, and declare with a Tory-style U-turn, “So it isn’t like a fish.”

Freedman’s book is a mine of information, some of it useful, but in “interesting times” his subject requires a more independent, insightful and mordant approach.

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