The Jewish journey equips us to fight this new wave of hate

We must draw on our ancestors’ means of survival in these dark days


Strength in depth: we have inherited great determination from our forebears

Since October 7, the rise in antisemitism in the UK has been staggering. The episodes of vandalism, assault, or intimidation, such as the horrendous treatment of the university chaplain in Leeds, occur against a backdrop of increasing anti-Jewish narrative in our society. In some ways, these implicit attitudes are nearly as psychologically damaging as the episodes of violence because they are so difficult to call out. A study in 2017 showed that just under a third of British people harbour at least one anti-Jewish attitude, which they might not necessarily voice. I shudder to think what a similar study would show today.

Part of the distress caused by implicit anti-Jewish sentiment is the experience of a double bind within it. Historically, antisemitism has often contained contradictions. Jews were hated for being both greedy and tight, communist and capitalist, too passive and too aggressive. In conversations about social identity, Jews are seen as both too white and not white enough. This double bind also plays out in dilemmas about expressing Jewish identity. If I wear my Magen David and wish my colleagues “good Shabbos” every week, I’m too “out there”. But if I hide my Jewish identity, I get caught out or feel uncomfortable and ashamed. The Jewish experience is often distressing because the sweet spot of acceptance is continuously dangled by antisemites but is never actually attainable. It is a sick game that antisemitism plays, pretending that if we just do our Jewishness differently, we will be OK. Of course, in reality, the problem lies with the haters, not with those who are hated.

This insecurity and anxiety caused by implicit antisemitism triggers past traumas of historic persecution. A few weeks ago, a potential client of mine from the Middle East refused to work with me because of my “ethnicity”. When I heard this, shocked, I found myself inwardly connecting with all my Jewish ancestors who had been turned down for work because they were Jewish. It made me wonder, at what point did my potential client realise that I was Jewish and, for a fleeting moment, I thought about not being so explicit about my Jewish identity going forward. I am glad to say that this feeling soon passed. But the experience made me realise the importance of developing a variety of inner resources to draw on when experiencing implicit anti-Jewish sentiment today.

Ideally, even subtle antisemitic attitudes should always be called out and challenged, but when this is not possible, one key way to fight this distress is to draw on our historic legacy of resilience. For every story of Jewish trauma, there is at least one of Jewish survival. Dr. Emily Ollman-Hirt, who was a guest on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour last week, has recently studied the experiences of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. She spoke about the importance of not pathologising their experiences but rather supporting them to draw on the incredible strengths that they have inherited from their grandparents. The strength, idealism, and creativity of Jewish post-traumatic growth are evident all around us, from Viktor Frankl to Elie Wiesel. Amid the pain and persecution, resilience is a Jewish characteristic that has shown up at some point, in some way, in every Jewish family.

It is no coincidence that Jewish names appear repeatedly being honoured for charity work, advocacy, or inventiveness. We are over-represented in helping professions and areas of social justice and are famous for our chutzpah the ability not to be constrained by rules and regulations but to think provocatively and out of the box. These are all characteristics of survival mechanisms, developed in the face of threat and hatred. We need to look at our own families and figure out what resources pulled them through. Was it courage and determination or humour and charm; quick-wittedness or intelligence, hopefulness or faith. Each family has its own combination of adaptive responses with which they have navigated, outwitted and defeated generations of antisemitism. These abilities now belong to us.

As February draws to a close, the days are getting longer and spring is emerging, we are still going through difficult dark times as a people. But we can draw on the endowment of our miraculous survival and the incredible legacy of resilience and determination that we have all inherited from our family’s Jewish journey.

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