Growing up in Britain with an atheist Israeli father, I never thought that my Jewish identity would be a problem when it came to dating. However, towards the end of a five-year relationship with my non-Jewish girlfriend, I realised that it most certainly did.
Whilst studying in London I met Ashley, a wonderful woman with whom I quickly fell in love. She was smart, she was beautiful, and she was everything I thought I wanted. She was from Dorset in the south of England and her father managed a farm. Culturally, she was from a different world, but that didn’t matter because we were young and we were in love.
Once things got serious we met each other’s families and she came to Israel with me to meet my grandparents. My grandmother made efforts to conceal her disapproval. However, she still slipped in the occasional, “Michael, perhaps you’d be better off dating a Jewish woman”. Each time she’d say this I’d simply laugh off her concern. We were in love after all, surely her background didn’t matter?
After university, we both got jobs near Oxford and we moved into a small apartment together. We never really encountered any problems in our relationship until she told me about her plans for us to wed at a beautiful ceremony in her family’s local church in Dorset. The thought of dragging my Jewish grandmother from Israel to a Christian wedding ceremony in Dorset was absurd. It would never happen. I had always assumed we would have a secular wedding, if we chose to have one at all. She clearly had other plans.
Following this exchange, I started feeling a little bit more Jewish than I had before. Ashley had dismissed my identity and taken it for granted. It is not until someone takes something away that you realise how important it is to you. This made me realise that my identity does matter, it is part of who I am and I shouldn’t let someone else trample over it.
The more she tried to extinguish or undermine my Jewish identity, the greater it grew. And the greater my Jewish identity grew, the more she tried to sweep it under the carpet. This was the first time in our relationship that my Jewish identity seemed to cause a problem. And the problem was recurring. But we loved each other, so we believed that we would get over it.
Four years into our relationship, one evening I was reading about a sickening attack on a young Jewish couple in Paris. It was a rape and robbery fuelled by antisemitism. Three men broke into a young couple’s apartment; they tied them up, took their money and jewellery, raped the woman at gunpoint whilst saying: “You’re Jews, you have money”.
This news story was one of the most difficult things I had ever read in my life, and even now, thinking back to it makes my skin crawl. Reading this article triggered a horrendous realisation; those assailants wouldn’t have differentiated between that French couple and us. What if that were me? What if I were forced to listen to the woman I love get raped in the next room whilst I was physically beaten and restrained at gunpoint? I realised that whether I chose to identify as Jewish or not, I am. In the eyes of who seek to do us harm, it doesn’t make a difference. I looked over at Ashley, reading her book and I almost cried.
Seeing that I was upset, she asked me if everything was OK. To my utter shock and surprise, when I told her, her reaction wasn’t one of sympathy, but rather outrage. She said the fact that I identified with the Parisian couple was racist and wrong and I had no grounds to get that upset about it. Her rant ended with a brutal and dismissive: “You should just get over it”.
I was astounded. Not only was I still simmering from having read this horrendous news story, I was also now trying to comprehend that Ashley, the woman I loved, didn’t understand my emotions and was unable to empathise. That is when it struck me; Ashley had lived a sheltered life and had never been on the receiving end of racism. She couldn’t empathise with antisemitism and her sympathy could only take her so far. Over time, her lack of understanding began to turn into resentment and in turn that resentment turned into hatred.
Every time I hear of an antisemitic incident it upsets me. It upsets me because It is not just an individual attack, but it is an attack on me, it is an attack on my family, it is an attack on my culture and my way of life. There is no way that I can’t be affected by it.
A few weeks later I was in London for work and I met up with a good friend of mine, Esther, to whom I told this story. She couldn’t believe it. She too had read about the attack, and she too was deeply disturbed by it. I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that there was someone who understood how I felt. It made me realise that I wasn’t going mad and I wasn’t over-reacting.
Once again, my Jewish identity fought to the front of my mind and I knew it needed to be understood by the person with whom I was sharing my life. I tried to explain this to Ashley, but the more I tried to explain it, the more frustrated we both got with each other; I, that she didn’t understand it, and she, that it needed to be understood at all. She would get annoyed every time I would go to events organised by the local Jewish community and criticise me for even wanting to go. She said that these events were organised by a community in which she wouldn’t be welcome, and that was wrong. Eventually, she didn’t even want me to meet up with my Jewish or Israeli friends and would make me feel bad when I did.
A few months later we were in Manchester, enjoying a coffee with an old friend. We were discussing a Woody Allen film and my friend said she found it funny that Jews are always portrayed as neurotics (apparently). I started saying “historically, the Jews have always been an oppressed people…” at which point I noticed Ashley rolling her eyes. I stopped mid-sentence and snapped, “Why are you rolling your eyes?”.
I was furious. My partner, who was engaged to a Jew, who had been to the Yad Vashem museum in Israel, who had met my Holocaust survivor grandparents was mocking me for mentioning our history of oppression. If she knew anything about history, if she knew anything about the struggle of the Jewish people, she wouldn’t act like that. Ashley had studied Judaism at school, had a first-class degree, and had dated an Israeli Jew for four years. How could she roll her eyes?
As you can imagine, a huge argument ensued which resulted in me realising that this woman wasn’t who I thought she was, and this relationship wasn’t where I wanted to be. We separated not long after.
It was a difficult process. I loved her; however, I couldn’t spend my life with someone who was resentful of my heritage, my background, and my identity; or indeed someone who tried to supress it.
Since then I have dated several other women, some Jews and some not. I am convinced that one day I will meet the right person, and that person might be Jewish, they might not be. Whoever they are, they are going to have to accept and love me for who I am, and I will feel the same about them.
All names have been changed