Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is Jewish life in the UK as bad as Americans say?

Dave Rich of the CST attempts to refute, in Ha’aretz, the accusation, heard mostly from American Jews, that Britain is a terrible place for Jews to live – beset by antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and Muslim extremists waiting to take over the country and convert us all.

He argues that while antisemitism is, undeniably, on the rise, the community is prosperous and well-integrated, and that our defences against antisemitism – in terms of monitoring organizations like the CST, government awareness etc - are solid.

“This is not the 1930s,” he writes, “and a sense of proportion and balance is vital.”

Similar defensive pieces pop up with alarming regularity – see here and here, for example.

So who is right? The American Jews – or the Brits? How are we to understand such different perceptions of what it means to be a British Jew today?

The easy answer is that Americans are simply relying on press reports and have no idea what daily life here is really like. But the real answer, I think, goes deeper – and both groups are, in a sense, right.

The Brits are comparing life here today to life 20, 30, 50 years ago. By those standards, Jewish life in the UK really is very good. There is no question that we are far, far better integrated than we were a generation ago, thanks, in part, to the multicultural ethos which has become so dominant. Antisemitism may be on the up – but from a relatively low base; most of us have never experienced antisemitism on a personal level at all. We are a more confident, more proud, more open community than we used to be – see for example the annual Simchah on the Square celebration and this year’s Israel parade through the streets of the capital. It is easier than ever to be Jewish in this country, with a booming kosher food / restaurant industry, a wide choice of Jewish schools and extensive Jewish programming - for example through the JCC. There is a lot about which to be positive.

The Americans, meanwhile, are comparing British Jewish life to American Jewish life. By those standards, things here are uncomfortable. The levels of anti-Zionism (and occasionally antisemitism) with which we put up in our media, and often in public discourse, are inconceivable to an American audience. Jews are far more dominant there in popular culture, the media is far more sympathetic to Israel and casual antisemitism in far more politically incorrect than it is here. Their Jewish organisations are also far more vocal and aggressive than ours, when there is need for action (for example, in the one area where American Jews still do complain of harassment – campus life – students have strong support the wider community leadership). Moreover, Jewish life is far more developed in the major communities in terms of facilities, schools, etc.

Of-course, life being (possibly) better elsewhere does not make life here “bad”. And while there is, undeniably, a certain level of anxiety in the UK community about the future here, on balance, I think daily life is good here for most Jews. But there’s no point trying to argue that with members of a community coming from such a different experience. At the end of the day, quality of life, including quality of Jewish life, is entirely a subjective matter.

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