Thursday, January 14, 2010

How bad is Jewish life in Britain?

David Bogner, of the uber-blog Treppenwitz, has posted some very blunt impressions of the British Jewish community following his visit to Limmud last month:

[I]t came as a bit of a surprise when I found the tiny UK Jewish community to be absolutely absent from public discourse in support of Israel. In England, there seems to be a political price to pay for being pro-Israel... and if anything, there seems to be value on the side of those who are critical of Israel....

For the most part, the British Jewish community seems to keep their collective heads down and try to fit in with their countrymen as best they can. Sadly, in many cases this means trying to be more British than the Brits.

Not only is there a serious problem with passive anti-Semitism in the UK, but active anti-Semitic attacks seem also to be quite prevalent and on the rise.

While I was at Limmud I noticed that security was being handled by an organization called CST... When I asked someone about this they explained that CST was the organization that guarded the synagogues all over London (and presumably in other places in the UK)...

I was shocked. In the US there are occasional hate crimes against JCCs and synagogues... mostly of the spray-painted Swastika sort. But in England I was seeing a relatively small Jewish community where blanket security was required everywhere that Jews gathered in any numbers.

I was further shocked when I got to London and started wandering around Golders Green... in literally every Jewish shop, restaurant, bakery, Judaica store, etc. there was a little display on the counter next to the cash register where customers were encouraged to take [a card with the CST's number].

This kind of card could only exist in a community that feels threatened and vulnerable. They may not be in imminent physical danger (although the need for cards such as these suggests otherwise), but you'd have a hard time convincing me that the U.K. Jewish community isn't experiencing a social, emotional and psychological threat. They are clearly tolerating a great deal of anti-Semitism as they go about their daily lives... trying to act as if everything is fine...

Personally, I think that much of the left-leaning, knee-jerk anti-Israel rhetoric coming from the UK Jewish community today can trace its source as much to British Jewry's need to fit in (i.e. to be more British than the Brits), as to any of Israel's real or imagined misdeeds. England's Jews seem (to me) to be captives of anti-Semitism ... forced to tolerate an oppressed status without fully acknowledging it to themselves.

When I left the U.K. I did so with a profound appreciation for the relative freedom I have experienced throughout my life; both in my American youth, and in my Israeli adulthood. Once one has tasted such freedom, the barest whiff of oppression can't be mistaken for anything else.

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about why British and American Jews understand Jewish life in Britain so differently. American Jews, I wrote, are comparing British Jewish life to an American reality - by which standards, things here are uncomfortable. Brits are comparing it to Jewish life here 20,30,50 years ago - by which standards, things are vastly improved.

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.

Read the whole thing here.

Clearly, this goes a long way to explaining Treppenwitz's strong reaction to British Jewish life. That said, it seems to me that increasing numbers of people here are uncomfortable with their quality of Jewish life here, and essentially agree with him. In my column this week, I wrote about a dinner party my husband and I held on Sunday for three other couples:

At a certain point during the evening, the conversation turned to the JFS case. The court’s “interference” in this internal Jewish matter, said one guest, had left him depressed. He was also stressed by the deep communal divisions revealed by the case. Though not new, these seemed more intractable than ever. “If I could,” he said, “I would leave this country in a heartbeat.”

To my surprise, the table took him seriously. Every guest confessed that he or she had serious misgivings about bringing up their children here. The JFS case had clearly had a more profound impact on the mood of my friends than I’d realised, undermining the sense of security they had derived from living in this country. But there was also pervasive angst about getting children into Jewish schools, and about the quality of their Jewish education. There was worry about our dwindling numbers, waning political influence and the increasing isolation of Jewish students on campus. A mental weariness, too, attended the increasingly hostile attitude to Israel in public discourse.

While more general concerns, such as the coarseness of British society and a sense that this country had lost its sense of cohesion and national purpose, were voiced as well, the tipping point seemed to be the Jewish issues. “I blamed my parents for bringing me up here,” one guest revealed. “Now, if we don’t move, our children will say the same thing.” [MORE]

What do you think?

No comments: