In 2006, on the 350th anniversary of Jewish resettlement in Britain, Tony Blair told a packed congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London: “As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation.”
Speaking at a time when there was much talk of Britain “sleepwalking into segregation” and much debate over whether the doctrine of multiculturalism had failed, Mr Blair was suggesting that British Jews formed a kind of model community: one whose example other ethnic and religious minorities, perhaps, should seek to emulate.
Would that it were that simple. The history of Jewish cultural, religious and intellectual life in Britain shows just how complex are such questions of identity and belonging. As David Cesarani argues on page 22 in the cover story of this special issue, Jewish life in Britain has always been “fractious and unruly”, defined by divergent opinions and experience. Some Jews place religion at the heart of their identity; others remain resolutely secular, preferring to define Jewishness as an ethnic category – or resist attempts at definition altogether. As Linda Grant, the Orange Prize-winning novelist, writes on page 51: “. . . the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing yourself as an individual soul or an ethnic voice”.
The journey has not been without hardship. As late as the 1940s, Jewish loyalty to Britain was being questioned openly and in 1947 the UK experienced widespread anti-Jewish riots after the murder of two British soldiers in Mandate Palestine.
Discussions of British Jewish identity are too often embroiled in disputes about the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory. The New Statesman supports a two-state solution and robustly condemns the belligerence and excesses of the Likud-led Netanyahu government. And yet, even on the question of Palestinian self-determination, there is more debate than ever before among Jews, as Keith Kahn-Harris argues on page 27.
Today, the Jewish community is thriving. What is more, as David J Goldberg writes in his reply to Anthony Julius in our debate on anti-Semitism (page 36), since 1945 in Europe “it has been safer to be a Jew than to be black or Muslim”.
For some, this may be small consolation. Racism and bigotry in all forms persist. Economic turmoil across Europe has led growing numbers of disaffected voters to embrace various forms of angry, xenophobic nationalism. For the parties of the new far right the primary targets may be Muslims, or immigrants who have crossed the European Union’s borders from Africa and the Middle East. However, incidents of violent anti-Semitism continue, as witnessed in the murder of three Jewish children outside their school in Toulouse in March. Critics of Israel have a particular duty to ensure that their rhetoric is not tainted with paranoia and unreason.
Our political leaders are fond of telling us that we need more “integration” – a concept little understood. Yet an examination of our shared history shows that integration has always been the product of popular struggle. In the words of Max Levitas, a 97-year-old veteran of the Battle of Cable Street who still lives in the East End of London, the aim is not to adopt some ill-defined set of “British values”, but “to ensure that whatever religion you’ve got, whatever your colour, you play a part in society”.
This issue is our contribution to the larger conversation about identity and belonging. And its purpose is to reflect and celebrate the many contributions that Jews have made to Britain’s cultural, intellectual and political life.