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18 October 2023

The strange discord of being British and Jewish

Judaism in this country is a mirror of society, reflecting our gratitude, our anxiety and – sometimes – our humour.

By Tanya Gold

I can only speak for myself: the old joke is that one Jew on a desert island would need two synagogues: one to pray in and one to refuse to set foot in. I am an irreligious minor-public-school bourgeois Jew, and my common anxiety is that I am neither British nor Jewish, but a poor impersonation of both. Except this week I feel utterly Jewish, and I am not surprised that paint is thrown at Jewish primary schools, that Jewish students are too frightened to gather at vigils for Israel, that posters of Israeli child hostages are torn down or defaced, and that a man with an Israeli flag at a pro-Palestine march is chased down the street. It is familiar.

Still, British Jews are the luckiest in Europe: the only community not devastated by the Shoah. For example: there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland in 1940, and there are less than 5,000 now. In Britain we have declined by about a third in the same period to just 270,000 – according to data from the 2021 census – mostly due to assimilation. My grandfather bought cyanide in case the Nazis landed, but never had to eat it.

[See also: Jews. In their Own Words is a sharp illustration of how the oldest hatred is still with us]

People have had a lot to say this past week, or they have had nothing to say at all. I mourn the dead Jews of Europe – I almost wrote “vanished”, but that is wrong – daily. I am aware this makes me sound insane, but there it is. Judaism is, among other things, a constant and conscious memorial. I can tell you that we came to England with William the Conqueror, who protected us because our status as Christ-killers (according to the gospels) made us vulnerable, and we lent him money. The first blood libel – the myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make bread – was in Norwich, of all places, in 1144. Crusade fever led to massacres in London, Lincoln and, most bloodily, at York, where, helpfully, the debt records were burnt along with the Jews.

The best description of a pogrom is still Leon Trotsky’s (he was born Lev Bronstein) from 1905. I include it as the psychology is unchanged: “The doss-house tramp is king. A trembling slave an hour ago, hounded by police and starvation, he now feels himself an unlimited despot. Everything is allowed to him, he is capable of anything, he is the master of property and honour, of life and death. If he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third-floor window… He is capable of anything, he dares everything.”

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England was the first country to expel its Jews, in 1290: other European countries followed. It became a fashion. Oliver Cromwell allowed us back in 1656, though the Edict of Expulsion was never formally rescinded. Eastern European Jews came from the 1880s, fleeing pogroms: German and Viennese Jews came later, fleeing Hitler. Britain welcomed 10,000 Jewish children on the Kindertransport but refused to admit their parents. From 1939, Britain also severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. The last anti-Jewish riots were in 1947 in Manchester, Glasgow and Liverpool, a response to Jewish terrorists of the Irgun blowing up Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, hoping to force the British from Palestine.

[See also: The Middle East on the brink]

It is an odd state, being a British Jew: within and without, near and afar. We tend to mirror British society back at it: this is our gratitude, our anxiety and, sometimes, our jest. The most famous compendium of British buildings – a series dedicated to codifying the material shape of Britain – was written by the German-Jewish refugee Nikolaus Pevsner. Our most famous synagogue, Bevis Marks in the City of London, looks like a church. How I love you, it says, but I am not you.

I am afraid now, though it is hard to write about fear because fear is formless and because it offends my pride. I have heard the silence of my non-Jewish friends with horror because they, apparently progressives, should know better. I can’t write more, for maybe one day I may want to speak to them again. I look to American Jewish culture for solace because it is more ecstatic – more American – than ours. My favourite Jewish film is Mel Brooks’s The Producers. Two producers put on a musical about Hitler: it is designed to fail for financial purposes. The producers are Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) and Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder). Bialystock is terrifying and vital; Bloom is terrorised, shrivelled. They are both Brooks, both Jews, both me.

I read social media all week, and it is a maelstrom. One man says he laughed on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Another says the Final Solution wasn’t final enough. Yet another says the world is run “mostly” for the benefit of Jews. I’m called a genocidaire, immune to non-Jewish suffering. I present my credentials – a Liberal Zionist, in favour of two states – which are dismissed, since, to some, all Zionists exist in a state of pre-murder. The most sympathetic people are religious Christians, which initially confuses me: I am contrite, and grateful to them. I am not grateful for “allies” who use Jews to pursue their vendetta against Muslims – and if you mention European anti-Semitism, they insult you and withdraw, for you have disappointed them.

The worst moment was when I read that Amsterdam’s Jewish schools had to close for a day for security reasons. Anne Frank was abducted from Amsterdam and millions have enjoyed her story. And why not? It is a book about the Shoah in which no one dies: an ideal thing if the Shoah is – as it has become – half fairy story, half morality tale which the Jews failed to understand.

Then I saw that Rome’s Arch of Titus, which marks the Roman victory over the Jews, and their exile from Judaea, in AD 70, had been lit up in the colours of Israel. This is exquisite Jewish irony, and, at that and nothing else, I laughed.

[See also: The invention of God]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts