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17 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:27pm

Why the surge in anti-Semitism left me checking for my passport

The lessons taught by my family mean I can’t ignore how quickly anger at Israel can turn into anger at Jews.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Last month, I had to renew my passport. As part of the process, I was required to send in my existing passport, which still had a month left on it. Due to processing times and staggering incompetence on the part of the delivery company, I was without documentation for over two weeks.  

The anxiety was excruciating. I had no plans to leave the country; there was no ostensible reason I would need travel documents for months. But knowing I couldn’t leave, knowing that my ability to jump on a plane or drive to the nearest port and catch a last-minute ferry was tied to a tiny leather booklet locked in a drawer somewhere I couldn’t access, made me panic.  

That I worry unnecessarily is hardly news – I have chronic anxiety. But whereas usually I am aware that my tendency to catastrophise has no rational basis, with passport anxiety I had assumed everyone felt the way I did. It turns out most people don’t stress incessantly about being unable to cross borders they had no intention of crossing anyway. That is, unless they’re Jewish. 

When I was a child, it was a running joke in our household that we had an escape plan “if they come for the Jews”. Quite who “they” were was never explained – it was just accepted that, if the worst came to the worst (and we all understood what the worst was), we had options. We knew where the passports were kept. We knew which countries we had family in, who we could stay with if needed, and that if all else failed, Israel would open its doors to us as a last resort. We knew there was money set aside, mentally earmarked if not actually in a designated bank account, “for an emergency”. We knew what that emergency was. 

I would never attempt to speak for all Jews, but my impression growing up was that this was a fairly universal experience. It wasn’t explicitly talked about, but it filtered through in family anecdotes and the “funny stories” told by other Jews – the allusions to pre-packed suitcases under beds, the insistence on holding multiple passports if at all possible, the desire to be ex-directory (back when phonebooks were a thing) so “they can’t track us down”. The Jewish author and poet Michael Rosen has a story in one of his children’s books about a distant relative who sewed diamonds into her shoes to make it through the Second World War; we used to laugh at that story, while also running through which valuable items we could take if needed, and where to hide them.  

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I am not suggesting my parents ever imagined we would actually have to leave the UK. But as second-generation immigrants, they had absorbed from their parents the implicit awareness that, historically, there have been times when things got very bad for the Jews very quickly, and it was therefore prudent to be prepared. My nervousness at being temporarily passportless shows I absorbed that too. Talking to Jewish friends about it evoked the same panic. One said she always pays extra to get her passport renewed on the spot; another has applied for Israeli citizenship. 

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I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days, as the debate about the conflict in Israel and Palestine has bubbled over into a conversation about Jews. What is happening in Gaza is appalling, and like many Jews I find certain decisions made by the Israeli government difficult to stomach. I understand why there is outrage in the UK (although I note the lack of similar outrage about, say, China’s treatment of Uighurs or the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar), and do not begrudge activists’ wish to protest about a cause they feel passionate about. 

But then those protests shift into something else: a convoy of cars driving through Jewish areas of London – close to my home, close to the house I grew up in – spouting hatred not about Israelis, but Jews. A shift in rhetoric that assigns to Jews everywhere responsibility for the actions of a foreign government, insists we condemn the only country we know we are certain to find refuge in if needed, and maintains (according to the messages I’ve received on Twitter) that we have Palestinian blood on our hands by dint of our religion and who our ancestors were. 

I have never felt consciously unsafe in this country on account of my Jewish heritage. And the speed at which politicians across the political divide rushed to decry Sunday’s anti-Semitic demonstrations, not to mention the arrests that have been made, are reassuring. But I can’t ignore how quickly anger at Israel can turn into anger at Jews, how a conflict 3,000 miles away becomes the latest excuse for the kind of hatred the Jewish community has faced for millennia. Today, it’s one convoy and a few rogue activists. But we’ve seen how these things escalate.  

And I wonder if those confused by how fiercely Jews will back Israel’s right to exist and defend itself, in spite of the atrocities we see, realise that on a fundamental level even those of us who have no intention of ever moving there sense that one day we might need this country. When everywhere else kicks us out. When the worst happens. When they come for the Jews.  

Which they won’t, of course. But I checked for my passport last night. Just in case.