THE topic of “England: Good or Bad for the Jews” has cropped up so many times in this newspaper in recent weeks that I can restrain myself no longer. Although, by the next appearance of this column I hope to be officially Australian, I have a little insight into the culture and politics of my native land, and therefore humbly offer my contribution.
My family and I arrived on these shores three years ago in the wake of a tour by UK commentator Melanie Phillips, who was plugging her new book, Londonistan. As a result, we were met with pitiful looks and sympathy for the supposed “trauma” of having lived in such a seething pit of anti-Semitism as London.
When we explained that, in our experience, England was not such a disaster zone for Jews or supporters of Israel, we encountered incredulity.
Yet, living in England for most of 40 years, I rarely encountered anti-Semitism and was never made to feel unwelcome. Since my teenage years I wore a kippah at all times and in all places, and the only comments it provoked were “do you wear it in the bath?” No doors were ever closed to me; my loyalty was never questioned. It seemed that Phillips had come from a different country.
But now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s seeing London from the perspective of (and in contrast to) Melbourne. Or maybe things have changed since I left, but I have to admit that the message of doom was not entirely wrong.
For some time there have been at least three latent forms of anti-Semitism in English society. In our time each one is growing, and, most insidiously, combining with the others.
The first is the “common” or “garden” hooliganism, perpetrated by bored thugs who will verbally abuse, scrawl graffiti or even pick a fight with a Jewish victim. Although most Jews may live their lives without ever encountering this low-level racism, the security watchdogs report that such incidents are on the increase.
At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the culture of anti-Semitism has penetrated the English aristocracy for centuries. Upper-class dinner parties or private conversations are sometimes graced with a sentiment that “Jews don’t quite belong here”, or even the occasional surfacing of racist caricatures.
It was praiseworthy of Margaret Thatcher to defend to her Conservative Party the appointment of many Jewish cabinet members; the tragedy was that she felt she had to.
But the fastest growing trend is the extreme anti-Zionism that borders, and crosses over into, anti-Semitism. The idea that Israel is inherently immoral and its¬† existence is illegitimate -— and hence that it should be judged by standards not applied to any other state —- has moved from the fringes of the far Left into the mainstream political discourse.
An established West End theatre can stage Seven Jewish Children, which shamelessly compares the Holocaust with the war in Gaza (in the name of “art”) and a mainstream newspaper can sponsor the production. Academics and trade unions promote boycotts of Israeli goods on the basis of alleged human rights abuses, while surrounding themselves with products from China.
The anti-Israel students with whom I argued 25 years ago have grown up, and are now the journalists, politicians and opinion-formers of today.
And these three strands are getting together. The thugs are including anti-Zionist slogans in their daubings, or appending “that’s for Gaza” to a punch. The snide implication that “Jews are not very nice” from members of the Establishment is now justified by “look at the evil things they do in Israel”.
Sir Oliver Miles -— a former diplomat of the Arabist foreign office tradition -— can argue in print that Jews should not be members of the commission investigating the Iraq war. Perhaps most shocking was that he did not feel the need to explain his reasoning —- the implication that Jews cannot be trusted was assumed.
Isi Leibler, in a recent Jerusalem Post column, conjures up the image of the British “cringing Jew”, too timid to speak out against this rising tide. I believe that his accusation is misplaced. Anglo-Jewry’s leaders would be more forthright if they could see what was happening. The problem is that some do not.
A relative change for the worse does not mean that the situation is out of control — far from it. Great Britain continues to allow Jewish life and culture to thrive. Its government funds places at Jewish schools, bringing fees down to a level of which parents in Australia can only dream (though its Supreme Court has just abrogated the community’s right to determine who is Jewish and can attend such schools). Jews are represented at every level of politics, business and professions.
But perhaps it’s a good time to become an Aussie.
Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, Melbourne.