‘On the frontline of blame’: how it feels to be Jewish in today’s Britain
Some staunchly defend the actions of Israel. Others are so alarmed at the fate of Gaza they have joined pro-Palestine protests. In between lie a range of views … but all feel the chill of rising antisemitism. Andrew Anthony reports
I’ve always felt very, very secure in Britain,” says the Jewish writer David Winner, “but now, while I don’t feel immediately under threat, that sense of unthinking security has gone.” The atmosphere has changed, he says, since the 7 October Hamasled massacre in Israel, in which about 1,200 Jews were slaughtered, and then the bombing of Gaza that is said to have killed more than 11,000 Palestinians. Although the war is more than 2,000 miles away, the effect of the pro-Palestinian marches and postings on social media have left him feeling as if he is on the frontline of blame. “I’m not bombing Gaza,” he says, “but once again Jews are being held responsible for what Israel does. It’s bizarre.” Like most communities, British Jews contain a spectrum of stronglyheld viewpoints, not least about Israel: from far left anti-Zionists, who see the 75-year-old nation as a colonial settler state, through to supporters of Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right lawyer who is Israel’s minister of national security. Between those extremes lies the majority opinion of varying shades of support for the idea of a Jewish state but with conditions, nuances, concerns and uncertainties, and which is almost universally opposed to the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s a broad centre-ground, with both secular and religious elements, which is not immune to its own disputes. But the conflict in Gaza, and the public response in the UK, has profoundly unsettled many liberal Jews, leaving some to reassess their position in British society. Winner acknowledges that most marchers are protesting for “the best of reasons” in showing their concern about the terrible scenes of death and destruction in Gaza. “I get all that, but at the same time,” he argues, “they’re not marching for peaceful cooperation or the peaceful coexistence of two states.” According to the Metropolitan police, antisemitic hate crimes increased by almost 1,400% in London in October. The Community Security Trust, a charity providing safety advice to the Jewish community, has recorded an array of attacks, death threats and insults, shouts of “gas, gas”, posters of the kidnapped Israelis being torn down, and the Wiener Holocaust Library in Russell Square spray-painted with the word “Gaza”. One controversial phrase that has been heard many times on the marches is “from the river to the sea”, which Winner understands to be a demand for the ending of the state of Israel. “Yes, there are other interpretations,” he acknowledges, “but if you knew that, because of our history, Jews tend to hear that it means annihilation, why would you go on a march with people chanting it?” Among the marchers, there have been a number of Jews. One of them is Dan Hancox, also a writer. He has joined in that chant, but does not believe, in the context of the protests, that it means calling for the violent destruction of Israel. “That’s not the intent of the overwhelming majority of people joining in on those marches,” he says. He stresses that while he felt the “shock and horror” of the Hamas terrorist attacks, he does not have friends or family in Israel. Praising the pacific nature of the protests (he has attended three), he explains that, as a Jew, he felt an extra responsibility to attend. “The Holocaust is being invoked, Jewish pain used and mobilised for acts of bloody revenge at the moment,” he says. “And that’s why I think it feels particularly important for Jewish civil society to make a stand.” He is well aware that his viewpoint is not shared by everyone within the Jewish community, but for him the marches are a corrective to despair at the “horrendous suffering” in Gaza. “There’s something about coming out in public and saying this is not being done in my name that is consoling, not uplifting. None of this is uplifting.” The feminist author Natasha Walter, who explores her Jewish heritage in her most recent book Before the Light Fades , attended the giant Remembrance Day march with a placard that read: “Release the hostages, stop the bombs, peace now.” In a crowd of hundreds of thousands, she was one of the very few who openly called for the liberty of the 239 Israeli civilians and soldiers taken captive by Hamas on 7 October. Although the march was in favour of a ceasefire, the key ceasefire condition for the Israelis – the freeing of its citizens – was conspicuous by its near absence on placards. Walter was aggressively accused of being “pro-Israel” by one protester she describes as “a white British guy”. An outspoken critic of Israel herself, and someone who leads a secular life, she, like Hancox, does not see herself as under any kind of threat. Although she does not want to downplay incidents of antisemitism, she thinks that sometimes there is a tendency, given Jewish history, to overstate their significance. “Maybe we’re just lucky, but I think it’s good to put out there that we don’t all feel under attack.” Yet she was “utterly shocked and horrified” by the Artists for Palestine letter signed by scores of high-profile people which abhorred Israel’s actions without mentioning the 7 October massacre. I felt that was a terrible blow to the principle of universal human rights,” she says. “Both sides have to be more careful about making sure they don’t dismiss the suffering of the other side.” To many Jews, the silence in some circles about the massacre points to a complacency about, or indifference to, the loss of Jewish lives. If Muslim distress about Palestinian deaths is seen as an issue of religious or humanitarian solidarity, they believe that Jewish concern for Israeli deaths is often read as a demonstration of Zionism. By the same token, many Jews feel that the Jewish diaspora is held responsible for Israel’s actions in the way that no other diaspora carries liability for its homeland. Rachel, who works in the charity sector and does not wish to be identified, finds herself frequently on the defensive in the progressive circles she mixes in. “As a leftwing Jew, you feel that the first thing you have to say to people is that you hate Israel,” she says. “Why do I have to do that? Why do I have to apologise for Israel? Ultimately, I do think there’s a lot of antisemitism.” Walter disagrees. “I think other diasporas are also judged. Muslims came in for a lot of Islamophobia after 9/11. I feel that a lot of Jewish people are too quick to cry antisemitism when people are criticising Israel.” According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by the UK government, “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. The problem is that, for some groups, Israel is not just any other country but a unique embodiment of evil. It does not matter what China does to the Uyghurs or how many hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed by Bashar al-Assad’s forces: Israel will remain the main focus of outrage for a small but significant minority of Britons. What troubles Winner is his belief that the devastation in Gaza has expanded this constituency. “The scariest thing is not the Corbynites or the Islamists, because they’re there and you know what they think, but the lukewarm or even hostile attitudes [towards Jews] of people who are right on in other areas. Suddenly there’s a sort of coldness or lack of empathy, which is chilling.” Maxwell Grant is a 35-year-old London ambulance driver, with a sister who lives in Israel. He says he experienced “jaw-to-the-floor shock” when, immediately after 7 October, people he knew began lecturing him on Israel. “I cannot believe what the response was, including one of my close friends telling me I hadn’t denounced Netanyahu enough, even though I’ve protested against him.” On social media, Jews have shared a quotation from Martin Luther King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” It reflects a sense of social isolation, but it also makes use of a rhetoric that refers to a division between the oppressed and their oppressors. The complication is that Jews are frequently seen as powerful and privileged, rather than the victims of oppression. A further complication is that that they were portrayed as powerful and privileged by the Nazi regime that subjected them to modern history’s most brutal persecution, which in turn spurred the creation of Israel. Omerli Cohen was born in Israel but has spent her life in Britain. She works in London and has been struck by the “extraordinary silence” – and sometimes antipathy – of many friends. “A close friend, who’s well-known in the music business, put up a post saying, ‘If you’re a Zionist, get off my page … I don’t want you as a friend any more.’ Then I was at an event last week and somebody I know really well asked how I knew 7 October really happened. I just wanted to cry because I have family in Israel.” She understands anger at the disproportionate number of Palestinians killed in relation to Israelis, but says that if a government of another country had sent its soldiers to massacre an equivalent number of Britons, “we’d have been out there bombing them to bits. There’s no question that 7 October was an act of war and yet there is so much silence about that”. She sees antisemitism all around her but says it is no longer expressed in crude language. “Now it manifests in an unnatural and irrational hatred of Israel.” Even phrases like “Free Palestine”, she thinks, are loaded. “They’re not saying free Palestine from Hamas, which is the logical avenue to get rid of the problems in Palestine.” The problems of Palestine are manifold, and include Israeli settlement building and settler violence on the West Bank, but what is taking place in Gaza is a confrontation that Hamas patently wished to provoke. Whatever the gruesome death toll, the campaign has served to promote Hamas’s agenda. People are marching all over the world for a ceasefire that it has no intention of keeping, with very little mention of the hostages it holds. “I run a PR agency,” says Cohen, “and I have to say they’ve done a brilliant PR job. They’ve converted everyone to their cause.” Ultimately people in Britain have limited influence on Israel’s military decisions. We can protest about the loss of civilian lives, even if the numbers pale besides those lost in the wars the UK fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we do at least have the power to ensure that British Jews feel less like they are in some way to blame.