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Borderline Views: 'Dispatches' and Anglo-Jewish self-confidence by David Newman, Jerusalem Post
Published Nov. 23, 2009On the day that my column appears in the newspaper, I invariably wake up to a full inbox of messages, the vast majority of which take issue with the sentiments expressed, while not a few are personal and invective.
Given the time difference and the fact that Jews in Brooklyn, Toronto and London tend to be far more patriotic in the comfort of their Diaspora homes than those who live, experience and contribute to Israel on a daily basis, the bulk of the messages arrive from abroad.
While Israeli critics tend to engage with you and prove that you are wrong or misguided, the patriots of the Diaspora resort to tactics of delegitimization, usually branding you an anti-Semite. In some extreme cases, as happened just last week, a letter came from a Jewish philanthropist in London who branded me a traitorous anti-Semitic Jew, cursed me and expressed his hope that I "perish."
There was also the time when a brave resident of Brooklyn hoped that my family and I would be the next people to be blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber.
These are two of the more extreme responses I've received after writing hundreds of columns over the years, but they reflect the highly strung emotions and lack of clear thinking expressed by so many readers of opinion columns.
LAST WEEK I was expecting a quiet inbox, following a fairly middle-of-the-road column about the need for balance when setting up chairs for Israel studies at universities throughout the world. Instead, my inbox was full of some of the most fiery invective I have ever received, nearly all of it from the UK.
The reason? I had appeared briefly (and I admit, mistakenly) on a British television Channel Four program, Dispatches, which had undertaken what it termed an "investigative analysis" of the pro-Israel lobby in the UK and which had aired for the first time on the previous evening.
It was clear that the program had presented its topic in such a way as to insinuate that the UK Jewish community acted in covert and illegitimate ways, using its influence and (what else but) its money to put pressure on British politicians, government officials and media outlets. The interviews and images that it showed were highly selective, and any form of balance or counter argument was clearly missing.
Judging by the intensity of the response during the following days, with many letters and columns on the program appearing in almost all of Britain's newspapers - including some by people who are not always necessarily known for their defense or support of Israel - it was clear that the program had touched a raw nerve.
But for good reason. The fact that the program was later promoted by leading members of the far-Right fascist, racist and anti-Semitic BNP (British National Party) indicates just how one-sided the program was.
OF COURSE, the whole premise is laughable. The Jewish community in the UK actually bemoans the fact that, especially in recent years, its voice is being heard less and less - that the media is biased against Israel, that Islamic groups are having greater influence on public policy relating to Israel, and that Israel-bashing, coupled with anti-Semitism, is taking over those places - such as universities and the trade unions - where, in the past, Jews felt very comfortable, but no longer do.
The Jewish community in the UK - like most other Jewish communities in the western world - does have a well-organized system of political representation and lobbying. From the Board of Deputies to BICOM to the Jewish Leadership Council and the Community Security Trust, the community is not lacking in formal representation.
Jews in the UK have worked hard during the past century and have moved up the political and socioeconomic ladders in a way which any immigrant group would do well to copy. And it is quite logical that they should use their connections and their resources to support and promote causes (support of Israel, fighting anti-Semitism) that are close to their hearts and that are important for them.
But unlike their brethren in North America, they seem somehow embarrassed by their success. They are less prepared to openly identify as Jews. They feel threatened by their environment, and if anyone outside the community draws attention to their success, they are immediately on the defensive, sure in their belief (as was clearly evident last week) that the next blood libel or pogrom is imminent.
In recent years, the Anglo-Jewish community seems to have developed a new paranoia about anti-Semitism that is out of proportion with reality.
Yes, there are plenty of anti-Semites out there; yes, the border between being critical of Israel and being anti-Semitic is becoming increasingly difficult to demarcate, and yes, there is a new anti-Semitism of the Left and from some Islamic groups that is completely different from the right-wing, racist anti-Semitism of the past.
But it is not threatening their continued existence as a distinct ethnic community in this great liberal democracy.
The Anglo-Jewish community, despite its shrinking numbers, remains a strong, vibrant, successful community, that knows how to stand up for itself and for Israel. It would be even stronger were it to be more inclusive of the many pro-Israel groups on the left of the political continuum (such as the J Street coalition in North America) which are presently excluded.
But that criticism aside, it is a community which should have moved on from the traditional siege mentality of the galut Jew, but to which it seems to have returned.
I left the UK for Israel many years ago, not because of anti-Semitism, but because I believed then, as I still do, that Israel is the only place where a Jew can fully express himself and - despite all its problems and conflicts - live a more complete life. If indeed the Anglo-Jewish community feels so threatened today and can be so shaken up because of the evil intent of one TV producer, there is plenty of space and opportunity waiting for them here in this vibrant, dynamic country of the Jewish people.
That way, they can use their many skills and positive attributes to contribute to the future of the Jewish people instead of exerting all their energies and invective on those with whom they disagree - from within and without.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.
A Jew in England by Roger Cohen, The New York Times/International Herald Tribune
Published Nov. 30, 2009
NEW YORK — When my father was about to emigrate from South Africa to England in the 1950s, a friend of the family suggested that a change of name was in order because it would be unwise to pursue his career in Britain while called “Cohen.”
My Dad, a young doctor, said he would think it over. A few days later he announced to the friend that he had decided to make the change.
“To what?” she asked with satisfaction.
“Einstein,” he deadpanned.
And so Sydney Cohen came to London and in time had the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (C.B.E.) bestowed upon him by the queen, and was named a fellow of the Royal Society (founded 1660), and, most important to him, became a member of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
In all, it can hardly be said that he encountered barriers in the land of Benjamin Disraeli. He embraced his adopted country, my family was assimilated and Jewishness became the minor key of our identity.
That was most of the story but not quite all. A couple of things have recently stirred deep memories of being a Jew in England. The first was Nick Hornby’s screenplay for the movie, “An Education,” set in 1960s London and rendering with acuity a subtle current of prejudice.
It is captured when Emma Thompson, playing the proper headmistress of a girls’ school where a precocious 16-year-old student has taken up with an older man, exclaims “A Jew!” upon discovering the identity of the rake. Her voice quivers with distaste.
The second was reading my colleague Sarah Lyall’s account of the controversy stemming from the Court of Appeal’s decision about the Jewishness (or not) of a boy trying to get into the JFS, or Jews’ Free School, in London. I won’t go into the case here but will say that I found the court’s ruling that the criteria for Jewishness must be “faith, however defined” — rather than family ties — quaint. Nobody I know ever defined a Jew, or persecuted one, on the grounds of whether or not he went to synagogue regularly.
“An Education” put me back in my London complete with Dad’s old Rover model. But it wasn’t just the cars. It was that faint prejudice floating around with its power to generate I’m-not-quite-one-of-them feelings.
In the late 1960’s, I went to Westminster, one of Britain’s top private schools, an inspiring place hard by Westminster Abbey, and was occasionally taunted as a “Yid” — not a bad way to forge a proud Jewish identity in a nonreligious Jew.
The teasing soon ended. But something else happened that was related to the institution rather than adolescent minds. I won a scholarship to Westminster and would have entered College, the scholars’ house, but was told that a Jew could not attend College nor hold a Queen’s Scholarship. I got an Honorary Scholarship instead.
This seemed normal then but appears abnormal in retrospect. So I wrote to the current headmaster, Stephen Spurr, asking what the grounds were back then on which Jews were not admitted to College; whether the same regulation still exists; when the practice was changed (if it was); and how Westminster defines, or defined, Jewishness.
Spurr e-mailed answers. “I am afraid I do not know” was his response to my query on why Jews were barred from College; “Absolutely not” on whether the regulation still exists; no idea on when it was changed (if it ever existed); and, on the definition question, “We do not try to determine Jewishness.”
That piqued rather than satisfied my curiosity so I wrote to my old English teacher, John Field, who inspired my lifelong love of literature, and he was far more forthcoming:
“The demography of London began to change markedly in the 1930s with refugees from mainland Europe, and when the school returned to London after five years’ evacuation, the number of Jewish applicants slowly began to increase. The bursar and registrar was an ex-Indian Army colonel with the kind of views you would expect such a background to provide. I recall archiving his notes on Nigel Lawson” — later Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer — “when his parents brought him for interview in 1945 or 46. On the lines of ‘Undoubtedly a bright and clever child. Very Jewish of course.’”
Field continued: “Colonel Carruthers (his real name!) almost certainly operated with a Jewish quota in his mind when admitting people to the school, and at some point in the early 1960s got the Governing Body to agree to a new condition of entry to College: the candidate should ‘profess the Christian faith.’”
He added: “So in the 1960’s Westminster acquired a reputation for being unwelcoming to Jewish families. Maybe the examples of yourself and John Marenbon” — a brilliant Jewish classmate of mine, now a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge — “prompted John Rae to persuade the governors to scrap the condition of entry to College.” Rae was headmaster from 1970 to 1986.
Westminster, like Britain, has changed. Openness has grown. Bigotry’s faint refrain has grown fainter still. But I think my old school should throw more light on this episode. And I still believe the greatest strength of America, its core advantage over the old world, is its lack of interest in where you’re from and consuming interest in what you can do.