At the height of last summer’s war in Gaza, the Tricycle, a small theater in North London, made a request. It asked the U.K. Jewish Film Festival, which it had hosted for the previous eight years, to return the small financial contribution it received from the Israeli embassy.
What followed was a bitter row. The Tricycle argued that given the ongoing conflict in Gaza, it was inappropriate for the festival to receive financial support from any government agency involved. The theater offered to cover the loss of funding, but the film festival withdrew, arguing that the Tricycle had “chosen a boycott over meaningful engagement.” Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, said that the theater was now “officially anti-Semitic” because it had singled out the Jewish state for boycott. Conversely the director of Britain’s National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, supported the boycott “without reservation.” Pro-Israel demonstrations were held on the streets of Kilburn outside the theater.
Gaza took a back seat: The real battle now was the Zionists vs the bleeding-heart liberals, fighting it out in the British media over a point of principle. Politicians were lobbied, furious columns were written, and pressure was exerted. Eventually the Tricycle backed down and withdrew its objection to the funding, though by then it was too late for the 2014 festival to be held there. There is talk of a rapprochement this year.
Yet amid the frenzied discussion of whether or not the Tricycle’s actions were anti-Semitic, justifiable, or just terribly mismanaged, few stopped to ask the more pertinent question of why a row over £1,500 ($2,300) had elicited such a visceral response from the Jewish community. Most people in the community objected to a request for a major communal body (the film festival) to disavow its connection to Israel at a time of extreme stress and emotion. But why did it feel anti-Semitic? What the row really revealed is that anti-Semitism alone is too narrow a category to explain what was going on.
Ties between the Jewish community in Britain and Israel have become so close that an attack on Israel is taken by many in the community as a personal affront. Sometimes these attacks have anti-Semitic motivations, often they do not: It can be difficult to tell. But anti-Semitic or not, they are attacks on Britain’s new kind of Jewish life.
“There is a growing transnationalism to Jewish communities, connecting them to Israel,” said Israeli demographer Sergio Della Pergola. “There is much more communication, crossover, and complexity. Twitter, Facebook, Haaretz English is creating a more intense experience of Israel for these communities. I believe that old ideas of very clear distinctions no longer hold. But this is not unique to the Jews, not in the slightest—this is globalization, and this is only how it is affecting the Jews.”
As Della Pergola suggests, much of the British Jewish community is increasingly transnational between London and Israel. Britain’s Orthodox rabbis are now mainly trained there. Roughly 5 percent of the Jews living in Britain are Israeli citizens. Almost 70 percent of British Jews now have family or a close friend living in Israel. What these statistics mean in concrete terms is this: When Israel is at war, coming under sustained bombardment by Hamas rockets, the majority of British Jews are worrying someone close to them in Israel is at risk.
The new anti-Zionism, which is becoming ever more pronounced, feels the same way that anti-Semitism does: a singling out, discrimination, them turning against us. One reason for this equivalence of feeling is that there is a very real element of anti-Semitism wrapped up in fervid anti-Zionist sentiment. But another is that in the past 50 years many British Jews have become, in part, culturally Israeli. Zionism is at the heart of their Jewish identity. Israel’s travails drive much of their political engagement. Israeli culture is a part of their daily lives.
In part, Zionism now fills a void at the heart of Anglo-Jewish identity, which has never been that well-defined. Weakened somewhat by the British class system and a desire to fit in, British Jews have never developed the same depth of culture that American Jews have; the literature, the humor, the food, New York. When Jews first came here from Russia in the late 19th century they reached back to the old country as their cultural crutch. Now most of them lean on Israel.
This transition can be summed in a single word: “We.” Many British Jews say “we” when they talk about Israel, rather than “they.” No one knows quite when this started, but given this choice of pronoun it is perhaps not entirely surprising that non-Jewish people can also say “you.” Both are identifying Jews and Israel collectively.
There have been three broad stages to the development of Anglo-Jewry’s new Israelized identity. The first was the growth of Zionism as a mainstream ideology in the first half of the 20th century. Between 1881 and 1914 some 120,000 Jews immigrated in Britain, following the wave of pogroms that swept across Russia after the assassination of Alexander II.
Many of these immigrants brought a Zionism forged in the political crucible of the pale with them. As these immigrants settled and found a little more security, becoming “alrightniks,” Zionism flowered among the second and third generations. As they began to secularize and move away from the unquestioning religion and tradition of der haim, the alrightniks could fill the vacuum with a new form of national Judaism, what Gideon Shimoni, professor emeritus of Israel-diaspora relations at the Hebrew University, calls a “‘secularized identity rooted in certain norms in the religion-saturated cultural heritage of the Jewish people.”
One well-known early British Jewish Zionist, Simon Marks, who helped build the Marks & Spencer supermarket empire, described this substitution: “I sometimes think as a Zionist I have forgotten how to be a Jew.” To cope with their new environment, Marks and his fellow early Zionists developed the idea of a Judaism independent from both immigrant Yiddish and Anglo-Jewish assimilation.
The Anglo-Jewish establishment, which embraced assimilationism, was slow to warm to Zionism, often fearing they might appear disloyal to their home country. The prominent Jewish journalist Lucien Wolf argued that Zionism would make Jews “strangers in their native lands.” But once the idea of the Jewish state was endorsed by the British government in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, as it edged toward existence, these attitudes softened. The horrors of Auschwitz served to dispel most residual reservations about the necessity of a Jewish state. By 1950, Zionism was a central part of the Anglo-Jewish identity.
Anti-Semitism alone is too narrow a category to explain what’s going on.
Once this state was born, a new form of Anglo-Jewish Zionism developed and the second stage began. For the baby boomer generation, Israel was a reality. Young romantics were drawn to the kibbutz ideal. They were the generation of ’67, their passion and hope for Israel strengthened by memories of the Holocaust and the very real threat of the state’s imminent destruction by its Arab enemies.
When the Six Day War broke out, thousands of young Jews flocked from all over the world to Israel to do their bit. Israel for the ’67ers was about dancing the hora, putting money in the JNF tin, planting trees in the Carmel Forest, joining Zionist youth movements, reading Amos Oz, singing along to A-Ba-Ni-Bi and Bashana Haba’ah and the occasional trip to the promised land, where they would get misty-eyed gazing over the Judean hills and slip a scribbled plea into the cracks of the newly accessible Kotel.
For Anglo-Jewish baby boomers, Israel was a brave and proud cousin, to be visited occasionally and supported financially. These were the armchair Zionists, who every couple of years would brave the air hostesses and risk their kneecaps on an El Al flight to go and marvel at the new Jewish state.
But in the wake of globalization and another 30 years of development in Israel, these armchair Zionists and their children have become EasyJet Zionists, for whom the beaches of Tel Aviv are just a quick low-cost shuttle away. Many visit the holy land five or even 10 times a year, far more than most Jews in America ever could. This is the third stage of Anglo-Jewish Zionism.
For Britain’s new EasyJet Zionists, Israel is the lodestar of their Jewish identity. It starts young: More than 60 percent of British Jewish children attend Jewish schools, where Israel is a central feature of their education. At age 16, hundreds of young British Jews travel together for a monthlong tour of the promised land, a coming-together of the tribes of Jewish north London in the Judean desert. Approximately half of young British Jews go through this rite of passage.
The more committed, about 10 percent, then go on to spend a year in the country, devoting themselves to the Zionist ideal, working for charities in Bat Yam, spending two months on Marva in the army pretending to be soldiers. They bring home nargilah pipes, a smattering of Hebrew, and a drilling in the finer points of hasbara. Some go even further and make aliyah, doing their national service as “lone soldiers” and becoming fully fledged Israelis.
Back in Britain, keeping up with Israeli news now is no longer about waiting for a crackly phone call from cousin Gideon in Givatayim. Instead it can be followed minute-by-minute on Haaretz online, the Jerusalem Post, i24, and Twitter. Many British Jews were glued to these news sources during last summer’s war and were equally engaged by the closely fought election campaign in March. They talk of Bibi and Tzipi with almost domestic familiarity.
This closeness is reflected in the Haredi community as well, even more of whom have friends and relatives in Israel. The community’s paper, Hamodia, is full of news from Israel. And they too can visit with greater ease, spend time in the great Jerusalem yeshivot, immerse themselves in the mysticism of Safed, pray at the graves of the great rabbis in Tiberias, before returning to their homes in London or Manchester.
The Anglo-Jewish refrigerator has followed this evolution. For Ashkenazim, gone are the cholent and chrain, the gefilte fish and goulash recipes that grandma brought over from Poland. In their place are pita, baba ganoush, shakshuka, and hummus. A takeaway treat now is no longer a salt-beef sandwich from Bloom’s deli in Golders Green but a chicken shwarma from Solly’s down the road. A dinner party is almost certain to be fueled by the cuisine of Jerusalemite chef Yotam Ottolenghi, who has brought previously unknown spices such as za’atar and ras el hanout to north London kitchens. Israeli words such as “yalla” are dropped into speech alongside Jackie Mason-esque yiddishisms to affirm a sense of Jewish identity.
At Jewish simchas in Britain, it is now a matter of course that a hora and rikudim are danced, but it was not always so. Only in the late 1970s and early ’80s did this become a tradition, before that things were very proper and English. In the past 15 years many wealthier Anglo-Jewish baby boomers have bought property in Israel, on the beachfront in Herzliya, or amid the boutiques of Neve Tsedek and Emek Refaim. Some 7 percent of the community has a second home in Israel. Now that the internal security situation has calmed since the Second Intifada, parents are happy to let their children spend their summers in Israel, swimming, shopping, and clubbing in Tel Aviv.
Weddings are regularly held on the padded grass that dots the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean at Caesarea. Passovers are often spent in the hulking luxury hotels that line the beachfront in Eilat or Tel Aviv, and plans are made to retire in Netanya or Ra’anana. Overall, 22 percent of British Jews think it is likely they will live in Israel at some point in the future. For many British Jews, Israel is a way of life.
Of course Britain is not short of Jews who have little to do with Israel and view it as incidental to their identity, or define themselves against it. British Jews who stopped participating in community life before the 1980s do not share this new transnational culture. These are heritage Jews, for whom their religion is a part of their family history and their cultural identity, but little more. Many of Britain’s most famous Jews—for example the writer Will Self or indeed the theater director Nicholas Hytner—are heritage Jews.
‘I sometimes think as a Zionist I have forgotten how to be a Jew.’
These two kinds of Jews—heritage Jews and hummus Jews—increasingly struggle to grasp each other and may end up on opposing sides of the debates, especially at times of war in Israel, which means that British Jews are moving in two opposite directions at once. Ben Gidley is one of Britain’s leading experts on Jewish sociology. “What we saw in the last census,” he said, “was that there was an increasing concentration and an increasingly dispersion of Jews in the U.K. For the first time there are Jews in every local authority in Britain. For the most part those Jews thinning out are living religiously unaffiliated, assimilated lives, with practically nothing to do with Israel.”
“However,” he continued, “there is also a parallel greater than ever concentration of Jews into North West London—where they are living more than ever in some kind of bubble. What media Jews are reading plays a big part of that bubble: they are increasingly reading transnational Israeli or American English language Jewish publications.”
As Israel becomes more isolated from Europe politically, the comfortable existence of the British hummus Jew is under threat. Historically the two identities, British and Zionist, have sat together agreeably. British Jews absorbed their country’s genteel liberalism and became model citizens, while Britain’s political support for and friendly relationship with Israel has made being a Zionist fairly straightforward. But now some are calling that relationship into question. And this is why so many British Jews felt hemmed in, paranoid, and attacked over the summer. This is not to discount the role that anti-Semitism plays in driving anti-Israel sentiment. But rather to point out that what we have now is a more tangled and confusing situation.
Unlike anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment cannot simply be dismissed as an irrational hatred, though sometimes it is. Equally, many Jews in the community who didn’t feel entirely comfortable with Israel’s actions last summer also didn’t feel comfortable saying so in public. Not just because it would be disloyal to Israel, but because it would, in effect, be disloyal to themselves.
Few on either side of the Tricycle row fully appreciated this dynamic. Many British anti-Zionists may sincerely think they are only teaching their supporters to oppose “Zionists” and not Jews. But in reality they are teaching their supporters to oppose British Jews not as they imagine them, but as they really are. “The trouble for British Jews is the British don’t understand Jewish ethnicity,” said Ben Gidley. “Is it a race? Is it a religion? Are they the same ethnicity as the Israelis? Or is it racist to associate them with Israelis? The British don’t understand.”
It may well be the case that many British Jews don’t fully appreciate the complexity of their new identity either. Or what the implications of this will be if Israel does indeed become a pariah state to Europeans, as many of its detractors hope it will.
To read all five parts of A Polite Hatred, Tablet’s series on anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom, click here. To read Tablet’s five-part investigation into growing anti-Semitism in France, click here.
Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire and This Is London, to be published in September by Macmillan. Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.
Ben Judah is the author of Fragile Empire and This Is London, to be published in September by Macmillan. Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.