In the 1670’s, my maternal grandfather’s family arrived in London from Holland, having come to Amsterdam as refugees fleeing the inquisition in Spain. I am still asked which of my parents or grandparents immigrated to the UK (they were all born in the East End or Leeds!).
18 years ago, in my first Religious Studies Seminar at University, I was told I would burn in hell. Perhaps even worse was the time I met a chap who felt sorry for me, the only thing he knew about the Jews was Auschwitz. Neither of them had ever met Jews, unsurprising when we are a community of 270,000, the majority of whom are in Barnet. But this kind of casual, sociable anti-Semitism continues at dinner parties, and in Universities, often rooted in ancient tropes around Christ, child killers, money, big noses and so on.
Since meeting my husband (who wears a kippah/skull cap) I have experienced a new kind of anti-Semitism. Cans thrown out of white vans, Hitler salutes when walking past pubs watching football matches. Like Hijabis, religious Jewish men are more easily identifiable as Jewish and so receive the brunt of street violence.
And more recently there is Twitter… I have been called a child abuser (presumably because of circumcision though this wasn’t clarified) and of course child killer (probably because of the Gaza wars but possibly again playing on ancient anti-Semitic tropes and blood libels).
Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism also comfortably come together. The following were just a sample of responses to a smiling photo of Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner and the new Mayor Sadiq Khan:
We know that anti-Semitic incidents in the UK and across Europe rise at times of conflict in Israel-Palestine, and that what happens there affects both our communities here.
Six years ago, attending an Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism conference, I was struck that at no point did we discuss our own communities’ problems with each other. We need to be able to put our hands up and say ‘the Jewish community has a problem with Islamaphobia’ and that ‘the Muslim community has a problem with anti-Semitism’. We have to be honest about this and try to challenge it where we can.
Believe it or not, it’s unusual for me to be talking about anti-Semitism. It isn’t a part of my Jewish identity or practice. Jews are often the first to deny the reality of anti-Semitism, and I do believe that majority of it is down to ignorance and lack of encounter.
But even with many Jews still uncomfortable to acknowledge the reality of anti-Semitism, there is now a sense that things have spiralled out of control to a place of discomfort. Particularly when it is the echelons of power from which it is being heard, and not just outside the pub. Until the last few months most Jews felt the government would protect them and that any prejudice faced was not institutional. There is now growing discomfort about what (hopefully a small minority of) politicians are saying.
I don’t believe this is true for just Jews. Muslim friends are spat at on trains and battered by the media. Gay friends are on the receiving end of violent attacks. Disabled friends tell me that they used to be attacked as ‘spas’s’ and now they are beaten up and called ‘scroungers’. It seems casual violence and hatred has become a far more common experience in 21st Century Britain than we would like to think.
How do we address all of this?
Simply put we must all challenge what and when we can. We must be up standers and not bystanders, for whoever is attacked and abused. Intellectual debate and disagreement is one thing. Hating one another over that difference is another.
I believe our education system has a huge role to play here. Faith schools, whether you love them or hate them, are not going anywhere. They bring with them potential problems of separating communities from one another. This can be tackled through linking and relationship building, not as one-off events but continual long term connections between schools. So much more is needed.
Religious studies have in the last decade received less and less investment. This is heart-breaking. It has been written off by many schools, but could sit at the heart of curricula. It needs to be about encounter, dialogue, and enabling students to hear different opinions while being encouraged to express their own views without feeling threatened by other’s differences.
We need to find what we have in common as a society, but we also have to create a generation that is comfortable with differences – we aren’t all the same and this is a great thing! For us to become a nation that embraces those who arrive on our shore and makes them a part of our story.
Britain needs to not only find its own story, but to show that it is proud of its beautiful diversity, and willing to be a society that embraces debate, difference, and diversity as a wonderful human trait, as celebrated by the Torah, New Testament, Quran and the Talmud.
This is an edited speech that was given by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, at a Christian Muslim Forum event, the House of Lords on 16 May 2016.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is the Community Educator at the Movement for Reform Judaism. She has a degree in Comparative Religion from Lancaster University and is a Buber Fellow from Paideia Centre for Jewish Studies Stockholm. She has been actively engaged in Interfaith Dialogue since her teens and currently teaches World Religions and Encounter at Leo Baeck College, as well as contributing to the interfaith training of Christian clergy at Queens Ecumenical College Birmingham. She spent 4 years as part of the Rabbinic Team at West London Synagogue before taking up her current post. She is a writer and regular radio broadcaster on Pause for Thought and BBC London. She is married to an active member of the Orthodox Sephardi community and has just returned from her second maternity leave. You can follow her @Rabbi_Debbie
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