I was invited this week to be part of a panel discussion in my synagogue on the topic of “What Does It Mean To Be A British Jew in 2018?”
Other members of the panel took the opportunity in their allocated five minutes to explore this theme from a variety of perspectives: one portrayed the Jewish community in the UK as “riddled by fear and anxiety”, assailed by “never-ending hostility”, and suffering the threat of diminishing numbers and a “crisis of meaning” in relation to their Jewish identity. Another panellist used the occasion to list the multiple challenges the community faced - internally, financially and externally – and culminated his observations with a denigration of any Jew who remained within the “anti-Semitic Labour party” led by that renowned “anti-Semite” Jeremy Corbyn. And so on.
I took a different approach to this question. What I said was the following:
“To me, being a British Jew in 2018 means that I’m concerned that in England and Wales on an average day there are 1400 sexual assaults on women; 25 hate crimes committed against gay and transgender people; 6 attacks on Muslims because of their religion; and between one and two reported incidents each day against Jews.
It means I’m concerned about: the dire consequences of Brexit for the social fabric of this country; I’m concerned about the 4.1 million children in the UK already living in relative poverty – that’s 30% of all children in the country – as well as the 5000 people sleeping rough every night: I’m concerned about the impact of bad housing on health, and the growing inequality in this country which leads to multiple forms of deprivation; and as a British Jew I’m concerned about the fractured nature of the social contract in this country, and the generation who will probably never own their own homes.
To be a British Jew in 2018 means I’m concerned about melting ice caps; immigrants left to die at sea, and that the world’s worst famine in a hundred years is about to descend on Yemen – up to 10 million are at extreme risk.
It means I’m concerned that there are fascists in power in Hungary, there’s been a significant rise of the far-right in Germany and Italy and the Czech Republic and France; and there’s more and more evidence of the proto-fascist leanings of some members of the Knesset and the legislation they have enacted, including the victimisation of NGOs working for civil rights and social justice within Israel.
It means I’m concerned about the durability of modern democracy in Europe over the next decade, upon which all of us depend. This is what it means to me to be British Jew in 2018.
And it means something else too. It means having a dual focus: 1) looking with Jewish eyes thousands of years old at the long arc of history and the ways in which that ancient Jewish vision – articulated at Sinai and by the prophets – of a world in which justice and social responsibility defines the purpose of our being - it’s the sole justification of our continued existence, to be and bring a blessing to humanity – it means keeping one eye fixed on that.
While at the same time – dual focus – it means: 2) keeping attentive to the questions: What is possible now? Where is holiness waiting to be enacted now? What is our responsibility today?
And keeping that dual focus means, lastly, resisting Jewish voices that focus relentlessly on the past – and, in particular, what has happened to us, our Jewish suffering; resisting voices haunted by, in thrall to, Jewish victimhood.
It means resisting backing into the future, walking backwards with eyes glued to what has already happened, whether it is in ghettoes or pogroms or Germany in the 1930s. That backward-looking orientation is a hopeless stance. Literally. It’s actually the abandonment of the Judaic vision of hopefulness, the vision of us having a religious and spiritual purpose.
And I refuse - intellectually, emotionally, spiritually - to submit to that backward-oriented anti-vision.
That’s me, being British and Jewish, 2018”
Perhaps needless to say, not everyone in the audience was sympathetic to my remarks. But perhaps my favourite response was from a guest who said that he’d felt his hackles rise as I spoke, and that I was “living in a dream world”. Yes, I thought, someone has to do that. Someone has to keep alive the dream, the vision, of what it means to be Jewish, what the inner core of our being-in-the-world is all about. That’s what I thought - so that’s what I said.
I’m never sure how useful these kind of events are. At their worst, they are angry and polarising; there’s a breakdown of any meaningful communication, with people talking across each other - or bombarding each other - from within their own silos. At their best, they can offer new perspectives, or at least a small space for reflection, a space to hold up to the light our own precious opinions, attitudes and views, and see their flaws and limitations as well as their strengths. In an increasingly fractured and fractious world, we need such spaces for reflection, as many as we can find.