The Party Started Three Decades Ago

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Nathan Abrams responds to an article in The Guardian about British Jewry’s alleged awakening from its timidity.

Hadley Freeman’s assertation that ‘British Jews have always been self-effacing, but we’re starting to show our chutzpah’ overstates the point. Freeman is right that Corbyn’s tenure as leader of the Labour Party has obscured that fact but British Jewish chutzpah is not a recent thing. To use her words, the party started some three decades ago in earnest.

Hadley Freeman Interview at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Photo: Youtube

It is true that, in the words of Howard Jacobson, British Jews were simply content to ‘stay shtumm’, a Yiddish phrase meaning ‘stay quiet’. Jacobson explains how ‘“Stay shtumm,” was the advice given to me when I was growing up. Don’t draw attention to yourself’. But this began to change some forty years ago.

The arrival in the UK of a significant number of non-white immigrants from the former colonies and other commonwealth countries removed the spotlight that shone on the majority of Ashkenazi Jews because, to all intents and purposes (Haredim aside), in racial terms, Jews appeared white to the British mainstream. In response to this new type of mass non-white immigration, legislation such as the Race Relations Act of 1976 was passed and anti-discrimination policies enacted, from which Jews undoubtedly benefited. Not only did the law now protect the observance of certain religious practices, but it also recognized that the media was required to cater for an increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse population. Thus, by the end of the twentieth century, open hostility and active discrimination towards Jews in the UK was on the decline.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of England is bid farewell on her departure after a visit to the United States.

Jewish self-confidence in the UK was further boosted by Margaret Thatcher’s accession to power as prime minister from 1979 until 1990. This period saw both the rise of multiculturalism in the UK and the broader visibility of Jews in public life. This can be attributed in particular to Thatcher’s anti-Establishment and pro-Jewish stance (Jews were both a ‘model minority’ but also classic exemplars of non-establishment figures), as manifested in Thatcher’s disproportionate appointments of Jews to the Cabinet and the reactions to it. While they promoted Jewish assurance, they also attracted snide, backhanded remarks. Former Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, is known to have remarked, ‘The thing about Margaret’s Cabinet is that it includes more Old Estonians than it does Old Etonians.’ The use of the term ‘Estonians’ was a pun on the term ‘Etonians’ — the leading independent school where much of the British elite political class were educated – but also a euphemistic reference to the Eastern European origins of many British Jews of whom many traditional Conservatives thought Prime Minister Thatcher overly favoured.

Harold Macmillan visit Stockholm in 1963. Photo: Wikipedia

Meanwhile, greater awareness because of increased education about the Holocaust, combined with the acceptance of the inescapability of Jewishness convinced British Jews that a low profile was useless when anti-Semites are not so discerning in their discrimination. This awareness was also caused by curriculum changes, the growth of modules and degree programmes at all levels in the subject at Higher Education level, the setting up of museums and memorials (Beth Shalom, the Imperial War Museum, and the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre) and finally the establishment of an annual and national Holocaust Memorial Day from 2001 onwards. At the same time, the growth of Holocaust education has surely affected the non-Jewish British perception of Jews. It is now, for example, all but impossible in mainstream British political discourse to deny publicly the Holocaust anymore. As evidence of this, the far-right British National Party in the UK has removed open Holocaust denial as a plank in its platform.

Together, the results of improved Jewish education, the distancing from the Holocaust, and the growth of the notion that neither was the Shoah going to happen again nor in Britain, combined to convince Jews that being Jewish openly was no longer a barrier to full entry into British public life. That is, Jews no longer had to stay in the background and not draw attention to themselves as they had done for decades previously. A new generation of British Jews has rejected the timidity of the Jewish establishment, together with its anxiety that conspicuously Jewish behaviour might spark anti-Semitism. This generation either recognizes or does not care, that how Jews act and appear is not in itself a direct cause of anti-Semitism. And if it is, then they might ask: why do differently for those with such views will always find some ammunition, however dubious, to legitimate their spurious claims?

Other Jewish cultural production attests to this change in the climate. There have been possibly been more films and television programmes about Jews and with significant Jewish characters in the last three decades than the previous nine combined. Some of them have even been good.

New groups, minyanim and organisations unrelated to the traditional religious denominations and synagogues have sprung up, particularly in London, as exemplified, above all, by, Limmud. It is possible now to lead a varied and spiritually/intellectually fulfilling post-denominational Jewish existence outside of and unrelated to the mainstream organisations and their institutions. One does not need to go to a synagogue to be Jewish anymore.

Howard Jacobson. Photo: BBC

Most notably, there has been a flowering of new Jewish literature: Naomi Alderman, David Baddiel, Linda Grant, Howard Jacobson, Reva Mann, Charlotte Mendelssohn, Suzanne Portnoy, Francesca Segal and Adam Thirlwell, to mention just a few, write on all sorts of Jewish topics. Jews can thus be seen as one ‘branch’ of hyphenated multicultural Britain.

Even rabbis, based in Britain, became famous, beginning with Thatcher’s favourite, Chief Rabbi, later Lord, Jakobovits. Then it was Jonathan Sacks, arguably the perfect rabbi for the Blair and Brown years. In the early 1990s, dare I say it, Shmuley Boteach also raised the profile of UK Jewry with his high-profile guests at the L’Chaim Society in Oxford from the early nineties through to the turn of the millennium.

Ironically, it was around this time in the United States that American Jewish TV executives feared things being seen as ‘too Jewish’ hence the fudge in Seinfeld that three of the four main characters aren’t explicitly so.

So, the music might have been turned off temporarily but the party that is starting now is merely picking up where it began in the early 1990s.


I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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