Growing up in north London, I was somewhat sheltered from anti-Semitism. Not anymore

The election may be over, but recent attacks show that the battle around anti-Semitism from all sides of the political spectrum must continue

January 06, 2020
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Growing up in north west London, amid a wealth of kosher bakeries, Friday night dinners and Jewish family friends, I’ve always thought of myself as somewhat sheltered from anti-Semitism. I’ve read about it and heard the odd story, but it’s always felt removed from my personal existence. It was something belonging history books and less tolerant nations: a relic of the past, slowly being swept away by the tide of progress and liberalism.

Even as anti-Semitism took centre stage in the months leading up to December’s election, something within me felt reluctant to accept the severity of the claims made against the Labour Party, and struggled to reconcile the hostile world suggested by newspaper headlines with with my own.

In recent months, however, anti-Semitism has proven more difficult to ignore. The final days of 2019 saw the streets of Hampstead and Belsize park marked with anti-Semitic graffiti, as well as at least nine separate anti-Semitic attacks in New York, including a brutal stabbing in a rabbi’s own home. Just yesterday, a Jewish boy was attacked on a north London bus. This sudden upswing in violence and hate feels frightening. Prejudice, however, doesn’t spring from nowhere, and as more and more case of anti-Semitism begin to encroach upon my north London bubble, I’ve started to look at my own experience with fresh eyes.

For the last twenty years, my dad has volunteered for our synagogue’s security team. Trained in Krav Maga and armed with a walkie talkie and bullet-proof vest, he stands outside the building every Saturday morning along with a host of others of mums, dads, uncles and aunts, checking bags and keeping watch for suspicious behaviour. It’s considered standard community service at our synagogue—a Mitzvah—and I’ve never questioned it.

Thinking about it, though, none of my Christian friends’ parents ever had to undertake a similar service at their places of worship. I spent a great deal of time singing in church choirs growing up, and don’t recall seeing a single security guard outside one of our services. My experience is, of course, not representative, and all religious groups have faced their share of persecution. However, there is something unnerving to me now in my unquestioning acceptance of my dad’s service, and all that it represents: the fear of persecution, the need for protection, the very real threat of danger. To us Jews, defence has become second nature.

As I reflect on this, I begin to think of other ways this fear may have manifest in my life. The small acts and omissions, so ingrained and so thoughtless that they have become automatic gestures. Hiding my Star of David necklace beneath my T-shirt in a public place. Laughing along to jokes with Jewish punchlines, despite not finding them particularly funny. The countless times I have stayed silent about my Jewish identity. And a feeling that I can’t quite articulate: of being on edge, of not quite belonging, of difference.

In many ways, I am incredibly lucky. My north London bubble has sheltered me from a great deal. Certainly, my grandfather who fled Germany during Nazi occupation, only to face more anti-Semitism when he arrived in London, would not have had to search so deep to find the manifestations of his fear. Today, Jews face very real threats of violence across Europe, with rates of anti-Semitic attacks on the increase over the last few years. As revealed by recent scrutiny of the Labour Party, and a frightening rise in reports of attacks within the UK, many Jews in this country have also faced and continue to face anti-Semitic abuse that is explicit, occasionally violent and often unpunished.

Speaking at last year’s Battle of Ideas festival, Deborah Lipstadt, author of Antisemitism: Here and Now, observed that we are all very good at calling out anti-Semitism on the other side of the political divide, but possess a blind spot when it comes to our own factions. As with so many things: it is them, not us. As she rightly points out, anti-Semitism exists on both left and right. Several Conservatives too face allegations of anti-Semitism, including newly elected MP Sally-Ann Hart.

However, her words feel particularly pertinent to today’s political left, where a rhetoric of moral righteousness can serve to blind and confound, with terms set according to mutually exclusive binaries: the oppressed and the oppressors, the privileged and the marginalised, the racists and the (self-defined) anti-racists. This is solidified by an age of identity politics, when the gulf between increasingly polarised groups can feel insurmountable, diminishing opportunities for open, honest debate.

Anti-Semitism is a strange, assiduous hatred. It thrived on irrationality and fear in Nazi Germany, and it possesses no more logic now, as it manifests in left-wing anti-Zionism or right-wing extremism. Yet somehow it holds an insidious power, lying deep within the fabric of social life and re-emerging at times of division and disconnection. Today, we stand more divided than ever, across multiple factions: Remainer versus Leaver, millennial versus baby boomer, bigot versus snowflake, right versus left. Times like these prove fertile breeding ground for intolerance, a fact we are good at recognising in retrospect, but in the present moment can be blinding.

During what was a highly antagonistic election campaign, defenders of Corbyn (including many Jews) worried about anti-Semitism being weaponised for political gain. While it seems difficult to deny evidence of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, or to extricate it from the political landscape in which it has festered, there is an important truth here. Anti-Semitism is not, at root, an ideological issue, but one that is deeply human. From the stories of persecution that we tell on Jewish holidays, to the loss and displacement that mark so many of our family histories, it is one with which we Jews are well acquainted. It is, so often, a symptom of a much broader social malaise. The election may be over, but in 2020, the anti-Semitism conversation must continue.