Jews in Britain have never been more culturally confident or politically diverse. Why, then, are so many of their leaders scared?by Keith Kahn-Harris / March 1, 2009 / Leave a comment
Over the past couple of decades, the Jewish community in Britain has been enjoying a cultural renaissance. Yet despite this—indeed perhaps because of this—many prominent Jewish leaders and institutions now claim that Anglo-Jewry is in unprecedented danger.
The British Jewish community’s cultural lethargy used to estrange many of its leading intellectuals. As Stephen Brook wrote in The Club, his perceptive study of British Jewry in 1989: “scan the cultural pages of the Jewish Chronicle and weep.” But since the early 1990s there has been a concerted attempt, both within the mainstream institutions of Anglo-Jewry and at its more radical fringes, to change this. Jewish Book Week, which concluded on 2nd March 2009, drew in over 5,000 people this year, rivaling Cheltenham and Hay. The new Jewish Community Centre for London puts on a consistently exciting and often quirky programme of events; the annual Limmud conference (Limmud.org) brings together over 2,000 Jews for a festival of Jewish learning. There’s been a huge expansion in Jewish day schools which, even if you disapprove of faith schooling, cannot but be seen as evidence of a community willing to invest vast sums in its educational future. And on the other end of this ever widening spectrum, there’s the iconoclastic collective, Jewdas (jewdas.org), which puts on events in squats that mix radical Jewish learning and wild klezmer-DJing, and whose website viciously lampoons the Jewish great and good.
But this cultural flowering, typically a sign of a self-confident and energetic community, has run in tandem with a vocal campaign to convince the public that Britain’s Jews are under threat as never before. British Jewish community leaders, from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to novelist Howard Jacobson, have repeatedly and publicly expressed their alarm at what Sacks called in 2006 “a tsunami of anti-semitism.” Since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in autumn 2000, they claim, anti-Jewish feeling in Britain has visibly grown; disproportionate criticism of Israel, they say, masks a resurgence of Jew-hatred, manifested in everything from violent attacks against Jews by radical Islamists to campaigns to boycott Israel from the left.
While figures from the Community Security Trust show there has been a rise in attacks on Jews in Britain in recent years, there are deep divisions within the Jewish community about the causes—and indeed the gravity—of this. Critics of Israel within the Jewish community—from organisations like Independent Jewish Voices and Jews for Justice…