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Artillery Row

Britain is still safe for Jews

It may be far from perfect — but where would be safer?

The front page of the Evening Standard on Wednesday was one to remember. Conceived in the febrile context of George Galloway’s dramatic return to Westminster and weekly anti-Israel demonstrations in London, the cover evokes Kristallnacht with its image of a blue Star of David smashed to pieces. “London’s antisemitism shame”, rings the headline; “growing numbers of Jewish families are considering fleeing London for abroad because of rising antisemitism in the capital”. According to one poll, about half of Britain’s Jews are considering moving abroad. It may be worth raising a voice of cautious optimism in the face of such alarmism. Have things really got so bad? Is Britain’s Jewish community, one of the most successful in history, really in danger of decline?   

If Corbyn had won in 2019, would tens of thousands of British Jews really have left the country?

Warnings to this effect have been raised for some time. Renewed in the months since 7 October, they are close to surpassing the pitch they attained at the tail-end of the Corbyn years. A 2018 Survation poll for the Jewish Chronicle found that forty per cent of British Jews would “seriously consider” leaving the country if Corbyn became Prime Minister: that number rose to over half among Jews aged 35-54. Happily this was never tested. Corbyn lost decisively in 2019, and the number of Jews in Britain has remained constant. Still, it is interesting to think through the counterfactual. If Corbyn had won in 2019, would tens of thousands of British Jews really have left the country? Perhaps. But I suspect most of them would have been content to stay and grumble, rather like those American celebrities who said they’d move to Canada if Trump got elected.    

In fact, the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn supports my view that Britain is the best country in the world for Jews to live in. It is widely believed (not least by his most fanatical supporters) that the fetor of antisemitism damaged Corbyn’s electoral fortunes. This was the case in part because the perception of Corbyn as an antisemite, or at least as someone who was “soft on antisemitism”, contributed to the broader image of him as anti-British. The implications of this should not be taken for granted. In many countries, it would be exceedingly difficult to formulate this type of narrative. Whatever the truth of this narrative about Corbyn, the fact that it resonated with a substantial number of British non-Jews is surely a positive sign of the secure place of Jews within British society. 

So, too, for the substance of the Great Antisemitism Debate that dominated headlines when Corbyn was Leader of the Opposition. I do not mean to deny that many British Jews found him and his movement objectionable, often for fair reasons. But there was never, as far as I am aware, any serious reflection on what tangible consequences a Corbyn government would have for Britain’s Jewish community. It was never claimed, for example, that Corbyn would ban kosher slaughter or infant circumcision, or even (where the lines between antisemitism and anti-Zionism become more blurred) that he would move against British Israelis or Zionist youth organisations. It again speaks to the rude health and good fortune of Anglo-Jewry that the endless discussions of Left-wing antisemitism during the Corbyn years never seemed to graduate beyond the vibes-level into the hard-nosed realm of policy.  

There are, then, reasons to be cheerful. It would be sad and unnecessary for British Jews to follow through on their “serious considerations” by leaving the country. Of course, we do not know what “serious” amounts to; and I suppose there are plenty of valid reasons to consider leaving Britain that have nothing at all to do with antisemitism. But all this talk of Jewish emigration also invites a further question: where would British Jews move to?

The kneejerk answer is Israel, for ideological and spiritual reasons (the whole point of Israel in theory is that it’s the place Jews go to when they don’t feel safe in the Diaspora) as well as more banal ones (the Law of Return means that Israeli citizenship is very easy for Jews to acquire). After the catastrophic security failure of 7 October, however, Israel’s claim to be a safe-haven for Jews seems less credible. While the process of acquiring Israeli citizenship is easy, moreover, it also carries burdens and obligations that British Jews should ponder carefully before accepting. The most significant of these is military conscription. Personally, things in Britain would have to get very bad indeed before I would offer myself or my future children up for service in the IDF. It should also be remembered that most British Jews dislike the political direction that Israel is going in: according to one poll from last year, 79 per cent of British Jews disapprove of Benjamin Netanyahu, and 72 per cent are pessimistic about the future of democratic governance in Israel.

Threats to Jewish life in Britain do not need to be inflated to be taken seriously

What are the other options? America has long been heralded as the other Promised Land. (About four-fifths of the world’s Jews live either in Israel or America.) America is certainly preferable to Israel on most measures: the Jewish community there is prosperous, well-integrated, and generally safe. A plausible case can probably be made that it is, per capita, the least antisemitic country on earth. But the problem is that, even if America has fewer antisemites than Britain, American antisemites are much more likely than British ones to be armed. Antisemitic hate crimes in Britain seldom rise to the level of physical violence: most reports, even in recent months, have been of vandalism, verbal abuse, and online harassment. In just the last few years, however, two American synagogues have witnessed terrorist attacks. The first of these, Pittsburgh in 2018, saw a neo-Nazi murder eleven victims. The second, at Colleyville in Texas, thankfully left no one dead except the perpetrator — who was, it so happens, a British-Pakistani from Blackburn. Even our most radical home-grown antisemites, it seems, have to go to America to commit their worst crimes. 

To put it in morbid terms: in Israel, America, and (to use an example closer to Britain) France, Jews have recently been killed or otherwise physically harmed for being Jews. One would have to look very far back in British history to find anything approaching the scale of a Pittsburgh, a Hypercacher, or a 7 October. It may be no accident that the best destinations for Jews who still wish to leave Britain are the countries most like it — Canada and Australia. There are good historical reasons for Jews to instinctively reach for their suitcases and passports whenever antisemitism is on the rise, but hysteria serves nobody. Threats to Jewish life in Britain do not need to be inflated to be taken seriously. Those threats, such as they are, can be overcome — and Britain, a safe home for generations of Jews, will be one for many more.

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