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Jews, the UK and the Holocaust, a Personal View

This is a cross-post from Marc Goldberg

Now that the dust has settled in the wake of Liberal Democrat MP David Ward’s series of comments concerning Jews, Palestinians and the Holocaust and artist Gerald Scarfe’s anti Israel cartoon being published in the Sunday Times on Holocaust Memorial Day I think it’s worth ruminating in some depth about the reaction of the Jewish community in the UK and what it is to be British and Jewish.

Firstly let’s look at the outcome, if this were a boxing match between the leaders of the Jewish community on the one hand and David Ward MP and Gerald Scarfe on the other the community won by knockout in both bouts. While there were many accusations of anti-Semitism thrown about at the time I think it cannot be seen as anything other than a positive when it comes to the Liberal Democrat Party machinery and The Sunday Times that apologies were made and humble pie served up. It answers a lot of accusations of fundamental concerns about anti-Semitism that this was the case and hopefully people will be able to rest a little easier because of it.

David Ward was censured by the Liberal Democrat Party to the point where he almost lost the party whip and was forced to make an (albeit clearly grudging) apology. I think that the letter sent by the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chief Whip was both reasonable and reflected a complete understanding of the offense caused along side a willingness to put the situation right and I have posted it in full below:


Regardless of the opinions of Ward personally the Party he represents has taken pains to take a big step back away from his comments and I think that is worthy of recognition. “I wish to dissociate the Liberal Democrats without reservation or ambiguity from these remarks.” That’s good enough for me.

The second, involving Gerald Scarfe saw the big man himself, Rupert Murdoch, take time out from whatever it is that ruthless media magnates do all day to condemn his own paper for publishing the cartoon. Rupert Murdoch tweeted the following vis-a-vis the Gerald Scarfe cartoon in the Sunday Times “Gerald Scarfe has never reflected the opinions of the Sunday Times. Nevertheless, we owe major apology for grotesque, offensive cartoon.”

But what I hated was the timing of all this, for me an undercurrent of hostility which occasionally raises it’s head, the dark side of an England in which I was hard pressed to feel at home came into the light. The Holocaust Educational Trust has done sterling work in making sure that the tragic event that saw so many Jewish communities in Europe wiped out has become a part of the national consciousness but there has been a blowback effect, the likes of David Ward and Gerald Scarfe put this on centre stage and the people who rallied around Ward in particular, show off the extent to which this is a point of view that is bigger than him alone.

The Holocaust is so clearly an evil event that no politician on earth will ever be able to refuse to condemn it and/or not back to the hilt the work of the Trust. But herein lies a problem, I feel that some people, like Ward, look at Holocaust memorial as some kind of Jewish victory, as if the Jews have imposed Holocaust education upon the UK and that therefore they will do their utmost to make Jews all over the UK feel like crap every year that it comes about. The best way to do that is by comparing the Holocaust and the Nazis to Israel versus Palestinians.

I think that’s why the community really reacted so quickly and so robustly, this linkage of the Holocaust and Israel touches on such a communal nerve that Jewish leaders int he UK were instantly appalled by Ward’s comments. I said it before and I’ll say it again, the Holocaust was the attempt to kill all the Jews, it was not a cathartic learning experience which taught all Jews about morality. Nor has it laid the responsibility upon the shoulders of all Jews everywhere to solve the problems of the Middle East.

In fact if someone really is looking at ‘the Jews’ or more correctly certain Jewish organisations and asking what they have done since the Holocaust to prevent a repetition they should probably look at the very fact that there is an international Holocaust Memorial Day and education about the evils of racism and dictatorships and say “wow look at the steps the Jews have taken to make sure that never again is a reality” rather than castigating us all together using the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘atrocities’ and ‘Jews’.

For a few years now the Jewish community has moved away from a kind of ‘keep your head down’ activism and moved more into the public forum. The debate over what anti-Semitism is, is now a very public one and I think it’s right and necessary to have these arguments in public though I despise the fact that Jews have to stand up and argue for their right to be offended. If someone says the word Palestinian while being anti-Semitic it really doesn’t mean we all have to start arguing about the Middle East in order to determine whether a Jew has the right to be offended by the attack on his or her heritage.

I was disappointed by news outlets who framed the story in this way, saying that Ward was in deep water for attacking Israel’s actions against Palestinians when in truth that had nothing to do with it. But rather his blanket use of the term Jews and his clearly expressed belief that ‘we’ should have learned something from being murdered in such great numbers. I am often struck by the differences between the way that Jews born and bred in the USA react to anti-Semitism and the way that Jews in the UK do, this latest reaction was more American in style and more aggressive in character, I think that the roots for the differing attitudes between the two communities go all the way back to the 1880s.

In the latter part of the 19th century when the Jewish migration from Russia was occurring those Jews who made it to the USA found themselves in a country still in the making, in a place at a time when everything was still up for grabs. Jewish entrepreneurs, actors, bakers, gangsters, financiers, garment makers and every other type of Jew not only found themselves a home but also a place where they could make their imprint upon wider society, the fact that there were so many fellow Jews nearby also didn’t hurt. And so Jewish humour became New York humour, a bagel became a national delicacy, Hollywood exploded with Jewish talent and businessmen, Las Vegas had a decidedly Jewish and very American crook to take it from a small town to becoming America’s playground. In short when the Jews arrived in America they found a blank canvas upon which they could paint their own hopes and dreams along with all of the other immigrant communities in a place where being a hyphenated citizen was something to be proud of rather than discouraged; African-American, Italian-American and ahem Jewish. In this respect whenever there is the merest whiff of anti-Semitism US Jewry won’t think twice before standing up and screaming about it from the rooftops. It’s a confidence borne of feeling truly at home within US society, of not having any kind of fear that the result of such complaining may well be to boost anti-Semitism rather than countering it.

Those Jews landing in the UK had an entirely different experience, these were Jews arriving at the homeland of the masters of the world, complete with their own culture, their own global empire and their own established ways of doing things along with a considerable distaste for foreign aliens. Becoming one of ‘them’ meant that blending in was the order of the day and blend in we did.

In the UK you see the imprint of individual Jews upon UK business and the arts etc but not the assimilation of Jewish cultural norms and traditions into British society, in fact when I look at the Milibands, Disaeli (if saying those names in the same breath isn’t too offensive) and other politicians born with Jewish heritage I see a trend of Jews going to great lengths to declare that the religion of their ancestors is something that they have very much shed and that those with whom this is not the case have risked their political careers by refusing to do so rather than enhancing them.

And so the message from Jews in the UK to wider British society was always clear “we’re one of you, please don’t hate us!” There was always a feeling lurking in the collective consciousness of UK Jewry that if you make it clear you are toeing the line, that you have no feelings whatsoever for any other country then maybe, just maybe our people will be…left alone? Not hated? Not attacked on Holocaust Memorial Day by politicians who should know better? Not made fun of by cartoonists?

These fears are something utterly alien to Jews in the USA who are used to Irish Catholics identifying with the old country and Italians doing the same. For Jews in the USA expressions of support for as Israel are as  quintessentially American as apple pie and well…bagels. In the UK it is considered utterly anathema and I have no doubt that this same feeling of unease applies to other immigrant communities in the UK where an expression of solidarity with the another country is very much frowned upon and a sense of Britishness very much encouraged from the Commons to Oxbridge to Eaton and on down. The term ‘multicultural’ is all well and good but just don’t mention the old country…you might be labelled as an extremist!

And so we come back to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and other bodies which have managed to ensure that one day a year has been set aside to remember the attempted extermination of European Jewry all around the world. And the truth, which is that some people in the UK simply don’t like that fact that dead Jews are being remembered every year and will try their best to ensure that the Jews are made to feel that discontent while they miss the point of the day in the first place.