What it’s like to be a British Jew in 2023

If the Jew-haters don’t kill you, the paranoia might.

A pro-Palestinian rally in London on Nov. 11, 2023. Credit: Julian Stallabrass via Wikimedia Commons.
A pro-Palestinian rally in London on Nov. 11, 2023. Credit: Julian Stallabrass via Wikimedia Commons.
Marcus Dysch. Credit: Courtesy.
Marcus Dysch
Marcus Dysch is a former political editor of the London-based Jewish Chronicle. He currently works for a Jewish nonprofit.

Is this how it felt in 1936 or 1948? What about 1973? Or during the Maccabean revolt of Chanukah?

I’ve often wondered what it felt like to be alive in historic times—times that in the present day and age we regard as momentous, seminal, world-changing. In Britain, we have had a few of those in recent years: Brexit, the pandemic, prime ministers coming and going through Downing Street like London buses.

But the chill wind blowing through the country right now feels different. Why? Because the future of Britain’s Jewish community seems to be in the balance. That’s a strong claim, I know, but ask almost anyone who identifies as Jewish in this country—rich or poor, right or left, observant or completely secular—and I think they would agree that this time it is serious.

I have spent the past six weeks constantly on alert, looking over my shoulder whenever I leave the house, waiting for someone to scream something from a passing car or brandish an anti-Israel placard.

Walking to catch the train to work, my mind is filled with constant questions and bubbling fears. What if that driver ploughs onto the sidewalk? How will I react if someone shouts antisemitic abuse? What if it happens when I’m with my kids?

Yet I am privileged to live in relatively blissful peace—not under the threat of rocket fire and without immediate family members serving in the Gaza Strip or directly affected by the Oct. 7 massacre by Hamas in southern Israel.

Context is everything. There are only around 300,000 Jewish people in Britain. We are the minority of all the minorities among 67 million people. Most of us—perhaps 75% even—live in a handful of ZIP codes in North West London. British Jews largely live in a bubble, but that also provides us with a degree of insulation.

At least, that was how it felt until now. The unprecedented outpouring of hate on the streets is the biggest cause of concern. To see unadulterated antisemitism displayed with such glee is chilling. While we are fortunate to have a government that, for all its faults, speaks with determination to stop Jew hate and provides the money needed to protect our communal institutions and buildings, the real-world reality has looked rather different these past few weekends. That the police have done relatively little to curb this hate is as worrying as it is galling.

The media refer to “pro-Palestinian” marches and protesters, but the evidence belies that. These are in large part anti-Israel, anti-Jewish movements that were vocal long before the Israel Defense Forces’ response to Hamas’s onslaught. They do nothing to benefit the plight of the civilians in Gaza who are themselves exploited by terrorists.

Britain is by no means alone in witnessing these reactions. I sat in the headquarters of the UJA-Federation of New York just days after Oct. 7 wondering if I was crazy to have meetings in such a significant Jewish building. A fortnight later, I saw countless hostage posters ripped from the walls of streets in Italy’s Turin and Milan. My friend and I turned a corner in trepidation as we heard shouting through a megaphone—only to breathe a sigh of relief when we realized that it was an animal-rights protest. If the Jew-haters don’t kill you, the paranoia might.

One source of comfort is the overwhelming solidarity and togetherness among the global Jewish Diaspora. Every conversation or email with colleagues, friends or even with any random Jewish stranger begins with “how are you, are your family OK?” and ends with “stay safe.” We just know. We all know. We feel it in our kishkes.

My children attend a religious elementary school. My 4-year-old son walks there and back every day proudly swinging his tzitzit and wearing his yarmulke. How do I explain to him my sudden urge to be more careful, to encourage him to wear a hat, to fasten his coat up with the flowing fringes hidden somewhere inside?

His almost 7-year-old sister knows something is not right; her classmates have read the papers or heard snippets of news. Too young to comprehend the complexity and horror, they innocently gossip about the war, and her questions flow. Who is Israel fighting? Are our friends OK? What does that poster say?

How do you explain a genocidal Islamist cult to a kid? You can’t, of course. The only response is to hug them tighter, turn off the TV, thank God they aren’t the ones kidnapped by rapists and murderers, and ask yourself what sort of world you have brought them into.

Aliyah has never appealed to me. I am a proud Yorkshireman by birth and have clocked up close to 18 years living in London. I love fish and chips, football and James Bond more than falafel, matkot and “Fauda.” I am not just a Jew, I am a British Jew. I have an inherent acceptance of all that living in the Diaspora entails—the rising antisemitism, the difficulties of keeping kosher, the impending doom repeated through millennia of “are they coming for us next?”

Yes, it is tough right now. But there is an underlying understanding that if this threatening atmosphere is our birthright, then perhaps this is our time. Maybe 2023 is our 1973 or 70 C.E. Our time to feel like our great-grandparents and their great-grandparents did before them. Not to hide away but to walk proudly as Jews, declaring our joy to be British while simultaneously declaring Am Yisrael Chai—“the people of Israel live.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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