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British Jews and Muslims: two myths (part 1)

Ben Gidley

I worked for many years with a small voluntary sector organisation that, by chance, had two Jewish and two Muslim members of staff. They became close friends, sharing every aspect of each other’s lives from family occasions to the major celebrations of their different religious calendars. After some years of intimacy, however, one of the Muslim workers casually mentioned the 9/11 attacks, and the “fact” that Mossad had warned all the Jewish people in the Twin Towers to evacuate. His Jewish co-workers could not understand how he could reconcile his intimate knowledge of these particular Jews with the certain conviction of the existence of a vast Jewish conspiracy able to secretly evacuate an entire ethnic group from the World Trade Centre.

Myths are powerful, and compelling stories shape the way we experience the world, even when our own experience contradicts them. In this two-part post, I want to look at two myths – of a very different type than the 9/11 one, but not unrelated – that overshadow the way Jews and Muslims interact in contemporary Britain. These stories provide a narrative frame through which both Jews and Muslims have come to understand themselves and each other, in sometimes damaging ways.

The first Jews are believed to have arrived in Britain in Roman times and there was a significant Jewish community in the kingdom by the Middle Ages. Jews were violently persecuted and then in 1290 expelled, but trickled back in the following decades, being semi-officially allowed in by Oliver Cromwell. In Cromwell’s time, most Jews in England were descendants of those who had fled Catholic Spain and Portugal, which suppressed and then expelled both Jews and Muslims. In the late nineteenth century, the main place of origin for British Jews was Eastern Europe.

By the eighteenth century, many of the institutions that hold together the Anglo-Jewish community were forming, including the Board of Deputies, a democratic body representing the different parts of the community. These institutions would later inspire British Muslim leaders in forming their representative bodies. As faith communities, both have had to negotiate the often invisible ways in which Britain is hard-wired as a Christian country, addressing parallel issues such as ritual slaughter, faith schooling and reconciling clerical law with secular law.

Like Muslims today, Jews have always experienced a range of different forms of racism and intolerance, from polite prejudices to violent assault. Some of the same images recur. Both have been seen as “oriental”: eastern, exotic, dark, mysterious, dangerous. Around 1900, the media was obsessed with “alien sedition” and bearded Jewish terrorists were pictured holding big black bombs beneath their cloaks. In the 1940s, when real Jewish terrorists in Palestine were attacking British military targets, the loyalty of the community here was doubted, and there were racist attacks on Jews across the country. 

And Jews and Muslims have been complimented for some of the same things too: family values, respect for elders, a work ethic. It is on this note that I want to introduce the first myth. This is the myth of Jews as a model minority, blazing a trail that Muslims and other immigrants should follow.

From the 1940s, British politicians praised Jews for fitting in and buckling down. But optimistic liberals are often confident that Muslims are following the same path, and that reactionary fears of Muslims segregating themselves and engaged in radicalism will soon fade away as Muslims too fit in and buckle down across the generations. Pessimistic conservatives, in contrast, use the standard of Jews as a model minority to judge other migrants and find them wanting.

I have heard both sides of this story from both Jews themselves and Muslims. For instance, a Bangladeshi doctor I interviewed recently told me “we should be more like the Jews: they had a ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ attitude”.

The model minority story, however, misses three crucial elements of reality. First, it forgets the price paid by British Jews in fitting in and buckling down. The Yiddish language, one of the great languages of modern world literature and culture, was forgotten, and the connection of British Jews to the rich cultural heritage of the Yiddish-speaking world vanished. Individual Jews paid a huge psychic cost in keeping quiet, trying to be invisible, and experienced intolerable anxiety and burning shame when the performance slipped – this is one of the themes of Booker prize winner Howard Jacobson, whose generation felt this most acutely. Young Jews today have to work hard to seek out and re-connect with “their” cultural heritage and complex identity. Assimilation has also taken its toll collectively, too, in the numbers of Jews drifting out of the community and becoming lost in the British mainstream. (The new census may well reveal whether growth in the ultra-Orthodox section of the community will reverse half a century of steep demographic decline among mainstream Jews.) British Muslims today, in this regard, might be advised not to follow the path of the “model minority”, not to pay this price.

The second thing missing from the myth is the ways in which some Jews have always refused to play the game. In the early twentieth century, in places like London’s East End and Leeds’ Chapeltown, immigrants Jews continued to go to Yiddish theatres, join radical movements, pay more attention to politics in Russia than in Westminster. From the 1900s, Zionists combined loyalty to the British crown with another national allegiance, while Jewish anarchists and later Communists rejected all national loyalties in favour of the proletarian international. The ultra-Orthodox movement emerged, refusing the anglicising ways of the mainstream synagogues and very visibly failing to assimilate to British culture.

The communal leadership thus had to work hard to persuade their co-religionists to assimilate: they funded institutions like the Jewish Lads Brigade and Jews Free School intended to rapidly anglicise the children of immigrants; they sponsored schemes to move Jews from the ghettos to the suburbs; they wrote editorials blaming immigrants’ ostentatious behaviour for antisemitism.

The third thing the myth misses is the national setting in which that drama was played out. Britain then imagined itself (albeit falsely) as a monocultural nation. There were no concepts like “ethnicity” or “multiculturalism” to provide a space for Jewish difference. This was the context in which Anglo-Jewish communal leaders attempted to anglicise the immigrants. Their communal authority was based on their ability to act as a gatekeeper between normative Britishness and the immigrants.

Today, in contrast, after decades of official (if increasingly beleaguered) multiculturalism, ethnic community leaders (including Muslim community leaders) derive their communal authority from acting as arbiters of authentic minority identities. Instead of exaggerating the sameness, the Britishness, of “their” communities, they often exaggerate the differences. In this, they are emphatically not following the path taken by the “model minority”. Whereas Anglo-Jewish leaders in the monocultural period secured social goods for Jews by demonstrating loyalty, today’s faith and ethnic leaders seek benefits by demanding respect and recognition for separate identities.

The same multicultural agenda that leads today’s communal leaders to exaggerate their differences also leads them to emphasise threats and racism. Thus Anglo-Jewish leaders no longer minimise antisemitism, as they did in the monocultural age, but take every opportunity to highlight it – just as Muslim leaders take every opportunity to highlight Islamophobia. In the second part of this post, I will look at the myths that surround the vexed issues of antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Ben Gidley is a Senior Researcher at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) at Oxford University. He is the co-author of Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today, with Keith Kahn-Harris