Proud, but invisible
A SENSE OF BELONGING: DILEMMAS OF BRITISH JEWISH IDENTITY
Howard Cooper and Paul Morrison
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16
British Jews have that sense of oneness, often admired and sometimes resented, which appears as an impregnable fortress of indefinable purpose. The authors of this book of a new Channel 4 series shatter that illusion. Quoting from a patchwork of different experiences, they paint a landscape of searches and experiments, stemming from an insecurity the very opposite of popular legend.
As Tevye the Milkman summarised in Fiddler on the Roof many Jews know who they are and what God expects of them. They truly understand their place in the continuum of Jewish history. But this book is not about them. For there are also large numbers of British Jews who, for a plethora of historical, religious and familial reasons, have rejected the Jewishness of their background, but found little of spiritual worth to substitute for that sense of belonging. Like Paul Morrison, producer of the series, they reacted to the reactionaries, instead of the issue. Exodus meant a flight into Egypt. For him, this book and his films are a voyage of self-discovery, a journey from the margins to the centre.
The postwar generation of British Jews were truly confused by their parents’ incantations, and the demands made upon them. They were asked to be proud Jews, but also invisible ones. To understand the traditions, but not to become enmeshed in them. To be an upwardly mobile Jewish Briton, but less an informed British Jew. To be a Lover of Zion (in Britain), but not a Zionist (in Israel). To marry within the fold and ensure the existence of the People. All these reduced the richness of the Jewish experience to its lowest common denominator. The “survivalism” of the Shoah (Holocaust) generation could not have been avoided.
The authors examine paths of return, and flirt with the notion of a religious revival within Anglo-Jewry. Yet this is far more an acceptance of a wider ethnicity, with religious observance and cultural self-determination at its core. The eighties spawned new organisations as foci for an alternative community. Issues of double loyalties, so fundamental to the older generation, seemed less important to the new. During the Gulf crisis, many Jews on the left supported the Israeli peace movement rather than the British one. For them, destroying the western-inspired Iraqi war machine, with its threat to obliterate Israel, and so removing Saddam’s obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, assumed a higher priority than simple de nunciations of the war’s immorality.
Cooper and Morrison’s emphasis on psychotherapy as a vehicle for change is pre valent in some Reform congregations, but those closer to orthodox Judaism or to a political secularism will have difficulty finding themselves in this picture. However, the book makes a valuable and valid contribution. It will speak for many.
New Statesman 22 March 1991