To Be Young, Gifted, and a British Jew

By Elliot Jager
Monday, November 7, 2011

One way to think of British Jewry is to focus on its slow and steady decline: 270,000 souls, demographically graying; synagogue affiliation on a downward spiral; out-marriage running at between 30-50 percent. The possibility of anti-Semitism is a constant, with 283 verified incidents reported in the first six months of 2011. Of these, 41 were categorized as "extremely violent" and 11 took place on campus. The line between despising Israel and holding Jews in contempt has been blurred beyond recognition, with the Guardian and Independent leading the way and even the once respectable Times joining in.

A more nuanced take on British Jewry, however, would view the community as a sort of gradually dying star: moribund yet illuminated. Some signs of life are as follows: The "strictly Orthodox" are growing in number. Culture is thriving. Next month there will be another Jewish Film Festival. Over the Christmas holidays hundreds will gather in Coventry for the 30th annual Limmud Conference, which bills itself as a "carnival of Jewish learning." Construction will soon begin on a new Jewish community center in northwest London. There are more kosher restaurants in London today than there were after World War II, when the Jewish population crested at about 450,000. It is not remarkable nowadays to spot young men openly wearing kippot on the London Underground—surely a sign of a community at ease. Hundreds gather every fall at the Regent's Park Bandstand to enjoy klezmer music in the shadow of London's Central Mosque. 

So how will the fate of British Jewry play itself out?  The answer to that question depends largely on the community's next generation of leaders—today's university students, comprising a miniscule 0.5 percent of the country's 1.6 million undergraduates.  Their attitudes have now been mined in a comprehensive survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a think-tank with loose ties to the Board of Deputies of British Jewry. As one might have expected, and as the report verifies, this younger generation is mostly pessimistic about their community's future and troubled about the way current leaders are managing its affairs.

The survey authors, David Graham and Jonathan Boyd, note that the formative experiences of today's university cohort—all born in the late 1980's and early 1990's—encompass the July 7, 2005 London bombings by Islamist terrorists and Operation Cast Lead (the 2008-2009 IDF campaign to halt Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel).

It is a generation that came of age in a "multi-cultural" England where Judeo-Christian values are no longer dominant and Islam is ascendant. Britain's Muslim population stands at 2.87 million and growing; Mohammed is the most popular name for baby boys in London. Meanwhile, Christianity is in decline: On a good month, perhaps 1.7 million, mostly older worshippers attend Church of England services. The Church's hierarchy is riddled with clergy who do not believe in God.

In this milieu, and like their cohorts elsewhere in our post-modern, post-industrial, digital age, being Jewish is mostly a personal lifestyle choice for the survey's respondents. All that being said, however, the report's findings are generally encouraging. Seventy-nine percent agree that having a "religious identity" is integral to being Jewish; 95 percent basically embrace the idea of Jewish peoplehood. Like many young Jews, however, they conflate their Jewish identity with the Holocaust (83 percent) and anti-Semitism (75 percent).

By the time they reach university, a majority will have had some formal Jewish education.  Nearly all will have been members of youth movements; about half arrive at university Jewishly observant—for example, eating only kosher meat at home. Remarkably, 27 percent are Sabbath observers. Most say their closest friends are Jewish. At the same time, of those who have had romantic relationships, just 40 percent have had exclusively Jewish partners. A clear majority of traditional respondents, but only a minority of progressives, agreed that it is important for Jews to marry other Jews.

Whatever their views, most Jewish students cluster (whether consciously or not) around a small number of universities, such as Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham, Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, and Bristol, and various London-area colleges. On campus, most students profess to be open about their Jewishness and say that "supporting Israel" is integral to their Jewish identity.  An overwhelming majority has visited Israel and, no less important, hold predominantly positive attitudes towards the country. Eleven percent of respondents, however, are indifferent, ambivalent, or negative toward the Jewish state. The key variable in attachment to Israel is the respondents' level of commitment to tradition. The more observant the student, the more emphatically pro-Israel.

And how do these students feel about British anti-Semitism?  In focus groups, students found fault with the Jewish media and establishment for overemphasizing anti-Israel sentiment on campus. Yet 42 percent nationwide say they have experienced anti-Semitism. And fully a third of Jewish students in London (where British Jewish life is centered) have experienced Jew-hatred. Indeed, a non-Jewish former head of the National Union of Students (NUS) had to be escorted away from a Manchester demonstration against tuition hikes last year when louts in the audience chanted "Tory Jew scum." This year, under different leadership, the NUS first adopted and then scrapped a range of anti-Zionist resolutions. Last week, Mike Freer, a pro-Israel Member of Parliament (yes, such a species still survives), was threatened in his London constituency offices by a Muslim crowd. While most non-Jewish university students are indifferent to Mideast issues, Jewish undergraduates prefer to keep their pro-Israel sentiments to themselves rather than risk the opprobrium of pro-Arab rabble-rousers on campus. And so, though anti-Semitism is a reality for many of these students, they wish and attempt to ignore its potency.

Perhaps it is in this context—rather than the dovish views of British Jewry generally—that we should ponder the pathetic plan by the Union of Jewish Students (UJS) leadership to distribute both Palestinian and Israeli flags on campuses. The risible idea is to prove that Jewish students, too, support "freedom, justice, and equality." It will be interesting to see whether the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) begins distributing Israeli flags to prove it has come around to supporting a two-state solution.

To be fair, when University of College London President and Provost Malcolm Grant outrageously declared that campus anti-Semitism was not a problem, the UJS called on him to "stop ignoring the harmful influence of extremists." The former head of the Jewish student union at UCL said more plainly: "He knows this is an outright lie." In any event, it is left to unapologetically pro-Israel groups to proactively campaign for Israel and against Palestinian Arab intransigence.

Graham and Boyd argue that it's time to put campus hostility toward Israel into perspective. "Anti-Semitism continues to be a significant issue on campus, but it is also subtle and complex" and on the whole, a reader might conclude, students have become inured to toxic hatred of Jews and Israel.

Boyd acknowledged that Jewish students can't articulate pro-Israel sentiments without "grief." Non-Brits might read this as quintessential British understatement, but the report takes cold comfort in finding that students are more concerned about grades, relationships, and future aspirations than day-to-day anti-Semitism. The problem may be so endemic and discouraging that pondering it for too long can sap morale. Or as Boyd argues more delicately, anti-Israel hostility "should not dominate our view, not least because over-emphasizing it appears to be affecting the Jewish identities of this young generation."

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