Giving and belonging: the lesson Jews can offer new immigrants

October 1, 2005
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This article was originally published by The Times on 1st October 2005

In the course of the new Jewish year, which begins on Monday evening, we will be celebrating the 350th anniversary of British Jewry. The story of our community has some relevance to the current debate about multiculturalism.

The Jews who came here were asylum-seekers from successive waves of persecution. The first were descendants of the victims of the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions. My late father came to find refuge from antisemitism in Poland. Some came through Kindertransport, the British effort to save Jewish children from Nazi Germany. Others arrived as survivors of the Holocaust.

It wasn’t always easy to be Jewish in Britain. It took 200 years before Jews were permitted to enter universities or be elected to Parliament. Jewish immigrants — poor, concentrated in ghettoes, barely able to speak English — were caricatured as alien elements in British life. Jews who remember those days can readily sympathise with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims today.

Within an astonishingly short time, they were full participants in British society. There were philosophers such as Sir A. J. Ayer and Sir Isaiah Berlin, intellectuals from Jacob Bronowski to Elias Canetti and historians such as Sir Martin Gilbert and Simon Schama. There were businessmen from Michael Marks of Marks & Spencer to Sir Alan Sugar, and politicians such as Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Howard. Anglo-Jewry provided two of the last three Lord Chief Justices.

There is a message of hope here for other ethnic and religious minorities. Integration and acceptance don’t happen overnight. And yes, there were conflicts between immigrant parents and their British-born and educated children. There was a long struggle to define an identity both British and Jewish. But these are pains of adjustment, not permanent conditions.

The Jewish experience challenges the received wisdom about minorities. Jews did not seek multiculturalism. They sought to integrate, adapt and belong. Jewish schools focused on turning Jews into British citizens, at home in the nation’s language, culture and history. Sermons were spiced with quotations from Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. The role model was Sir Moses Montefiore, whom The Times praised on his 100th birthday in 1884 for his “ determination to show, by his life, that fervent Judaism and patriotic citizenship are absolutely consistent with one another”.

Britain was different in those days. It knew who and what it was. It had the quiet confidence of a nation secure in its own identity. It remembered what it is now beginning to forget, that for minorities to integrate there must be something for them to integrate into. Subtly and with a certain grace, Britain reminded Jews that there were rules, things you did and didn’t do. I remember Bertha Leverton, one of the children saved from Germany in 1939, telling of how she was taught, on her first day in England, that it was polite to leave some food uneaten on the side of your plate. She was starving and traumatised, yet the gesture helped to make her feel at home. She appreciated the hidden message: from here on, you are one of us.

Our postmodern culture — moral relativism, multiculturalism, the right to self-esteem — entered into with the highest motives, has by the law of unintended consequences made it almost impossible for minorities to integrate. The result is not more tolerance but less. For the first time in my life, Jews feel uncomfortable in Britain. They have heard public figures making crude gibes about Jews. They have seen Holocaust Memorial Day — dedicated to all victims of man’s inhumanity to man — misrepresented and politicised. Throughout Europe, Jewish students are harassed, synagogues vandalised and cemeteries desecrated.

These things matter not because of the threat they pose to Jews, but because antisemitism is always an advance warning of a wider crisis. Today religious groups are in danger of becoming pressure groups instead of thinking what is in the best interests of Britain as a whole. That is not good for some of us: it is bad for all of us.

Jews also learnt, through 20 centuries of dispersion, a principle almost forgotten in contemporary debates: the connection between giving and belonging. They remembered the advice given by Jeremiah: “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace and prosperity you will find peace and prosperity.” They recalled God’s words to Abraham, to be a blessing to “all the families on earth”. To be true to your faith while being a blessing to others, regardless of their faith, is the best formula I know for a multi-faith environment.

Recently we have thought of society as a hotel where you pay money in return for services and you are then free to do what you like so long as you don’t disturb the other guests. Hotels are fine, but they do not generate a sense of belonging. Society is not a hotel. It is the home we build together. It is the place to which we bring our distinctive contributions to the common good. The Jewish plea to Britain is: don’t forget who you are, for that is who we aspire to be.