We are British Jews – BBC 2

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Oh, BBC 2! If you want to show a programme about Middle Eastern politics, don’t go calling it “We are British Jews”.  Are there not enough problems over people conflating Anglo-Jewish life and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without TV documentaries adding to them?  Having said which, have a gold star for, rather than just coming out with a load of clichés about chicken soup and bar mitzvah parties, putting together a group of people with a wide range of attitudes and lifestyles.  There are too many stereotypes and generalisations in this world, and it’s always good to see a TV programme try to dispel some of those.  And have another gold star for filming in Manchester rather than London 🙂 .

There were so many subjects that these two episodes could have covered instead, or at least as well as, the Middle Eastern situation – and didn’t. Had I not read the preview, I’d have been expecting, given the timing of this, less than week before the Jewish New Year, festivals, rituals and food.  Seeing as the previews talked about “challenges”, I was expecting, from the more secular members of the group, some discussion about issues like making partners in mixed-faith relationships feel welcome, and the pros and cons of faith schools.  And, from a historian’s point of view, and seeing as the first episode was filmed here, it might have been nice to’ve had some mention of the important contributions made to Manchester’s history, culture and economy by a very long list of local Jewish people.

OK, this wasn’t a festivals, rituals and food kind of programme. It was about “issues”. And there are a lot of issues facing all religions at the moment, in the UK and elsewhere.  The days when pretty much everyone identified as belonging to one religion or another, and regularly attended religious services, are long gone.  The days when pretty much everyone followed the diktats of the religious authorities are, as the Irish abortion referendum highlighted, thankfully also long gone.  Times have changed, and all religions need to try to adapt to that.

The series on Santiago de Compostela, shown on BBC 2 earlier this year, identified attitudes towards women and attitudes towards LGBT people as two of the main factors putting people off various Christian denominations, and that applies to Judaism too. Hopefully one day we’ll get to a point where all religions recognise everyone as equal, but sadly that seems to be a way off yet.  As with Christianity, there are differences in

attitudes between different denominations. Reform and Liberal Judaism ordain female ministers and allow women to take a full part in services, whereas Orthodox Judaism does not.  Liberal Judaism recognises same sex marriages, whereas Orthodox and Reform Judaism do not.  There’ve also been questions raised about faith schools, especially in the light of some of the stories in the press about unregistered faith schools.  And there’s even been some controversial debate over kosher and halal meat, although more in various Continental countries than in the UK.

But none of that got mentioned. The focus was almost entirely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Which would have been fine, had the title of the programme reflected that.  But it didn’t.

There was a certain sense of Big Brother about it, in that they’d got a group of people with different views, and were obviously hoping that they’d clash.  And there was a fair bit of yelling and shouting, from a group made up of very different people.  They were missing representation from the really ultra-Orthodox end of the spectrum, which is growing very rapidly at the moment, but ultra-Orthodox Jews do tend to keep themselves to themselves, and often don’t even have televisions, so it wouldn’t have been easy to have someone from that grouping willing to take part in something like this.  And the most religious member of the group sadly had to drop out part-way through, after the sudden death of her sister.  But it was a pretty diverse group.  And things did start off quite promisingly, with people explaining all their different takes on Jewish religion and culture; but then it just went back to talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There was a different angle on things the second day, with a meeting about anti-Semitism, including a discussion with Mancunian Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman (who went to the same school as me, incidentally).

I do appreciate that this wasn’t a specifically local programme, but I know where I am when I’m talking about Manchester … so, a bit of talk about our city. Every December, in Albert Square, in front of the Town Hall, there is a menorah alongside the Christmas markets.  It usually ends up by the Porky Pig stall but, to be fair, I think that’s just unfortunate positioning due to where the pork stall goes, rather than someone’s idea of a bad joke!   Look on Facebook next week and you will see “Happy Rosh Hashanah” messages from both United and City.  I could write a very long list of important local politicians, business people, campaigners, philanthropists, authors, TV and film producers (including Mike Leigh, who’s producing the Peterloo film), TV personalities, musicians and music managers who were/are Jewish.  If also you look at people who didn’t/don’t identify as Jewish, but had/have Jewish connections, “Mr Manchester” himself, the late, great, Tony Wilson, had a Jewish grandfather.  So, for that matter, did David Beckham! We’re not talking about ghettoes, mellahs or shtetls here: we’re talking about a diverse city which generally enjoys very good relations between people of all faiths and none.

However, there has in recent times been a rise in all types of hate crime. Some of this is due to increased levels of reporting of hate crime, but there has undoubtedly been a rise.  It feels as if some people will be nasty about anything and everything, especially on social media where they’ve got a degree of anonymity.  Rival sports teams.  Celebrities’ weight.  More seriously, we’re talking religion-based hate crime, racism, hate crime based on nationality, disability-based hate crime, homophobia, transphobia, and even hate crime based on the way people dress.  Where does all this hatred come from?  It seems to be a worldwide phenomenon: racial tension in Chemnitz – one of Manchester’s twin cities, incidentally – has been making the news this week, and hate crime’s on the rise across the Atlantic as well.  In the UK, it’s been the frightening rise in anti-Semitism making the headlines, largely because of the controversies within the Labour Party.  We’re hardly in Dreyfus territory here, i.e. the entire national political debate being taken over by the issue of anti-Semitism, but I cannot think of another time when the issue has been so much at the forefront of national politics here.

It’s extremely unpleasant, and, much as I wish a way could be found of bringing a quick and decisive end to it, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen – although it would help if everyone would moderate their language, stop hurling insults about and stop talking about Nazis. It was very distressing to hear Louise Ellman talk about the abuse she’s received on-line, and to see pictures of Holocaust-related abusive pictures sent to her.  One woman spoke about having an egg thrown at her.  Another spoke about some very vile verbal abuse she’d received.  They also spoke to the owners of a local kosher restaurant which has been attacked by arsonists – and it’s not the only one.  And the trailer for this series received some very nasty comments on You Tube.

Part of it’s this international conspiracy theory idea. That’s been around for a long time.  It’s been said about Catholics as well, but, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mostly about Jews – most famously, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  You wouldn’t believe that it’d all still be going on in the 21st century, but we’ve now got people claiming that there’s some sort of Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the Labour Party leadership, and that there’s also some sort of international conspiracy involving Donald Trump.  A councillor from Salford came out with some of these comments the other day.  That’s not some anonymous Twitter troll: it’s a person holding public office.  And, as everyone’s well aware, there have been several similar incidents.

The one thing everyone in the group agreed on was that, whilst there has been a rise in hate crime generally, the rise in anti-Semitism is largely about the situation in the Middle East. I suppose that was the justification for making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the focus of the programme.   I can see that, but I just don’t think it was helpful.

On the one hand, concerns over the situation in the West Bank, the appalling situation in the Gaza Strip, and, more recently, the new Israeli constitution, and the whole issues of lack of self-determination for Palestinians, and the number of Palestinians living as refugees in other countries, many in refugee camps, have spilled over into general anti-Jewish sentiment. On the other hand, criticism of those situations has been interpreted as anti-Jewish sentiment.  So the conflation of issues is coming from both sides, and several members of the group did point that out.

It’s hard to get a handle on all this from a historian’s viewpoint. Just to go back to the Dreyfus Affair, it was that which really kicked off modern Zionism.  I think there’s a common perception that it was the pogroms in the Russian Empire, but it wasn’t.  And, just because I always like to get some local history in J, Manchester, as I’ve said before, has very significant historical ties with Zionism and Israel. The Balfour Declaration was all about Manchester.  The first president of Israel spent around thirty years living in Manchester.   The first president of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation came from Manchester.  Etc etc etc. https://setinthepast.wordpress.com/2017/11/02/the-balfour-declaration-britains-promise-to-the-holy-land-bbc-2/

But this overlap/overspill of issues is difficult to make sense of, because it doesn’t seem to happen over anything else. As one of the group pointed out, no-one’s going to attack British Muslims because of what IS are doing in the Middle East.   No-one’s going to accuse someone who criticises the Polish government of being anti-Catholic, or even anti-Polish.  There are no comparisons.  And there isn’t a historical take on it: the State of Israel has only existed since 1948, and, in the early days, was viewed far more favourably in the West than it is under its present right-wing nationalist government.  The politics of the Middle East are as may be, and a peaceful solution unfortunately seems to be a very long way away; but there is this huge problem with Israeli issues and Jewish issues getting tangled up together, and that’s why I really don’t think it was ideal for BBC 2 to make a programme called “We are British Jews” and then spend most of it talking about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The group then went to visit the University of Manchester, and it was sad, in our city, to hear people saying that they felt uncomfortable there, and on many other university campuses in the country, and again this was all over the Israeli-Palestinian situation. A point, which I’ve made on a historians’ forum before and which no-one seems to have the answer to, was made about it being the “touchstone” issue of the day, and a “thing”.  Why does something become a “thing”?  Obviously it is an issue, but why does it attract so much more attention than the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma/Myanmar, the barbaric treatment of the Yazidis by IS, the abduction of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the use of child soldiers in the DR Congo, etc etc?  Back in the day, it used to be all about apartheid in South Africa.  Again, that was a huge issue, but why did we focus so much more on that than on any of the other things going on in the ’70s and ’80s?   The Chinese occupation of Tibet used to be a “thing” as well, and now no-one ever even mentions it.  Why does something become the “in” topic of the day?  Is there any logic to it?

We actually did get some focus back on Jewish, rather than Israeli, issues, with a celebration of the festival of Purim. This bit was filmed fairly close to chez moi.  The hotel where they stayed isn’t far away, but is in an area I tend to go through rather than to, whereas this bit was somewhere I go past pretty much every day.  So that was all very local.  But then it was off to Israel, for the second episode.  The first part showed a kibbutz, and explained the history of Zionist settlement, and something about the history of the Israeli state, right up to the immediate present with the introduction of the controversial new constitution.  But then it was right back to the conflict.

Jerusalem, with its unique historical and religious significance, should be one of the most visited cities in the world. It’s tragic that, because of the political situation, it isn’t.  Many other places within Israel and the Occupied Territories should also be high up on the tourist agenda, for historical and religious/cultural reasons or even just as beach resorts. It’s sad that they can’t be.  Fascinating part of the world.  But don’t look for the history of British Jews there, because you won’t find it.  They’d’ve found it in Manchester, or London, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow or many other parts of the UK, but BBC 2 weren’t interested in that.  They didn’t even seem very interested in the history and culture of the area: when the group visited Akko, no-one even mentioned that it was the historic Crusader capital of Acre.

Incidentally, I hate to sound like a grumpy old woman, but it’s no wonder that millennials are known as “the snowflake generation”! Going on about whether or not Israel should have an army.  All countries have armies – that’s life.  And fussing about whether or not a plate of hummus was “cultural appropriation”.  Still, at least the hummus debate showed that there is actually more to both Israeli culture and Palestinian culture than the conflict, because nothing else did.  No mention of sport, music, dancing … or even language, which is currently a hot topic after the new constitution removed the status of Arabic as an official language of Israel.   Not only was it a long way from Anglo-Jewish life, which was what the title of the programme said that it was going to be about, but it didn’t really represent either the Israeli people or the Palestinian people that well.

The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians just want to live in peace and go about their business, just as people everywhere do; but there’s been a certain amount of demonisation of both cultures, in different areas of the press, because of the conflict. It might have been nice had BBC 2 talked about … I was going to say the Eurovision Song Contest, but maybe not!   Football, then.  Football talk’s always good!  Actually, forget that, because there’s currently a row going on over Argentina pulling out of a friendly against Israel.   Oh dear.  But that’s exactly what I mean.  Why does everything have to be about the conflict?  Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have so much more to offer the world.  But their leaders don’t help.  The match was only cancelled after the Israeli government encouraged their FA to move it from Haifa to Jerusalem.  The match was a sell-out and a lot of people would have been eagerly looking forward to seeing Messi & co, and now they won’t get the chance.  Own goal.  But then none of that excuses the threats made to Messi by Palestinian groups: that was awful.  Oh, what a mess.  Sorry, I’ve got way off the point now!

That’s not to say that it wasn’t interesting. The makers of the programme clearly wanted debate, and indeed argument, and they got that all right.  The group met Israelis, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  It’s a shame that other groups weren’t included too – members of the Israeli Druze community have been speaking out about their distress over the new constitution, and there’s a row going on at the moment over plans to destroy a Bedouin village – but I suppose they could only fit so much into an hour.

BBC 2 had tried very hard to present a balanced view of the situation. The group spent most of their time in the West Bank, and met a number of Israelis and Palestinians, some of whom held quite militant views and some of whom held more conciliatory views.  The one thing that came across at all times was what a human tragedy this is.  People (Israelis and Palestinians) are living in fear of being attacked.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having to go through checkpoints – there’s that great big wall there, in particular – to get from home to work and back again.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having their businesses boarded up or their farmland confiscated.  The extremely controversial term “apartheid” was used, when talking about different communities being subject to different courts.  It was unfortunate that, at that point, several members of the group walked out – although others did point out the necessity of listening to all viewpoints.

The visit to Jerusalem did bring up one of the more general issues, the debate over whether or not women should be able to wear skull caps and prayer shawls when praying at the Western Wall – one member of the group, a female Progressive Jew, did so, and was criticised by some other people there. Can we all get over criticising other people’s choice of clothing, please?!  But that was more the sort of thing I’d originally been expecting.  But then the visit to Jerusalem finished on a very sad note, with the group speaking to an Israeli man whose 14-year-old daughter had been killed by Palestinians, and an Israeli man whose 10-year-old daughter had been killed by Israelis.

This was the last bit, apart from a visit to Masada. Both men spoke of their hopes for peace.  Neither called for revenge.  Just peace.  Everyone was clearly very impressed and moved by their courage.  If only people like them come could and speak at political party conferences, or university demonstrations, instead of having all these ridiculous slanging matches.  If only their own political leaders would listen to them.  If only someone would do something to end this horrendous cycle of violence.  They both said that they believed that peace would come.  Well, let’s hope so.

All in all, a very well-meaning attempt at showing a range of different views on a subject about which feelings tend to run very high – and which, I’ve said, really is a human tragedy. But I don’t think the choice of title was particularly helpful or appropriate.  A lot of what is going on at the moment is because people cannot or will not distinguish between “Jewish” and … well, and what?  People say “between anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist” (leaving aside the fact that “anti-Semitic” isn’t an accurate term and “anti-Jewish” is better), but that isn’t right. Saying or doing anything anti-Semitic is clearly wrong at every possibly level, and should not be permitted in any political party or anywhere else.  What about “anti-Zionist”?  That presumably means questioning the right of the Israeli state to exist – and is inappropriate, given that its existence is recognised by, and indeed was voted on by, the United Nations.  Or “anti-Israeli” – that presumably means taking against over 5 million people, and isn’t acceptable either.  “Critical of the policies of the present Israeli government in relation to the Palestinians” is horribly long-winded, but that’s the one that should be OK.  Criticise any government!

But all these things are getting confused.  And calling a programme “We are British Jews” and then spending 90% of the time talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just kind of plays right along with that confusion.  All the same, there was a lot of very interesting stuff in it, and it’s good to see such a controversial subject being tackled rather than shied away from.