OPINION: I’m starting to sense the fear my grandparents felt

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OPINION: I’m starting to sense the fear my grandparents felt

Jonathan Kessel is a secular Jewish Londoner fortunate to have never encountered the scourge of antisemitism and its chilling impact. Then came 7 October.

A Jewish Girls' School in Stamford Hill, after vandals threw red paint at the front door on Thursday 12 October.
A Jewish Girls' School in Stamford Hill, after vandals threw red paint at the front door on Thursday 12 October.

I’m a 50-year-old with a young family living in London. I’m not religious or identifiably Jewish. I’m the definition of secular and assimilated. Yet I, like along with the most observant and identifiable Jews in our country, can feel it too. The sense that life here has never felt so fragile.

For the first time in my lifetime, British Jews are frightened of what the future might hold for us and, more importantly, for our children and grandchildren. We’re all asking, to greater or lesser degrees, where can I go to be safe if events turn from bad to worse?

Back in the 1930s, a dozen members of my family lived in a tiny two-bedroom house in the East End. They had very little to live on, having fled Eastern Europe with the clothes on their backs, to a country where they hoped to find safety and prosperity.

They had to fight to succeed, fight to improve their live, and fight with their fists against Oswald Mosley and his fascists. They had to stand up for themselves. They simply had to. They had nothing to lose  – they’d already lost it all – and everything to gain. A peaceful life in England was worth fighting for.

My grandfather and father used to tell me how they had to fight on the streets when people called them “Yids”. They learned to handle themselves and defend their loved ones. They knew their future and the futures of the Jewish people in Britain depended on it.

Fast forward to when I was a child in the 1980s. I can’t remember anyone being antisemitic towards me. I attended a Church of England school where everyone knew I was Jewish. I mixed with mainly non-Jewish friends. Antisemitism wasn’t an issue. Was it because my parents and grandparents had stood up for themselves and created a place for us in society. Was it because the shadow of the Holocaust still loomed so large that it simply wasn’t acceptable to be antisemitic any more?

In the 1980s, racism against the black, Indian and Asian population of the UK was, however, all too common. These communities couldn’t blend in the same way. They stood out. They were visibly different. I witnessed black, Indian and Asian children being picked on in school and on the streets.

Like Jews in the 1930s, these minorities also had to learn to stand up for themselves. If you stand there meekly and take it, the school bully and the street bully comes back time and again.

Minority groups and British society have come a long way since then. Racists are called out and isolated. They are not excused and ignored. Most people in society possess a moral compass that points in the right direction. Of course, there are bigots and dangers, but we have evolved in my lifetime into a society that embraces different faiths and cultures.

Then came 7 October.

That fateful day has made British Jews realise, like our parents and grandparents before us, that we simply have to stand up for ourselves. We have no choice. We cannot ignore the comments, the chants, the protests, the antisemitism dressed up as concern (and we all feel genuine concern) for the Palestinians and criticism of Israel’s actions.

Two weeks ago, a friend was chased down Farringdon Road by a group of men in the middle of the day because he was wearing a kippah. His wife urged him not to wear it in public but he refused to be intimidated. Why should wearing a kippah in a democratic society be seen as an act of bravery?

The vast majority of our fellow British citizens are kind, warm, welcoming and balk at the sight of some of the Jew hate we have witnessed on the streets of the UK in the last six weeks. We need to stick up for ourselves so that the moral majority sticks up for us. Once again we will have to learn to to fight for our future.


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