Britain’s Jews: Con­fi­dence, Matu­ri­ty, Anxiety

  • Review
By – April 27, 2023

Har­ry Freedman’s book is the first com­pre­hen­sive treat­ment of British Jew­ry to have appeared in a num­ber of years. Writ­ten pri­mar­i­ly for a British audi­ence, the book nonethe­less rais­es inter­est­ing ques­tions for Amer­i­can read­ers. Notwith­stand­ing major dif­fer­ences in class and social struc­ture between Great Britain and the US, the lives of British and Amer­i­can Jews have many parallels.

The sub­ti­tle sums up Freedman’s the­sis about Jew­ish life in Britain today. While Jews have been a part of Eng­lish, and lat­er British, soci­ety for over a mil­len­ni­um, they have for the most part kept a low pro­file until recent­ly. Britain, although not free of anti­semitism, gen­er­al­ly did not inflict on them the kinds of anti-Jew­ish vio­lence preva­lent in the coun­tries from which they migrat­ed. As they’ve achieved posi­tions of increas­ing impor­tance and sta­tus, many have gained the con­fi­dence to express their Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, but they have also expe­ri­enced a new anx­i­ety about the specter of antisemitism.

Freed­man explores this para­dox in nine sub­stan­tial chap­ters that cov­er a vari­ety of top­ics, from insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures to reli­gious iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and lifestyle. Using an infor­mal jour­nal­is­tic mode, Freed­man offers just enough his­to­ry to con­tex­tu­al­ize the book’s themes. He draws on inter­views via Zoom with indi­vid­ual Jews, includ­ing Chief Rab­bi Ephraim Mirvis, lead­ers of major orga­ni­za­tions, polit­i­cal fig­ures, and journalists. 

Amer­i­can read­ers might find some of these insti­tu­tion­al details a bit heavy going — it would have been inter­est­ing to hear more lay voic­es — but they will nev­er­the­less find many aspects of British Jew­ry famil­iar and res­o­nant. The issues of assim­i­la­tion and inter­mar­riage are major con­cerns among insti­tu­tion­al lead­ers, just as they are here. While many Jews are less ret­i­cent now to iden­ti­fy as Jews, there has also been a sig­nif­i­cant move­ment toward assim­i­la­tion in which Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is poten­tial­ly lost or sig­nif­i­cant­ly rede­fined. Recent cen­sus data (not avail­able when Freed­man wrote his book) indi­cates an increase in Jew­ish iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, but this may be cor­re­lat­ed with anoth­er trend in British Jew­ish life sim­i­lar to that in the US: the growth of the pop­u­la­tion of hared­im, whom the British call Strict­ly Ortho­dox (in con­trast to the mid­dle-of-the road ortho­doxy of the Unit­ed Syn­a­gogue, Britain’s unique and chief Jew­ish insti­tu­tion). This has result­ed in a right­ward trend in main­stream ortho­doxy and a grow­ing inter­est in non-ortho­dox streams.

The place of Israel in Jew­ish life is also para­mount and fraught. The right­ward polit­i­cal move­ment in Israel has trou­bled many British Jews, and Israel’s poli­cies have also had a direct effect on polit­i­cal life in Britain, per­haps more so than in the Unit­ed States. Crit­i­cism of Israel by those who iden­ti­fy as pro­gres­sives, espe­cial­ly for­mer Labour Par­ty leader Jere­my Cor­byn, has been tak­en as a sign of a ris­ing anti­semitism on the left. Some see this as a major rea­son why a large per­cent­age of Jew­ish sup­port­ers of Labour defect­ed in the 2020 elec­tions. While Freed­man address­es the issue of anti­semitism in var­i­ous places through­out the book, he per­haps could have pro­vid­ed a more sys­tem­at­ic overview.

Judi­cious and bal­anced, Freedman’s out­look is gen­er­al­ly opti­mistic — although he quotes Chief Rab­bi Mirvis’s assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion in Britain (bor­rowed from the Israeli ambas­sador): The good is get­ting bet­ter and the bad is get­ting worse.” This book con­tributes to under­stand­ing why that is so.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions