British Jews: Making Sense of Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism


Some work on antisemitism and anti-Zionism among British Jews has speculated about the potential wellbeing of British Jews within the specifi contexts in which antisemitism and anti-Zionism have arisen. In view of the academic boycott on Israel, this work has focused largely upon the university context (Klaff, 2010). Earlier work has examined upon the notion of the “self-hating” Jew, which is summarised in Chapter 1. This chapter presents the results of two exploratory qualitative interview studies which set out to examine how British Jews conceptualised their Jewishness and their relationship with the State of Israel, and how they perceived and responded to antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Like the other chapters in the book, this work took a social psychological perspective on the interview data and set out to examine the social, rhetorical and psychological aspects of self-identifi and perceived outgroup prejudice. In this chapter, the following themes are outlined: (i) Positioning Jewishness and Israel in the Self-Concept; (ii) Setting the Boundaries of Antisemitism and Anti-Zionism; and (iii) Coping with Threatened Identity: Re-Constructing Jewishness and Israel.

Methodological overview

The aim of the present study was to identify the overarching themes in the accounts of a small sample of British Jews and, like the other studies reported in this book, the results are not empirically generalisable to the wider population. Yet, the inclusion of three important subgroups within the British Jewish community, namely Orthodox Jews, secular Jews and anti-Zionist Jews, provided insight into the convergences, divergences and tensions within the heterogeneous British Jewish community. Participants were invited to participate in in-depth interviews concerning “perceptions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism among British Jewry”, which took place in the spring of 2013. Individuals who volunteered to participate in the study self-identifi as Jewish (which was conceptualised in different ways) and believed that they had an important contribution to make on debates surrounding antisemitism and anti-Zionism. An adapted version of the interview schedule described in Chapter 9 was used for this study.

Forty-seven British Jews participated in the two studies. There were 19 men

and 28 women. Thirteen individuals identifi as Orthodox Jews; 22 as secular
Jews; and 12 as anti-Zionist Jews. The age range of participants was 18–33 years. For the fi study, participants were recruited from within the Jewish community in Golders Green, North London (UK), using a snowball sampling strategy. For the second study, participants were recruited from within the Jewish community in Manchester (UK), also using a snowball sampling strategy. The sample was educated – 40 participants had completed or were studying towards a university degree, and the remaining seven individuals had completed GCSEs/A-levels. Data were analysed using thematic analysis, following the same analytical procedures that were described in Chapter 7.

Assimilating and Accommodating Jewishness and Israel in the Self-Concept

There were distinct social representations of Jewishness and Israel among respondents, and these representations appeared to vary in accordance with their religious and political positions. Many individuals in the study perceived their Jewish identity as central to their self-concept, although Jewishness could be manifested in ethno-cultural and/or religio-spiritual terms (Loewenthal, 2000). For self-identifi secular Jews, Jewishness was construed primarily as an ethno-cultural identity:

Being Jewish for me is, and you should know that this is because I'm more secular than religious […], well it's spending time with my family on Shabbat, not about shul [the synagogue] but respecting the traditions, eating kosher where possible [ … ] These small things just give me a feeling of where I'm from, where I come from, what my ancestors did, you know [ … ] It feels good, I suppose. (Josh, secular)

In describing his Jewish identity, Josh cited his adherence to Jewish traditions, such as observance of the Holy Sabbath with family members and adherence to the dietary norms associated with Judaism. Like Josh, several individuals indicated that attending the synagogue was of lesser importance than adherence to Jewish norms and traditions (“respecting the traditions”), which they believed refl a more secular rather than religious Jewish identity (Sinclair and Milner, 2005). In referring to the “functions” performed by their Jewishness, secular respondents tended to cite psychological constructs, such as inter-generational continuity and lineage, which have come to be associated with ethnic identity, in particular (Jaspal and Cinnirella, 2012). For instance, Josh perceived his Jewish identity as providing him with a sense of origin and connection with past generations (“my ancestors”), which has been said to provide ethnic group members with feelings of intergenerational continuity and group-level self-esteem (Jaspal and Cinnirella, 2012). Furthermore, Josh noted that his Jewish identity facilitated a positive self-conception, which suggested that it enhanced the self-esteem principle of identity. Similarly, as a secular Jew who valued the norms, values, traditions and social representations associated with her Jewishness, Rebecca regarded that State of Israel as an important aspect of her identity:

Israel is important for any Jew because it is our homeland, in my case, my second homeland. Israel is a spiritual place for some but it's also like a safe haven, I suppose, a place that we can call home [ … ] It's a place where I feel a sense of belonging. (Rebecca, secular)

Like Josh, Rebecca emphasised the ethno-cultural underpinnings of her Jewish identity and her adherence to tradition, rather than spiritual faith. Her Jewishness appeared to provide a sense of connection with past and future generations of Jews, which highlighted the importance of this identity for the continuity principle. Moreover, secular individuals converged in their acceptance of the social representation that “Israel is important for any Jew”, both secular and religious, because they construed it as “our homeland” and “a place that we can call home”. Incidentally, most individuals highlighted the vicissitudes of Jewish existence in their host countries due to sudden spurts of antisemitic sentiment, which had had negative repercussions for the wellbeing of Jews in the diaspora. In exemplifying and describing these vicissitudes, respondents invoked the social representation of the Holocaust (Stein, 1978). Moreover, persecution against Jews was constructed as a looming and persistent threat, which could re-surface at any given moment due to a long history of antisemitism. While Rebecca acknowledged the “spiritual” value of Israel for more religious Jews, she attached greater importance to the social representation of Israel as a “safe haven” for Jewry. This social representation is also observable in the accounts of Israelis (see Chapter 9). More specifi , awareness of a long history of antisemitism sensitised participants to the practical, real-world importance of Israel. Many individuals did generally manifest a British national identity and indicated a sense of belonging in the national group (Kudenko and Phillips, 2009) – crucially, in Rebecca's case, Britishness was construed as more central to her self-concept than Israel. Yet, Israel was perceived as providing feelings of acceptance, inclusion and belonging – a stable and consistent source of belonging in a world that several respondents perceived to be uncertain for Jews. Israel was objectifi as a symbol for Jewishness, be it a religious or an ethno-cultural identity, which could provide a “space” for Jewish continuity by shielding Jews from threats perceived to be associated with hostile outgroups. Self-identifi with Israel provided an indirect means of coping with these perceived threats. Israel provided feelings of security, an important principle for many Jews whose experiences have been described in this book, but also group continuity (Jaspal and Yampolsky, 2011). Orthodox Jews in the study tended to conceptualise their Jewish identity in both spiritual and ethno-cultural terms, although the spiritual component of Jewishness was of particular phenomenological importance. There was a perception among Orthodox Jews that their spirituality and ethnicity were intrinsically entwined and

It's a spiritual connection with HaShem [God]. It's a sense of community, security, peace within and outside, and we were chosen by HaShem. It's really important for me because it gives me a sense of who I am in the world and what my purpose is [ … ] It's a great feeling to be connected to HaShem. (Kate, Orthodox)

Kate construed her Jewish identity as symbolising a “spiritual connection with HaShem”, which highlighted the intrinsic spirituality of her Jewish identity, and as providing “a sense of community”, which highlighted the socio-cultural dimension of her Jewishness (see Loewenthal, 2014). The construal of Jewishness as an ethnic identity was similarly observable in Orthodox participants' social representation that they had been chosen by God and that this “chosenness” was transmitted intergenerationally. Like Kate, most Orthodox participants derived a sense of purpose and meaning, feelings of security and inner peace on the basis of their Jewish identity. This suggested that the belonging, meaning and continuity principles of identity were clearly served by identifi with Jewishness. Moreover, Kate's observation that “it's a great feeling” to perceive a spiritual connection with God indicated that this was also satisfying for the self-esteem principle of identity. Thus, for Orthodox Jews, Jewishness clearly performed important psychological functions and was most central to their self-concept.

Given its conceptualisation as a Jewish state, Israel performed similarly important functions for identity among Orthodox Jews. Although Jewishness was regarded as primary in the self-concept, Israel was perceived as empowering because it could safeguard and bolster Jewish identity:

Israel is the Jewish State. It's empowering for any Jew because it's the only country where Jewish customs and identity are enshrined at every level of society. Kosher food, Shabbat, our religious holidays [ … ] Israel is the place where I can be a good Jew and true to HaShem and raise my children in a Jewish environment where they can share in it. (Sarah, Orthodox)

Sarah emphasised the Jewish character of Israel, symbolised by the enshrinement of “Jewish customs and identity at every level of society”. In Orthodox participants' accounts, the relative ease of manifesting one's Jewish identity in Israel was juxtaposed with the relative obstacles to Jewish identity manifestation in British society, for instance (Valins, 2003). Sarah cited Israel's observance of Jewish dietary requirements, the Holy Sabbath and Jewish religious holidays as examples of the inherently Jewish character of the country. Like Sarah, several Orthodox individuals in the study implied that Israel was more conducive to a Jewish lifestyle than other national contexts, which led them to view Israel as empowering for Jews. This suggested that the self-efficacy principle of identity was bolstered by identification with the State of Israel. It was construed as providing feelings of control and competence in relation to one's religious life, which might not be possible if Israel did not exist. The stated goal of many of the Orthodox Jews who participated in this study was to “be a good Jew and [to be] true to HaShem” as
indicated by Sarah. Israel was generally perceived as facilitating this goal and was therefore regarded as positive and beneficial for identity processes. Given the psychological importance of being “true to HaShem” and “a good Jew”, Israel, a facilitator of Jewish identity and adherence to the tenets of Judaism, appeared to bolster the self-esteem principle of identity. It was indirectly conducive to a positive self-conception (Gecas, 1982). It is noteworthy that several Orthodox Jews feared that Jewish norms, values and customs were slowly losing ground among younger generations of the Jewish community (Valins, 2003). Conversely, Israel was perceived as providing a “space” for a Jewish socialisation, thereby protecting group continuity at a more symbolic level.

For some interviewees and particularly those who identifi as “anti-Zionist Jews”, Jewish identity appeared to be of lesser phenomenological importance than other social identities, such as their British national identity and their political group membership. This was clearly manifested in Jason's account:

Being Jewish isn't really up there in my list of priorities. To be honest, it's more like a position I'll take if I need to. I have strong political views, you know, and sometimes it sort of helps out to be Jewish or to be able to say it (laughs), you know, at times [ … ] Sometimes it's kind of like a license in a way to say what you've got to say. (Jason, anti-Zionist)

Although Jason self-identifi as Jewish, which was indeed one of the criteria for participation in this study, he clearly attributed less importance to his Jewish identity than to his political identity. He referred to his Jewishness as not “up there in my list of priorities” suggesting that it refl a subordinate, rather than psychologically central, identity. Indeed, some participants appeared to acknowledge their Jewish heritage without really perceiving a strong psychological “attachment” to it. Jason tellingly referred to his Jewish identity as a “position” he could take in particular social contexts in order to perform rhetorical tasks. Later in his interview, he referred to political debates concerning the Israeli-Palestinian confl and to the “utility” of his Jewish identity in defending his political and ideological position vis-à-vis the confl For Jason, his position as a Jewish individual allowed him to make particular statements and to avoid criticisms and allegations to which he believed a non-Jew might normally be susceptible. For instance, several participants acknowledged that there was considerable sensitivity around criticism of the State of Israel in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian confl and that critics of Israel had often been accused of antisemitism. Conversely, Jason felt that he could bolster the socialist political cause, which he wholeheartedly supported, without having to face the stigma associated with antisemitism, because of his own Jewish heritage. Indeed, he conceptualised his Jewish identity as a “kind of licence” and a privileged position to make controversial statements and to immunise him from stigma. Thus, his Jewish identity appeared to perform rhetorical and discursive, rather than psychological, functions for Jason, who in other circumstances attached little or no importance to this component of his self-concept. Crucially, this suggests a distinct
psychological (and rhetorical) motive for disidentifi from Jewishness from the one suggested by Diller (1980), who attributes disidentifi to repression. It appears that individuals are resourceful in managing their identities and in exploring their situational benefi

Similarly, it has been observed that Jews who oppose Zionism may be referred to as “self-hating Jews” (Lewin, 1948). Indeed, Finlay (2005, p. 202) has argued that “the term is often used rhetorically to discount Jews who differ in their life-styles, interests or political positions from their accusers, and that such misapplications of the concept result from essentialized and normative defi of Jewish identity”. The term can perform a delegitimising function by labelling others as “treacherous and pathological” (p. 217). “Self-hating Jews” are positioned as ingroup “Black Sheep” because they are viewed as deviating from the ingroup norm (here, commitment to Zionism) which may adversely affect the social image of the ingroup (Marques, Abrams, Páez, and Hogg, 2001). Both Jason and Harry (below) were aware of the social representation of the “self-hating Jew”, which was threatening for identity. Harry responded to this accusation by attributing importance to his Jewish identity, which he delineated from the State of Israel. This allowed him to protect his identity while continuing to disidentify with the State of Israel:

To me, Israel is a pariah state, you know. As a Jew, I don't want to tarnish my Jewish background which I'm very proud of [ … ] and the idea of Israel is just totally out of sync with my socialist and democratic values. And I speak for many, many Jews and, no, we don't hate ourselves or our faith. We just cannot support the idea of Zionism and a state just for Jews who believe in this particular thing […] What about us Jews? Don't we have a voice? (Harry, anti-Zionist)

Like Harry, some individuals in the study felt that negative social representations of Israel had adversely impacted social representations of Judaism and led some people to assume that Jews unanimously supported Israel. They attempted to safeguard positive images of Judaism, on the one hand, and to preserve membership within the Jewish ingroup by defl accusations of being “self-hating Jews”, on the other. Given that many individuals derived self-esteem on the basis of their Jewish identity (“I'm very proud”), this group membership was important and, thus, the “self-hating Jew” label was threatening for the belonging and self-esteem principles of identity. Individuals struggled to retain acceptance and inclusion in the group by attempting to evade the “self-hating Jew” label. Yet, given the close link between Jewishness and Israel in the minds of many respondents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, antiZionist Jews did clearly face some ostracisation on the basis of their opposition to the State of Israel.

Harry and other respondents appeared to oppose Zionism because they perceived the ethos of Israel as being at odds with “socialist and democratic values”, which were of primary importance particularly for those individuals who manifested an anti-Zionist stance. A left-wing socialist identity was often regarded as requiring an anti-Zionist stance because of the perceived right-wing orientation of Zionism. Anti-
Zionism was perceived as central to this political identity. Thus, in order to safeguard the psychological coherence principle of identity, individuals believed that it was necessary to oppose Zionism – they attempted to align their individual identity with their important political identity. Consequently, Harry reproduced the polemic social representation that Israel is a “pariah state” which contravenes global norms and therefore stands as an outcaste in the international community (see Chapter 3). He rejected the ideology of Zionism and the social representation that Israel constitutes a Jewish state (“a state for just Jews”). This stance can also be attributed to the desire to protect his Jewish identity, since he believed that identifi with Israel might “tarnish” his Jewishness, but also his socialist political orientation which seemed incompatible with Zionism. There was a perceived confl between these identities. There was a desire among some respondents to construct a social identity around their Jewishness (conceived as a religio-spiritual and/ or ethno-cultural identity) and their anti-Zionist stance. Indeed, Harry and Jason asserted that there were many Jews who were staunchly opposed to the State of Israel despite their Jewish heritage, and wished to emphasise the existence of this anti-Zionist subgroup within the Jewish diaspora. This appeared to perform the function of safeguarding acceptance, inclusion and belonging within the Jewish ingroup by decreasing the image of a “Black Sheep” and promoting the representation of anti-Zionist Jews as a substantial minority within the Jewish community. Moreover, some participants clearly attempted to safeguard positive social representations of Jews by highlighting their disidentifi with the State of Israel, thereby suggesting that there was not

uncritical acceptance of Zionism within the diverse Jewish community.

These data demonstrate the diverse meanings and social representations attributed to Jewishness and the State of Israel, and that Jewish and Zionist identities can vary in their importance in accordance with the social and ideological milieu. Regardless of their position vis-à-vis Jewishness and Israel, the interviewees unanimously took a stance on antisemitism and anti-Zionism which they viewed as relevant, in one way or another, to all Jews.

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