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“Jewish people with a platform have the duty to come forward to make common cause with immigrants and refugees confronting levels of discrimination comparable to those our parents and grandparents faced in the past.”
What is it like to be an assimilated, secular Jew in England in 2021? For much of my adult life being Jewish has been simply a part of my history, a minor part of the many factors that shape me. I’ve witnessed casual antisemitism many times, but vicious antisemitism only once, perhaps 20 years ago. I was subjected at a dinner party to a foul-mouthed tirade from a furious man trying to establish a new career in finance, but who that very day had been sacked by his Jewish bosses in Boston. I don’t think he knew I was Jewish. The greatest shock was seeing that his pleasant, friendly wife, and his wealthy friends, shared his obnoxious conspiracy theory. We made our excuses and left, and the next day the host phoned me to apologise. I sometimes wonder how the discussion round the table went after we had disappeared.

David Baddiel, in his recent book Jews Don’t Count, has beautifully put into words how many of us have reacted, or at least been expected to react, to such incidents. Yes, there is antisemitism, but Jews are wealthy and privileged, so, in a sense, it doesn’t count. Maybe we brought it on ourselves, through the conspicuous signs of our own success? My father remembered his anxiety, as a young boy in Nazi-era Frankfurt, when Jewish women paraded in their furs outside the synagogue. He had already internalised the mantra of all people under threat of violence: keep your head down, don’t get noticed.

For most of my life I have regarded being Jewish as one of the least important things about me, even though my father arrived in England at the age of eight on the Kindertransport. Perhaps 15 years ago, a group of Jewish philosophers approached me saying that they wanted to form a group to collectively draw attention to, and protest against, antisemitism. I declined. I was still in the ‘Jews Don’t Count’ mindset, and I haven’t completely shrugged it off. Yes, there’s abuse, graffiti, broken windows. In the US there have been shootings. But many other groups, such as Syrian refugees, and Black and Asian residents in the UK, EU and USA, face much more serious discrimination and persecution.

Yet things change, and time moves in mysterious ways. As every year passes, we seem to get closer to, not further away from, World War Two, and it has seemed to me more and more important to talk publicly about being Jewish. A few years ago, I wrote that, like many Jewish people of my age, I am descended from three generations of asylum seekers. I wrote those words because I often think of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem: ‘First they came for… and I did not speak out…’

The disaster of the Brexit referendum, the passions it stirred and encouraged, has left immigrants and refugees in the UK deeply exposed and vulnerable. It seemed important to me, and still does, to reflect on my own origins. I am not a refugee or immigrant. But I am descended from refugees and immigrants, fleeing from the Nazis and the Cossacks. I do not want to be part of the generation that pulls up the ladder. England, I was taught at school, is a tolerant country. We need to show it.

And so, as a Jew in Britain now, do I fear for myself or my family? It seems absurd to me to suggest that I should, though, as I am well aware, circumstances can change rapidly. My grandparents’ generation kept a packed suitcase under the bed. That is unthinkable to me. If the worst came to the worst, where could we even go? What I feel is that, before it ever gets close to that, successful, financially comfortable, second- and third-generation immigrants should expose their roots in public, to make common cause with refugees from all backgrounds. To demonstrate that the country is built upon immigration, not only tolerates but thrives through reaching out across our differences, and it would only be a shadow of what it is today if it had not shown (reluctant) tolerance in previous decades. But whether the country benefits from refugees or not, compassion and inclusion is a humanitarian duty. It’s not a lot to ask.

Jonathan Wolff

Jonathan Wolff is Alfred Landecker Professor of Values and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University. Previously he was Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Arts and Humanities at University College London. His work explores the connections between philosophy and public policy, with particular emphasis on questions of injustice. His books include Disadvantage (with Avner de-Shalit, 2007), The Human Right to Health (2012), An Introduction of Political Philosophy (3rd edition 2016), and Ethics and Public Policy (2nd edition 2019). Much of his latest work concerns ethical questions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he is co-chair of the Working Group for Ethics and Governance of the ACT-Accelerator for the World Health Organisation.

© Jonathan Wolff