What I Learned About Anti-Semitism

By Vis­it­ing My Mother’s English Home­town

Forward Magazine - - Opinion - Jane Eis­ner

In late April, my sis­ter and I re­turned to York­shire, in the north of Eng­land, for a brief visit to ex­plore what we could of our mother’s roots. She died nearly 13 years ago, and for al­most a decade prior, Alzheimer’s dis­ease had pro­gres­sively clouded her abil­ity to re­call much about her life. I re­gret that I wasn’t pre­scient enough to put ev­ery­thing down be­fore it was lost, so this trip was a recla­ma­tion project of sorts.

Since I had vis­ited Leeds, my mother’s home­town, sev­eral times as an adult — once with her — and had re­ported in that part of Eng­land as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for The Philadel­phia Inquirer, the land­scape was fa­mil­iar, and I didn’t ex­pect to dis­cover any in­di­ca­tion that her life was much be­yond or­di­nary. There was fam­ily, school, work, war, friends, a tight-knit Jewish com­mu­nity, hard­ship and hap­pi­ness.

And there was anti-Semitism. I knew that was a fea­ture of life for English Jews dur­ing my mother’s life­time, as it sadly is now. What I came to re­al­ize, how­ever, is that we make a grave mis­take by equat­ing what hap­pened to Jews then and what is hap­pen­ing now. The same is true on this side of the pond.

The dis­tinc­tions may be sub­tle, but they are real and in­struc­tive, es­pe­cially since Jews in the U.K. (and their less nu­mer­ous Ir­ish coun­ter­parts) did not face the anti-Semitic fas­cism that spread through con­ti­nen­tal Europe dur­ing the last cen­tury. Today, even with a resur­gent na­tion­al­ism on the right, a deeply trou­bling leader of the leftwing Labour Party and the more in­dis­crim­i­nate ter­ror­ism that oc­ca­sion­ally rocks the coun­try, the kind of prej­u­dice that my mother and her gen­er­a­tion ex­pe­ri­enced has faded as surely as her Bri­tish ac­cent did af­ter liv­ing in Amer­ica for decades.

And for that, I am grate­ful.

It was cold and rain­ing when we ar­rived in Leeds, of course; there’s a rea­son the grass is so green and the um­brel­las so sturdy on this is­land. Still, our vol­un­teer guides, Nigel Griz­zard and Tim Friedman, were warm in their wel­come.

As we drove from the cen­ter of the city to­ward the old Jewish neigh­bor­hoods, I was con­tin­u­ally re­minded of how cities dis­play the pas­sage of time on ev­ery street and ev­ery build­ing. They never stand still.

In the Ley­land neigh­bor­hood just out­side the city cen­ter, where my great-great grand­par­ents once lived, the syn­a­gogue is now a Sal­va­tion Army.

The Jewish tai­lors’ union build­ing is now a Thai box­ing gym.

Fur­ther north — the swankier desti­na­tion to which as­pi­ra­tional Jews headed — there’s a build­ing that once housed the ORT Tech­ni­cal School. The school be­gan in Ber­lin in 1937 and, flee­ing the Nazis, re­lo­cated to Leeds in 1939, with 106 boys, all refugees. It re­mains a school, but now the stu­dents are Mus­lim girls.

Down the street from where my mother lived and likely where her fam­ily wor­shipped was the Chas­sidishe Syn­a­gogue, which opened in 1932 and is now shut­tered. Next to it is the soar­ing Leeds Is­lamic Cen­tre, and on the Fri­day morn­ing we vis­ited, the grounds were filled with Mus­lim wor­ship­pers.

“They sold it to us in the 1980s,” one Mus­lim man stopped to make sure he told us.

But here’s the thing. The Chas­sidishe Syn­a­gogue was also, in a sense, re­cy­cled. Jews mov­ing from the Ley­lands — per­haps even in­clud­ing my fam­ily — pur­chased what was known as Spencer Hall, tore it down and built a place of worship for their grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

I will ad­mit to mixed feel­ings when I ac­tu­ally see the phys­i­cal ex­pres­sion of this re­cy­cling. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of old and new can be jar­ring. The mag­nif­i­cent New Syn­a­gogue, for in­stance, which opened in 1932 near where my mother lived, fell into dis­re­pair be­fore it was beau­ti­fully re­stored in the late 1980s and is now the head­quar­ters for the North­ern School of Con­tem­po­rary Dance.

On the day we vis­ited, the sanc­tu­ary was jammed with light­ing equip­ment and scaf­fold­ing left be­hind from a dance per­for­mance the night be­fore, but a kind worker gave us a quick tour. Though clearly not Jewish, he ea­gerly showed off the sweep­ing royal blue domed ceil­ing of the sanc­tu­ary, its Jewish star blaz­ing in red, and the stained-glass win­dows with He­braic sym­bols that cir­cled the build­ing.

He pulled up the cush­ions on the stately wooden seats where the men sat down­stairs, say­ing that this was where the Jews stored their “hym­nals.” Then he brought us to the back of a dark­ened stage to touch the mar­ble sur­round­ing what he said was where the or­gan had been lo­cated. We knew bet­ter. It was the holy ark, where To­rah scrolls once were housed.

If anti-Semitism was still deeply rooted in Bri­tain, if dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews was con­sis­tent and le­gal, this sort of nat­u­ral evo­lu­tion might have been harder be­cause the Jews would have been stuck, ghet­toized the way they were in con­ti­nen­tal Europe for so many cen­turies.

In­stead, it seems that what my mother ex­pe­ri­enced in her early years in the 1930s, through World War II and un­til she em­i­grated to the United States in 1949 were more sub­tle re­stric­tions.

Thanks to my sis­ter’s sleuthing, we man­aged to lo­cate Phyl­lis, my mother’s old­est friend from child­hood, who now lives in Manch­ester. Her eyesight and hear­ing have nearly left her, but her mem­ory was clear and joy­ful.

Hers was a stoic gen­er­a­tion to be sure, sur­viv­ing war, de­pri­va­tion and ra­tioning, be­liev­ing fer­vently that only Win­ston Churchill stood be­tween their free­dom and a Nazi in­va­sion. “Churchill saved us,” she said. “When he spoke, you wanted to go out and shoot the Ger­mans.”

Anti-Semitism was sim­ply wo­ven into the fab­ric of her life. On Chapel­town Road and Round­hay Road — two big thor­ough­fares of north Leeds — Jews knew which shops would not hire them, so they found jobs else­where. “Jewish peo­ple found it very hard to find em­ploy­ment in non-Jewish firms. It’s why a lot of cot­tage in­dus­tries be­gan,” she said.

Jews knew they were not wel­come in the lo­cal pubs, so they cre­ated their own places to so­cial­ize. I grew up hear­ing about “Ju­bilee Hall,” where my mother and her friends went ev­ery Sun­day even­ing. (The build­ing is now a fa­cil­ity for lo­cal mu­si­cians and start-up me­dia com­pa­nies. Of course.)

Even though they tried hard to blend in — so Angli­cized were their names that my mother’s fam­ily’s name was Cross — dis­crim­i­na­tion per­sisted, which is one of the rea­sons why af­ter

As we drove around the rainy streets, I won­dered what would have hap­pened had she stayed.

the war many of those Jews, my mother in­cluded, left Eng­land for Amer­ica.

The anti-Semitism my mother ex­pe­ri­enced in Eng­land — a ver­sion of which my father also ex­pe­ri­enced in the U.S. — pre­vented her from do­ing things sim­ply be­cause she was Jewish. I’ve never been pre­vented from do­ing any­thing be­cause I am a Jew.

“There is an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion to be drawn be­tween at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iours,” Jonathan Boyd wrote in an email to me (hence, the Bri­tish spell­ing). Boyd is the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for Jewish Pol­icy Re­search (JPR) in Lon­don and an ex­pert on anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitic dis­crim­i­na­tion along the lines of that my mother ex­pe­ri­enced, Boyd said, “is rare today, not least be­cause it is il­le­gal. The coun­try as a whole has be­come much more sen­si­tive to mi­nor­ity rights, so deny­ing any eth­nic or re­li­gious group ac­cess to op­por­tu­ni­ties or ser­vices be­cause of their eth­nic or re­li­gious ori­gins is widely un­der­stood to be ab­so­lutely un­ac­cept­able.” While other ex­perts point to an in­crease in anti-Semitic in­ci­dents in the U.K., vi­o­lence against Jews re­mains, in Boyd’s words, “van­ish­ingly rare.”

Boyd’s ob­ser­va­tions are backed up by a com­pre­hen­sive re­port JPR re­leased last Septem­ber that claims to be the largest and most de­tailed sur­vey of at­ti­tudes to­ward Jews and Is­rael ever con­ducted in Great Bri­tain. The study found that only 5% of the Bri­tish pop­u­la­tion con­sists of “peo­ple who hold a wide range of neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward Jews.”

“There is a much larger num­ber of peo­ple who be­lieve a small num­ber of neg­a­tive ideas about Jews, but who may not be con­sciously hos­tile or prej­u­diced to­wards them,” the re­port con­tin­ued. And that’s be­cause of the dif­fu­sion of anti-Semitic ideas.

This, then, is the new con­cern: a greater free­dom to air nox­ious at­ti­tudes, and the means through so­cial me­dia to do it. In Jeremy Cor­byn’s Labour Party, many are rightly con­cerned that those views have moved from the mar­gins to the main­stream — echo­ing the trend in the U.S., where anti-Semitism orig­i­nat­ing with the “alt-right” has found its way into po­lit­i­cal dis­course and even the White House.

Will the dis­sem­i­na­tion of anti-Semitic at­ti­tudes lead to the spread of an­tiSemitic be­hav­iors? That is the fear, but so far, there is lit­tle ev­i­dence. The JPR sur­vey found that only “1% of Bri­tish so­ci­ety be­lieves that vi­o­lence in de­fence of their re­li­gious or po­lit­i­cal be­liefs and val­ues is ‘of­ten’ jus­ti­fied against Jews, and a fur­ther 3% be­lieve that it is ‘some­times’ jus­ti­fied. Al­most iden­ti­cal re­sults are re­ported for any jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of vi­o­lence against Zion­ists and Is­raelis.” (Ital­ics mine.) In fact, lev­els of anti-Semitism in Great Bri­tain are among the low­est in the world.

My mother left Leeds not only be­cause of the lin­ger­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews, but also in the hopes of find­ing a bet­ter life. Most of her fam­ily came to Amer­ica, too. They weren’t flee­ing from some­thing so much as they were search­ing for a se­cu­rity and pros­per­ity that they were even­tu­ally able to find on these shores.

As we drove around the rainy streets in Leeds, I won­dered what would have hap­pened had she stayed. She had been in a ter­ri­ble ve­hic­u­lar ac­ci­dent that left her hos­pi­tal­ized for a year, then be­came en­gaged to the man who’d been in­jured with her, and her de­ci­sion to call off the wed­ding prompted the de­ci­sion to leave the coun­try. What if their romance hadn’t ended? What if Leeds had re­mained her home?

See­ing her house and school and syn­a­gogue now left me grate­ful for what this com­mu­nity of­fered my mother and her fam­ily through many gen­er­a­tions, de­spite the anti-Semitism, de­spite the hard­ship.

We stopped at Round­hay Park — how of­ten had I heard her speak of it? — a lush ex­panse of grass, shrubs, trees and soccer fields, on that April day punc­tu­ated with white and yel­low daf­fodils. Next to a gazebo at the en­trance is a tall clock tower that was re­cently ren­o­vated thanks in part to the fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tions of a lo­cal Jewish cou­ple, suc­cess­ful lawyers.

“This plaque is pre­sented by Gra­hame and Mar­i­lyn Stowe in loving and eter­nal mem­ory of their beloved par­ents and in grat­i­tude to the City of Leeds for pro­vid­ing a safe haven to gen­er­a­tions of refugees flee­ing per­se­cu­tion.”

I am cer­tain my mother would have agreed with that sen­ti­ment.

Jane Eis­ner is the For­ward’s ed­i­torin-chief. Con­tact her at eis­ner@for­ward.com


LIVE AT LEEDS: Jane Eis­ner (right) with her sis­ter Karen Zucker in front of their mother’s child­hood home.

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