Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Loyalty, Identity and Belonging

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Loyalty, Identity and Belonging

Article excerpt

In 2006, on the 350th anniversary of Jewish resettlement in Britain, Tony Blair told a packed congregation at Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London: "As the oldest minority faith community in this country, you show how identity through faith can be combined with a deep loyalty to our nation."

Speaking at a time when there was much talk of Britain "sleepwalking into segregation" and much debate over whether the doctrine of multiculturalism had failed, Mr Blair was suggesting that British Jews formed a kind of model community: one whose example other ethnic and religious minorities, perhaps, should seek to emulate.

Would that it were that simple. The history of Jewish cultural, religious and intellectual life in Britain shows just how complex are such questions of identity and belonging. As David Cesarani argues on page 22 in the cover story of this special issue, Jewish life in Britain has always been "fractious and unruly", defined by divergent opinions and experience. Some Jews place religion at the heart of their identity; others remain resolutely secular, preferring to define Jewishness as an ethnic category--or resist attempts at definition altogether. As Linda Grant, the Orange Prize-winning novelist, writes on page 51 " ... the British Jewish experience is one of an uncertainty of identity, of a difficulty in establishing yourself as an individual soul or an ethnic voice".

The journey has not been without hardship. As late as the 1940s, Jewish loyalty to Britain was being questioned openly and in 1947 the UK experienced widespread anti-Jewish riots after the murder of two British soldiers in Mandate Palestine.

Discussions of British Jewish identity are too often embroiled in disputes about the state of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory. The New Statesman supports a two-state solution and robustly condemns the belligerence and excesses of the Likud-led Netanyahu government. …

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