Holocaust Memorial Day: ‘Why I Was Afraid To Stay In The UK As A Jewish Woman’

'Why I Was Afraid To Stay In The UK As A Jewish Woman'


by Grazia Author |
Published on

On Holocaust Memorial Day, marking the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, anti-Semitism is back in the news once again in Europe. With Israeli political slurs levied at Jews from across the globe becoming a increasing form of racism, and just weeks after the Paris terror attack at a kosher grocery store, synagogues and faith schools are under increased security. The threat is so severe that Theresa May spoke out about her worries that there will be an exodus of worried British Jews from the UK. Here, writer Eve Barlow, discusses why she left last year because of these very real fears.

‘Boringwood!’ That’s what my Jewish mates and I dub London’s sleepy Borehamwood, where families flock to raise kids in affordable security. However, it emerged last week that Jewish pupils there are being trained to protect themselves in the event of anti-Semitic terror attacks.

When I was growing up in the Jewish community in Giffnock, Glasgow’s equally boring suburb, I too learned survival skills. Some of us took krav maga lessons, a self-defence technique used by the Israeli army; but then it was as much to do with hanging out with the fit boys as it was to safeguard our lives. As a teenager, I’d never have guessed that 10 years or so later the threat of attack would be so real.

Recently, I’ve been pondering how my ancestors in 1930s Europe must have felt as they saw their own communities gradually contort into hubs of fear and anxiety. I’ve visited former concentration camps and Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s official memorial to the Holocaust. The horrors remembered there - and on Holocaust Memorial Day this week - are in the past, where we¡¦d like them to remain. But these London children are preparing for them to come alive once more. This is a very raw and real fear.

It’s echoed in my Facebook feed. A London teacher has a pupil who is telling other children the Holocaust never happened. An architect friend has seen anti-Semitic graffiti spread in Tower Hamlets. Even an old nemesis has been asking me for advice on how to deal with slurs – disguised as anti-Israel posts – that she has seen steadily escalate. I can believe the statistics that are keeping Theresa May awake – that 58% of British Jews fear they have no future in Europe. I’m one of them.

My great-grandfather Gershwin Berelovitch escaped the Russian tsar in 1904 and boarded a boat to Britain: a country of opportunity, democracy and tolerance. His naturalisation papers, signed by Winston Churchill, are framed on the wall of my parents’ dining room in Glasgow, next to my dad’s MBE for services to the NHS.

Three months ago, I was following in his footsteps and upping sticks, but this time from London to LA. For how long, who knows? This rise in anti-Semitism wasn’t the only reason I decided to leave, but it certainly contributed. Jew-bashing in the UK became rife last summer – a result of the Gaza conflict and subsequent ignorant conflation of what it means to support Israel and to be Jewish. It suddenly felt like everyone was in the pulpit: politicians on forums, ‘friends’ on Facebook, vandals on walls near my flat.

And it got worse every week. There was the kosher aisle in Chalk Farm’s branch of Morrisons, where someone found it repeatedly LOLs to chuck bacon rashers in next to the turkey slices. Then a Jewish friend, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, threatened to stop doing press conferences as journalists kept backing him into a corner over Israel. In the same week, Tesco emptied kosher food from its shelves, but when I tweeted that they should be ashamed that I could no longer buy meat at their stores – stores named after Tess Cohen (TesCo), the wife of Jewish founder Jack – I was called out for complaining about #firstworldproblems as Gaza’s children were being slain by fascist scum. The de-stocking of kosher products produced in the UK and the actions of the Israeli military are not the same thing. But that unequivocally anti-Semitic misconception began to manifest in increasingly aggressive ways.

I began to feel the way I did when I got on the school bus aged 13 and a classmate called me a ‘dirty kyke’ – afraid. I have never worn my Star of David outside my shirt, but there was a time, a few years back, circa TV shows called Jewish Mum Of The Year and Two Jews On A Cruise, when Judaism seemed popular. It didn’t last.

In addition to every 20-something’s fears over job security and never being able to afford a mortgage, the pressure to withhold my identity increased. I began explaining my dietary requirements as ‘vegetarianism’. Some friends even considered changing their surnames, in case their Judaism began to hinder their professional chances. Non-Jews would rather I shut up than accept the fact that anti-Semitism exists. But it does, as was demonstrated this month by a YouGov poll showing that 17% of Brits feel Jews think they’re better than other people.

My parents decided they were no longer safe to go to synagogue in the city they’ve called home for 60 years last September, some weeks after a Palestinian flag was erected in Glasgow’s George Square. Feeling it was better to be safe than sorry, they didn’t attend their favourite service – Kol Nidre – on the holiest night of the Jewish calendar, when British charity CST (the Community Security Trust) most vigilantly secure our temples. The nightmares of the Gestapo burning down synagogues and incinerating prayer books had suddenly broken free from museum displays and begun to haunt their wildest, morbid imaginations.

My own paranoid moment had come the month before, while hoping friends would stop tweeting #JewsKillGazaBabies and resume posting links to dancing puppies. A friend in LA texted me: ‘Eve! What the hell is going on over there? Are you OK?’ I told her it was nuts but I was fine. She said, ‘Dude, come to LA. Everyone here’s Jewish.’

A few months later I was on a plane. If things were atrocious then, this year they are already darker. Following the killing of 12 people, including two police officers, at Charlie Hebdo, four people were killed in a kosher shop in Paris because they were Jewish. Just last week, Holocaust Memorial Day posters were defaced in East London with the word ‘liars’. ‘You got out in time,’ my friends in the UK tell me.

It’s now three generations since my great-grandfather fled the Lithuanian pogroms. If he hadn’t, there’d be no me. How do I ensure there’s another generation? By not getting complacent, I guess. Since my arrival in LA, I’ve had messages from Jewish pals looking to do the same. When new stats are expected to show anti-Semitic attacks have reached the highest ever level recorded in the UK, can you blame them?

Mostly, they ask if I feel safer here. Sort of. In December, there were more menorah candle stands in LA than Christmas trees. Maybe there’s safety in menorahs. But before I filed this piece I did have second thoughts. Truth is, I was frightened. I still am.

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