Broadening the picture - beyond America: The United Kingdom

by Steve Israel

The roots of the Jewish community in Britain in its present incarnation date back only some three centuries, but the fact is that the "Anglo-Jewish" community (dominated by England, like the United Kingdom itself) is one of the longest accepted and best integrated Jewish communities in the world.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the existing community received a massive infusion of energy with the arrival of a large wave of immigration from Russia and that immigrant community gave a warm welcome on the whole to the news of Herzlian Zionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

When the Zionist youth movements started to appear in the late 1920's and 1930's, however, the community leaders were not over-enthusiastic. As long as the movements were aiming to strengthen the Jewish identity of their participants through cultural activity, including passive support for the Jewish community in Palestine, they were more than prepared to support them. But when the emphasis became more focused on the idea of active support for the community in Palestine including the idea of Aliyah as an aim, the community leadership became decidedly lukewarm.

The Anglo-Jewish community has, since the founding of the Jewish state, termed itself as a pro-Zionist community but it has done so in a very British way. Zionism has received much support from the adult community, which has made generous financial contributions to Israel and Zionism but with a few exceptional moments such as the time of the 1967 war, that support has always been given in moderation. There has been an active Zionist movement but its leaders have never seen Aliyah as a personal demand on themselves, although they have certainly encouraged others to do so. Thus, that leadership has changed only very slowly.

To a large extent, the impetus for active Zionism has come from the youth and the younger elements of the community and, from a Zionist perspective, there is no question that this has proved impressive. Since the foundation of Israel over 26,000 British Jews have gone on Aliyah, representing a very large number for a community which has been upwardly mobile and decidedly middle class for most of that period - a community moreover which has not been threatened by any real anti-semitism or strong hostility throughout that period. Today, while the raising of community funds - including those for Israel - shows continuing generosity, the Zionist movement is decidedly not among the leading community institutions. Today, 50% of Jewish youngsters come on study tours to Israel in the framework of one or other of the Zionist youth movements, but for the vast majority of participants and their parents, these are social frameworks through which they pass preparatory to continuing their life in Britain.

One final remark should be added. Of the estimated 300,000 Jews in the United Kingdom, about 30,000 - a full 10% - are ex-Israelis. These "yordim" (the opposite of "olim" - immigrants to the Land of Israel) comprise sub-communities with often ill-defined ties to the host Jewish community - in many of the large cities of the West. It is too early to estimate the effect of Israel's approximately 500,000 yordim worldwide on the subject of Israel-Diaspora relations, but it is certainly something that will have some kind of impact in the middle to long term.





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30 May 2005 / 21 Iyar 5765 0