Anti-Semitism in the UK: Should We Be Surprised?

During my first week as an international exchange student at King’s I stood unpacking groceries in my hall’s shared kitchen when one of my flatmates walked in. Having never met, we made innocuous small talk, and when he asked me if I was homesick I found the question quite endearing. Being in my third year of university I have become well adjusted to living away from home, though I did confess to my new acquaintance that I was feeling a bit sad about missing my family’s celebration of Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. He looked shocked and asked, incredulously, “You’re Jewish?” When I confirmed, to my utter shock and horror he stepped around to my side to get a better look at my profile. “Are you looking at my nose?” I asked him, to which he replied, “Yeah, you don’t look very Jewish,” as though it were a glowing compliment. I stood in the kitchen, slack-jawed and at a loss for words as he continued to describe to me what he believed a Jew should look like.

While my new acquaintance probably intended no malice by his hurtful comments, it did make me question the role of Jews in British society. Rising anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom is no secret- it was one of my qualms about studying abroad. 2017 and 2018 have held record highs for incidences of anti-Semitism; in 2018 over 100 incidences of anti-Semitism were reported between January and June, spiking during the months of contention between Israel and Palestine as well as after Jeremy Corbyn and other members of the Labour Party were accused of bolstering anti-Semitic behavior in the UK. Though nervous about coming to a country with a massive increase in incidents of anti-Semitic behavior, I never found myself worried for my safety. Being Jewish isn’t exactly visible- my last name is not Jewish and I made the choice to remove my necklace containing Jewish symbolism to avoid drawing any unwanted attention.

The UK is not the only country with growing anti-Semitic trends. The United States has also seen an increase in hate crimes targeted towards Jewish people following the election of Donald Trump. Neo-Nazis feel empowered to march in our streets and speak their beliefs loudly and pridefully. I have faced anti-Semitism in the US, often times from people who do not even know that their actions and words are harmful- even from friends. For a host of reasons, many Americans have placed a stake in the Israel-Palestine debate. I am adamant that it is possible to support Palestinians without being anti-Semitic, but oftentimes pro-Palestinian sentiments and anti-Semitism bleed into one another, creating an environment that is not conducive to constructive conversation.

However, the sheer difference in numbers is what I find particularly notable. Judaism accounts for less than one percent of the breakdown of world religions, but the United States has a Jewish population of 5.3 million people out of a total population of roughly 325.7 million. My hometown of Los Angeles makes up approximately 6.8% of the entire US Jewish demographic. On the other hand, the United Kingdom has a Jewish population of just under 270,000 out of a total population of approximately 66 million. The US has the second-highest Jewish population in the world with one Jew per every 53 people, while the UK comes in fifth with one Jew per every 220 people.
Even with the fifth-highest Jewish population in the world, the UK, frankly, does not have a thriving Jewish culture. Perhaps my flatmate was so shocked to learn I was Jewish because he had simply never met a Jewish person before and I did not meet his expectations for what he had known as a stereotype. Anti-Semitism, like any other hatred, stems from ignorance. In a nation with an incredibly small Jewish community, it is no wonder that minority groups face persecution to this day, especially with xenophobic policies like Brexit.

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