December 16, 2018

British Jewry: A tale of two stories

Is England good or bad for the Jews? Well, it depends on which Cohen you listen to — Danny Cohen or Shimon Cohen.

Danny Cohen, a senior executive with the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) who’s been called one of the most influential figures in British television, caused a stir recently when he said at a conference that he had “never felt so uncomfortable being a British Jew” and questioned Britain as a “long-term home.”

As reported in the Independent, Cohen spoke “after it emerged that anti-Semitic incidents in Britain hit record annual levels in 2014.” The paper listed incidents such as a group of young men driving in a convoy through a Jewish neighborhood shouting “Heil Hitler”; a physical attack on a rabbi in Gateshead and a sign saying “Child Murderers” outside a synagogue in southwest London.

“You’ve seen the number of attacks rise, you’ve seen murders in France, you’ve seen murders in Belgium,” Cohen was quoted as saying. “Having lived all my life in the U.K., I’ve never felt as I do now about anti-Semitism in Europe.”

The Gaza War certainly has darkened the atmosphere. As British Jewish leader Vivian Wineman said to the Independent, “A summer filled with hostile, anti-Zionist demonstrations has clearly left its mark.”

But despite all this darkness, PR specialist Shimon Cohen has a more upbeat take. In his rebuttal to Danny Cohen in the Jewish Chronicle, he wrote: “Danny, you’re wrong. Britain is a wonderful home for Jews.” He doesn’t deny there’s anti-Semitism, but he reminds us “there’s also Islamophobia, homophobia and gender inequality.” What he finds “increasingly troubling” is the Jewish community’s “apparent need to embrace the role of the victim so enthusiastically.”

“Are we truly victims?” he asks. “More so than any other minority group?”

Shimon is a longtime champion of British Jewry. He can’t stand alarmism. He prefers to see the glass as half full. In a 2012 Times of Israel piece, he wrote:

“The challenges facing U.K. Jewry are significant and cannot be ignored, but neither should they be distorted or embellished. Increasingly, from Jewish schools to Limmud to Jewish Book Week, Jews are celebrating their identity with confidence, vitality and innovation. British Jewish life is experiencing something of a resurgence, proud of its heritage, connected to Israel and finding its voice. Far from running for cover, British Jews are standing tall.”

What are we to make of these polarities, of these two stories? Are we more responsible when we focus on the half-empty part of the glass or the half-full part? Should our Jewish anxiety trump our Jewish optimism?

When I look at British Jewry from my home base of Los Angeles, I’m clearly in the Danny Cohen high anxiety camp. I react to what makes news — the nasty demonstrations against Israel, the growing calls to boycott the Jewish state, the rise in anti-Semitic attacks throughout many parts of Europe and so on.  

But after spending 10 days in England immersed in the Jewish community, I’m tempted to move to the Shimon Cohen camp. All I saw was a thriving community. 

At a Friday night Shabbat at the home of Alan Mendoza, head of the Henry Jackson Society, I learned about the vibrant Sephardic community. The following Shabbat, at a Chabad in an exclusive part of London, I saw a lively community of Jews from around the world, and donors committed to its future.

During the week, I was on a university campus with 2,500 Jews at Limmud U.K., indulging in the world’s greatest festival of Jewish learning and diversity — a festival born in England that has spread throughout the globe.

I also visited the London School of Jewish Studies, a world-class center of Jewish learning that caters to the whole community throughout the year with programming that’s both broad and deep (and that I’d love to see replicated in the U.S.).

In short, I saw a community that, with all of its challenges, is doubling down on Judaism.

The problem is that here in America, we rarely see this positive stuff on the news or even in our Jewish media. It’s not as “urgent” or as “important” as the anti-Semitic attacks, and I get that. Danger is more newsy, and Jews are certainly attuned to danger. We are a people for whom insecurity is a 2,000-year-old reflex.

We want to be Shimon Cohens, but reality and memory turn us into Danny Cohens. We crave to see the bright side, but our enemies force us to see the darkness. We’ve learned the hard way that the price of being too optimistic is much higher than the price of being too pessimistic.

And yet, we find a way to get up and do great things. We build communities. We build institutions of learning. We build reasons for optimism.

Danny Cohen and Shimon Cohen live in every Jew. Our task is to never forget Danny Cohen, but to also remember that we want Shimon to win.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at