THE BLOG

'Aggressive' and 'Stingy': Anti-Semitism in the UK

20/01/2015 17:34 GMT | Updated 22/03/2015 09:59 GMT

This week, Theresa May said the UK has to "wipe out anti-Semitism". The BBC has now featured an article about Jews in the UK fearing for their safety, but unfortunately this doesn't surprise me at all. This new interest in British anti-Semitism stems largely from the attacks in France, and it's a shame that it took such a tragic event for Brits to begin to consider the problems here at home.

Back when I was a PhD student, I gave a talk at a conference in Edinburgh. During the coffee break, a British man came up to me. "Your last name sounds Jewish," he murmured. I responded in the affirmative. "Have you considered what you'll do when you finish your PhD?" he asked. I told him I hoped to get an academic job here in the UK.

He looked at me and said, "I'd seriously advise you to change your surname if you want a job in the UK."

I must have looked confused, because he went on to tell me about academic research that he and others had carried out. This research suggested that British employers were much less likely to invite people with Jewish-sounding names to be interviewed for jobs, and also that Jews were less likely to be hired or promoted.

The man confided in me that he'd been born with a Jewish surname, but he'd changed it to help his career. He said he knew many other people who'd done the same. He suggested that if I were to keep my surname, I'd have more luck finding a job in the US.

I kept my last name and did in fact get a job in the UK, but the amount of anti-Semitism I've experienced in the years since has been upsetting.

I've had a colleague tell me that our department shouldn't hire any more Jews because Jews are "aggressive" and "noisy". This person said that Israelis were particularly bad.

I've had other colleagues tell Jewish "jokes". I doubt they'd tell such jokes about other groups of people.

In literature classes where we've discussed books with Jewish characters (such as George Eliot's Daniel Deronda), I've had students tell me they'd never met a Jew before, but that they knew Jews were greedy, stingy, and cruel. (Sure, this has been useful from a pedagogical perspective, but it hasn't been nice to hear.)

I've seen calls, including in one of my research fields, for academic boycotts of Israelis and their work, as though boycotting the free exchange of information and ideas would help political causes.

But of course it isn't just within academia that there's a problem. Synagogues and Jewish schools have security guards outside their doors. And, as the BBC reported, Jews are afraid for their lives.

The UK isn't alone in this. When I lived in Sweden, I was asked multiple times if it was true that Jews secretly ran the media in the US. I saw swastikas painted around the city where I lived. And as a child in the US, I was called a "dirty Jew" and told that other children's parents wouldn't allow them to play with me or have me in their house.

Sometimes it's hard not to be despondent at all the anti-Semitism.

So it's positive that Theresa May and others in the government want to do something about the situation. We just have to hope that heightened security will protect British Jews while increased efforts at education will begin to decrease the negative feelings towards them.

It's not news that there's anti-Semitism here, but it is news that people are finally beginning to pay attention to it.