“The Holocaust seems like some kind of punchline”

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Inanna Tribukait
Reporter

Inanna Tribukait discusses the rising wave of anti-Semitism and underrepresentation of Jewish culture in Europe

2017 saw the burning of Israeli flags in Berlin. Last February, Poland moved to criminalise talking about Polish complicity in the Holocaust. In December, dozens of tombstones in a Jewish cemetery were defaced with swastikas in France. There is an ongoing debate about anti-Semitism in the Labour party. According to a poll marking Holocaust Memorial Day, one in twenty Britons do not believe the Holocaust happened. Headlines about Jews feeling increasingly unsafe seem to have become a monthly, if not weekly occurrence. Almost 75 years after the Holocaust ended, and in spite of all that happened, anti-Semitism seems to be far from over.

“I think a big part of it is representation. There are just not as many Jews in the UK as other minorities, and people seem to lose the understanding of why it is important,” says second year UofG student and Jewish-American Julia Hegele. She can confirm the headlines about rising anti-Semitism in the UK; almost every week in synagogue she hears new stories. “I sometimes get the feeling that just because we’re not many, people don’t seem to view anti-Semitism as a very serious problem.” In her experience, Judaism seems to have been swept under the rug of British reality. Despite the amount of Jewish history and culture in Europe, nobody seems to talk about it.

What is perhaps also telling is the absence of a Jewish Society at the University of Glasgow, although there is an overarching Glasgow Jewish Society for Glasgow universities and colleges with 287 members on their Facebook Group. The numbers are discouragingly low – as a point of reference, the Glasgow University Beekeeping Society currently has 1392 Likes.

The Jewish population in the UK is at 0.44% according to a 2017 census by the Jewish Virtual Library. During the research for this article, I asked around friends and acquaintances and found that hardly anyone knew any Jewish people. The general response was an awkward, baffled silence followed by an answer of either “no” or something along the lines of “My brother’s friend in primary school had a Jewish cousin”.

It is this lack of exposure to Jewish culture that Julia sees as the reason for an almost casual anti-Semitism. Where people would be sensitive to not make jokes about other religions or ethnicities, because they have friends or acquaintances, the lack of real-life exposure to Judaism seems to have lowered the inhibition level. “People seem to think the Holocaust is some kind of punchline,” she says.

At the same time, Judaism in Britain is strongly tied to conservatism. According to a survey on behalf of the Jewish Chronicle in 2015, almost 70% of the Jewish voting population were planning to vote conservative. In Julia’s experience, particularly liberal campuses have therefore somehow co-opted the idea that being openly Jewish is automatically tied in with being anti-Palestinian or agreeing with Israel’s politics and “Trump’s political relationship to Israel obviously doesn’t help.”

Although Julia was able to walk down the street past a group of Free Palestine activists, speaking Hebrew with friends without any kind of animosity, she talks about an incident during the Eurovision Song Contest last year in the GUU. “I was supporting Israel because I have family there, and America doesn’t participate in Eurovision. A girl came up to me and asked me pretty aggressively how I could support Israel’s politics. If there’s so little education about the whole topic, it’s very easy to read a Buzzfeed article and think you know what’s going on.”

Without a doubt, critiquing the politics of the State of Israel does not make you an anti-Semite. But at the same time, being Jewish does not mean that you endorse Israeli politics, just as being American does not mean you support Trump, or being British does not make you a Brexiteer.

Growing up in central Europe, visiting concentration camps with school, seeing the little golden cobble stones on European streets that mark the houses of deported and killed Jews, all this shows us one thing very clearly and painfully: anti-Semitism is racism. There is a panel in Kelvingrove Art Gallery that states that the lessons that are to be learned from the Holocaust are a responsibility for all of us, to prevent history from repeating itself. If anti-Semitism rises again, it shows that as a society, we have all failed to preserve the memory, have failed to learn. “Look at how many books have already been written about the Holocaust. What’s the point? People haven’t changed… Maybe they need a newer, bigger Holocaust,” Art Spiegelman wrote in his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about his father’s survival of the Holocaust. The scary thing is, he might not be wrong.