The grocery store killings in Paris entered public discourse. They became a story about Jews, security, and anti-Semitism – about Jewish futures and lack of future in Europe, and about Israel’s assertion of protective custody. Western leaders meanwhile have spoken earnestly about the need to protect Jews better so that they will stay. But this language of staying makes me uneasy. Have we only just arrived; are we visitors from… well, it’s not clear from where, waiting to see whether we can make a home in Britain, France or some place else?
The question of a Jewish future raises, for me also, more general questions about the narratives that get constructed in particular places, and about particular places. If we must ask the question, do Jews have a future here, is it because the future of Jews and the future of a particular place, like the Britain in which I live, function as two separate questions? But futures, rather, are things that get made. And the problem, in a country like Britain, is when the story that’s told becomes one of British people surrounded by others, who arrive and sometimes leave, but who aren’t much part of the story, because the story isn’t their story.
And yet, government ministers tell us: “Without its Jews, Britain would not be Britain”’. They say: “the Jewish community is a vital part of what makes Britain tick”. Ministers are photographed holding up signs saying “Je suis Juif”. And yet, how quickly are we being asked not to leave. If our presence is that tenuous; if our bags are already packed; what kind of plea is this, which asserts our historic place within the polity, yet in the very act of doing so assumes its contingent and precarious status?
Text and subtext thus do different things; and so we are thrown back on a possessive nationalism, of a story that belongs to some and not to others. From this perspective, questioning what migrants contribute comes easily to hand; and indeed, their contribution is always placed in doubt, as something that needs to be asked and satisfactorily answered, even if, from the perspective of those asking it, it is rarely satisfactorily answered.
And so, more recent East European migrants, rich and poor, get rendered intelligible by right-wing spokespeople as coming to Britain to get what they can. Economic migrants, assumed to be temporary, get depicted (or are tacitly assumed to be) indifferent to the specificity of Britain’s national character and history, attentive only to what it offers them. This narrative of others apparent indifference to where they are, when here is where they are, has a lot of take-up among those who feel themselves to be the nation’s backbone, those who feel that they do the work of maintaining the ongoing story which Britain seemingly tells about who and what it is.
And curiously, this story, with all its exclusions, is often a story about welcome and hospitality – of how Britain treats those who arrive. Yet, in the very act of welcoming, to the extent it is a welcoming, people assert their right and status to be the ones to say “enter”, setting its terms, and keeping the national story as a story for themselves.
But it is not their story or at least not only.
The creation of a future is not something already drawn up or laid down, so that some should say I have no future here. Rather, it is the claim to have no future, and the political claim by others that some of us fear we have no future, through which the shaping of a future happens. Junctures, like this one, are important then for the ways they create new social and narrative pathways, asserting a particular future by claiming it is as one some people lack.
I think it’s important to take back the future as an unmade project; and to ask what kinds of futures we want to create?
In a previous post I commented on the critical silence surrounding the grocery killings as a challenge of what to do when the interpretive frameworks to hand are rejected and others don’t seem available.
The establishment now is speaking. Their turn to creating more physical security is a predictable response; the plea that Jews remain and not abandon Britain a deeply strange one. Yet, it is framed in a context, and in a sense performs a context, in which Jews have somewhere better and more appropriate to be, and that somewhere is Israel.
What do the left have to say? Tangled up in the struggles over contemporary Zionism, the critical left, I think, falters when it comes to the experience of Jewish people (religious and otherwise) living in countries such as Britain.
And while progressive perspectives are aired, the discomfort anti-Semitism and lived Jewish experience raises is also palpable. I would like to see critical commentators take up the provocation to speak, raised by government ministers asking Jews to stay, in ways that don’t let narratives of Israel dominate; to approach the complexity of British racism in ways that recognise how anti-Semitism has been and continues to be part of it; and that engage with, and help to create, new narratives about what Jewishness, and particularly secular Jewishness, could become.