‘Aggressive’ and ‘Stingy’: Anti-Semitism in the UK


B. J. Epstein, The Huffington Post UK

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.