My United Kingdom

It was a sight I never imagined I’d see. I was watching a reenactment of the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on British TV. One of the last episodes of  The Promise, aired in February on the UK’s Channel Four, the miniseries succeeded in touching a lot of nerves. This one touched mine.

Following the actions of the drama’s protagonist, a conflicted British infantryman, dragging British victims of the attack out of the rubble took me back. “It was a good thing we did it,” I can remember my family friend saying over lunch. “If we hadn’t struck them so forcefully, they wouldn’t have granted us independence.”

So went the thinking of our right-wing host. A member of the then-young Likud Party, founded following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he had served in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, though not on the same side as the perpetrators of the King David attack, which had targeted the British military. He’d served in the Haganah instead.

“They deserved it,” he said, filling a pita with hummus. “They had it coming. The Irgun took a huge risk, but it paid off. The clock started ticking at that point. The British became convinced that they’d have to leave Palestine.” All I can remember thinking at the time was how surprised I was to hear this. Didn’t England make Israel possible?

Over the years, as I became familiar with the history of British rule in Palestine, I was able to make better sense of our friend’s tough words. The British were a colonial power, much like they were in India and Pakistan. Like everyone else in the British Empire, we had to struggle in order to gain our freedom.

What I couldn’t connect to was his anger. What was it about the British that made him loathe them so much, that saw, in the destruction of the King David Hotel, something that was so clearly overdue? Were the British that cruel toward us? Were we Jews the local equivalent of Irish Catholics, and the Irgun an avenging IRA?

As much as I would have liked to file our friend’s resentment in the same category as other anti-imperialisms of his generation, of the era of decolonization, I couldn’t. Even as a child, I knew that the British promised us a Jewish homeland in Palestine, long before 1948. I also knew we suffered nothing like the South African Boers under their rule, 50,000 of whom the British had put in concentration camps during the Second Boer War. The Nazis asserted that privilege instead.

Even more conflicting was the fact that our friend, like many Palestinian Jews of my parents generation, had been drafted to fight against the Germans during the Second World War. How could he savor the tragic fate of an army in which he had once served? Were the British really that awful? What did this say about Hitler’s Germany?

“We’re really sorry, but we can’t help you,” the crew leader told me. “You’ve got Sky connectors, but you ordered cable from Virgin. You’re going to have call Sky.” It had been nearly two months just to get these guys to come to our apartment to install broadband. I was stunned. “Can’t you just switch the connectors to Virgin?” I asked him.

The foreman looked at me somewhat skeptically. “No, mate. You’ve got it all wrong.  We can’t help you. We hook things up. We don’t create hookups. Besides, you’re in the wrong part of town. If you want quality broadband service, move to north London, where the real English live. You’ll get it there. Not in a neighborhood like this.”

His crew members all nodded in agreement, and laughed. I remember telling them how disappointed I was as they shuffled out our front door.

I couldn’t believe what had just happened. After waiting six weeks to get my internet service installed, I’d gotten a lecture in race relations by a rightist Virgin broadband guy. Little did he know. Besides, today’s Brixton isn’t exactly the guns and ammo neighborhood described in The Clash’s legendary portrait of inner city violence, Guns of Brixton.

Like our former apartment building, just off of the high street, despite its Caribbean character, Brixton is extremely gentrified. Though we had rasta neighbors, our immediate neighborhood was full of white, middle class foreign professionals like us. What was this guy’s problem? Was he still in the Thatcher era?

Though I’d lived in England in the late 1970s, and can remember witnessing National Front marches, racism was not something I associated with the United Kingdom. Intellectually, politically, yes, of course, but not personally. I’d grown up in an immigrant bubble in central London. My parents only associated with other Jews and Israelis. I’d attended an international school full of Muslims.

Nonetheless, to me, London had always been a cosmopolitan, tolerant place, where difference was the sin qua non of daily life.  The only thing missing, in retrospect, was that this diversity had no one stereotypically ‘British’ in it. Thinking back to this time, the only conventionally ‘English’ person in our lives was my big sister’s boyfriend, a slightly older guy she saw on vacations from college.

Otherwise, London was the perfect, post-war, post-post colonial space for my own noisy multilingual Israeli-American-Spanish family. How could I have ever learned to “hate the British” in such a context? To my adolescent eyes, ‘England’ always signified this diversity, inside our family as well as at work and at school. And we loved it.

However, it wasn’t just this experience that made my attitude towards the UK so distinct from that of my parents’ friend. There was something else to it, something far more profound. It was an older Viennese woman who made the fundamental difference. My Israeli stepmother had hired her to teach myself and my siblings yoga.

At first, I was resistant. I thought yoga was weird. All I wanted to do was ride my skateboard. Eventually, though, our weekly sessions with Clara took their toll. We learned to enjoy her instruction. She relaxed us in ways we desperately needed. Our parents were deeply unhappy. It was very obvious to us. This was our only real break. It’d be years before I’d learn to appreciate how therapeutic it actually was.

A month or so into her visits, I noticed the black, fading numbers tattooed on her left forearm. “Abba,” I asked my father. “Clara has numbers on her wrist. What do they mean?” Looking down at me, my father cleared his throat, and said, “She’s a Holocaust survivor, Yoel. Clara was in Auschwitz when she was a young woman.”

Even though my father had fought in the Second World War, nothing seemed further away. “How old is she?” I asked him, astonished by this revelation. “ Even older than me,” he laughed, himself fifty-six at the time. “Sixty seven, would you believe. She looks younger, and seems healthier, than most women half her age. Only in London.”

Reading advance citations of David Cameron’s policy speech on immigration two weeks ago, I was stunned by how oblivious he was to stories like these. Refusal to integrate, refusal to learn English. It was like he was reading from an inherited script, that bore no relationship to the way immigrants like me had experienced the UK.

Had he never heard the word ‘shelter’? My first impulse was to run out and buy him a dictionary. What would Cameron make of Clara, I wondered to myself as I packed up my apartment, getting ready to leave England once again. Could he ever imagine London being a refuge for people like us?

I thought back to the scene from The Promise, about the attack on the King David. I recalled my surprise at our friend’s hostility towards the British. I finally understood where it came from. And I re-dedicated myself to finding different outlets for my anger.

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