Expressing sympathy is not a political act”: the conflicted feelings of young British Jews

Photography by Noorunisa

The UK’s Jewish population isn’t unified on calling for a ceasefire. But the whole community is anxious about rising antisemitism.

You know the old saying: two Jews, 10 opinions,” says Kash, a 29-year-old Jewish woman from London.

It’s an exaggeration of the usual phrase – two Jews, three opinions – and self-satirises the sacred nature of debate in Judaism. This new version feels fitting though; more representative of the plethora of different views running throughout the diaspora right now.

It feels so heavy for a lot of people,” she continues. For Kash, the topic is so sensitive that it’s difficult to put into words. I’m like, woah. Where do I start?”

For centuries, Jewish people have been split, in simplest terms, into those who support Zionism (the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state) and those who don’t. Numerous viewpoints lie somewhere in between. Some believe in a two-state solution, others don’t. Many ethnic Jews who don’t practise – who are atheists, even – still very much consider themselves Jewish.

Since 7th October, when Hamas launched a terrorist attack on Israel that left 1,200 people dead and resulted in 240 hostages being taken into Gaza, these pluralistic beliefs have become even more disparate. Initially, though, the community was unified by mourning, sitting shiva together across the world.

I know none of us will forget that day,” says Benny, a 25-year-old content creator and secular Jew. It’s been a whirlwind and it’s weird to have these crazy and tragic stories become part of our everyday lives due to the subsequent war.”

Helen, a 27-year-old secular Jewish pricing manager, agrees. It was just so shocking and horrific,” she says. The fact that a brutal attack was carried out on Israeli and Jewish people [and non-Jews visiting or working in Israel] instantly reminded me of historical events.”

Gabi, a 29-year-old practising Jew working in local government, has been struggling with her mental health in the wake of the attack. I have felt very depressed, non-resilient, tired and anxious [about] the horrors that unfolded on 7th October and then continued indiscriminately in Gaza,” she says.

For others, the pain is impossible to articulate. The terror attacks were absolutely awful – beyond words,” Rachael, a 27-year-old secular Jew and cardiology product specialist, says.

Many people are unable to see past political positions and be empathetic to a community that is also grieving and suffering”


But when Israel launched a brutal counter-offensive, which has seen more than 14,000 people killed in Gaza, including nearly 10,000 women and children, British Jews began to feel the impact of the conflict closer to home.

Even though the UK government’s stance was to unconditionally support Israel, many felt that outrage towards Hamas’s attack amongst the general public was muted.

I feel as if many people are unable to see past political positions and be empathetic to a community that is also grieving and suffering,” says Jamie, a 27-year-old software engineer who had a traditional orthodox upbringing but is now relatively secular.

This correlates with a wider, insidious issue that has become apparent since the attack: an increase in antisemitism in the UK. From 7th October to 3rd November more than 1,000 hate incidents were recorded in the UK, including 47 assaults – a 537 per cent increase from the same time last year.

Islamophobic incidents also rose by 224 per cent during the same period, reflecting an escalation in violence against both Jews and Muslims. The increase in antisemitic incidents has galvanised those who either erroneously blame British Jews for what is happening or are simply using the conflict as an excuse to express ancient conspiracies.

Ellie, a 28-year-old cultural Jew and fashion designer, has friends who have experienced antisemitism in recent weeks, although she hasn’t encountered it directly. I’ve never felt scared in public because of my religion.”

However Jamie is worried. The hostility towards Israelis in general, the lack of empathy towards Jews, and the idea of Israel – and its conflation with Jews more generally – as the oppressor means people are less vigilant to call out antisemitism when they see it,” he says.

The only thing giving me hope is how this moment has seen a burst of Jewish organising in favour of justice, freedom and equality for all”


These concerns were the catalyst for Sunday’s march against antisemitism in London, which saw tens of thousands of demonstrators call for an end to discrimination against British Jews.

Organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which describes itself as a volunteer-led charity dedicated to exposing and countering antisemitism”, the protest followed the many pro-Palestine marches that have been organised since October, including a 300,000-strong protest in London on 11th November.

But Sunday’s march was opposed by some people within the community, including Jewish Voice for Labour, who believe that it was more focused on promoting Zionism: Its organisers have framed it as a hostile response to support for Palestine,” said left-wing Jewish voice Barnaby Raine in a viral X thread.

While all Jews are unified on counteracting antisemitism, the discourse surrounding Sunday’s march is indicative of a greater division on nearly every related issue; one that is making painful collective traumas even harder to heal.

At one end of the spectrum, some Jews are not calling for a ceasefire, but supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against future attacks from Hamas by destroying it, or continue fighting until all hostages are freed. (This week, some 40 taken by Hamas have been released in exchange for 150 Palestinian women and young men in their late teens being freed from Israeli jails.) But many Jews are in favour of a ceasefire, either because they support an end to occupation in Gaza or they just want to see the fighting stop.

The bombing of Gaza by Israel and the mass killing and displacement of Palestinians is unconscionable,” says Emily, the 32-year-old co-founder of Na’mod, a movement of British Jews seeking to end the wider community’s support for occupation. I’m receiving daily messages from Palestinian friends in the West Bank about their villages being raided and attacked by settlers and the Israeli army. We’re witnessing a second Nakba [the word used to describe the displacement of Palestinians in 1948].

The only thing giving me hope is how this moment has seen a burst of Jewish organising in favour of justice, freedom and equality for all,” she continues. I have been helping organise the Jewish bloc at the marches. In general it has been very welcoming. I think it’s incredibly important that so many people from all different communities and walks of life are attending these marches to show solidarity.”

Seeing flags at protest marches with a cross through the Israeli flag is quite scary to me”


Ellie, who has been in favour of pro-Palestinian freedom much of her adult life, has also felt comfortable attending recent pro-Palestine protests: I think I do feel safe protesting, especially if attending with a specific organisation that is led by Jews,” she says, although I am very conscious of being sensitive to my Jewish friends that may struggle with this.”

Because, for many, the pro-Palestine marches are a cause for concern. Following the march on 11th November, appeals were made on social media by the Met to identify a number of protesters accused of making antisemitic remarks and holding offensive banners. The increasingly popular chant Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea” is also denounced by the majority of Jews who argue that it calls for the entire erasure of Israel; others endorse it as a show of support for Palestinian emancipation.

I am worried by the way in which the discourse around Israel and Palestine, for a lot of people, seems to be squeezed through the prism of decolonisation as a way to make sense of the conflict,” Jamie says. This simplistic narrative is blind to the context and history surrounding the foundation of Israel. I find that morphing of history quite concerning.”

Because of this, Jamie has not attended any pro-Palestine marches: I don’t really feel comfortable expressing solidarity for Palestinians within the context of the weekly protests because of some of the languages used and attitudes held.”

Helen agrees, not wanting to stand with people who she believes support the eradication of Israel: Seeing flags at protest marches with a cross through the Israeli flag, and hearing people be pro-Hamas and talk about them as though they are anything other than a terrorist group who want the eradication of Israel, is quite scary to me,” she says.

My Grandma was exiled with all the other Jews from Egypt in 1956 and it has brought up deep rooted trauma she is reliving”


For some Jewish families, this shared trauma has brought them closer. We have been feeling really heavy and uneasy about the Israel-Palestine issue. We’re checking in on each other and obviously keeping up with what’s in the media and news,” Helen says. But the intricacy of these issues are causing difficult conversations around the Friday dinner table for many Jews, with each generation experiencing different reactions informed by past experiences and present political issues.

My parents and grandparents are also bereft at the loss of life in Israel and Gaza but they also seem to have a lot more anger and resilience than I do,” Gabi says. My Grandma was exiled with all the other Jews from Egypt in 1956 and it has brought up deep rooted trauma she is reliving. Her friend was taken hostage by Hamas, and is of similar age to her.”

When it comes to discussing the issue with non-Jewish friends, outcomes are similarly varied. My non-Jewish friends have been so helpful and supportive. They may not fully understand but they have a similar view to me in that we only want peace. So I’m very grateful for them right now,” Benny says.

But others do not feel the same. I would say that the majority of non-Jewish people don’t really understand the personal connection that most UK Jews have to Israel as a result of having friends and family [there]. They see Israel as an abstract political entity and don’t really understand its relevance to Jews in the UK,” Jamie says.

My non-Jewish friends, many who are very activist-minded and politically engaged, have been very silent and absent on the matter of antisemitism,” agrees Gabi. She applauds those who have gone to pro-Palestine marches, but believes it makes their silence on rising anti-Jewish hate more hurtful. It’s been painful for me as I have often welcomed them into my Jewish scene. I am feeling very let down.”

It’s hard to articulate everything when there’s so many emotions and so much history involved”


Perhaps most lonely of all is the fact that Jewish people are facing in-fighting within themselves, causing emotional distress and extreme psychological pain. Pulled in different directions by family and friends, upbringing and outlook, it’s an inner turmoil that’s become increasingly turbulent as tensions escalate.

Rachael relates to this feeling deeply: I have concerns for the future; that antisemitism will continue to rise and have awful repercussions. I’ve seen signs on shop doors that say No Jews Allowed’ in certain places in the world. I have concerns that more Hamas terror attacks will happen and hundreds will lose their lives for nothing,” she says. And that the Israeli government will continue to kill innocent Palestinian lives at the rate that they are doing.”

But Rachael remains hopeful that Hamas will come out of power and suffer the correct consequences. That Palestinians will have freedom. That Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side and together.”

Both Rachael and Kash emphasise the difficulty of communicating their views: It’s hard to articulate everything when there’s so many emotions and so much history involved,” Rachael says. Kash, corresponding over email, decides after much thought that she feels unable to speak more about the issue. I really struggled to put how I feel into words,” she says. I guess it’s the first time I’ve ever tried to put it down on paper, so to speak, and I’m struggling with it in a way I hadn’t realised I would.”

What can be done to support the British Jewish community during this time?

Jamie asks for understanding from others: Expressing empathy and sympathy is not a political act. That seems to have been forgotten by a lot of people,” he says. The best way to provide support is to just listen and comfort them – that does not require getting drawn into political discussion.”

Emily, meanwhile, encourages people, including Jews, to attend pro-Palestinian marches and use their voice to prevent further deaths: If you want to support, show up to the marches, to the protests, to the vigils to mourn the dead. Use your voice.”

All Rachael wants, however, is for people to check in: More of my non-Jewish friends could ask me how I am doing,” she says. None of them have.”

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00