Why I Am Not (Really) an Englishman

The most frequent question I get asked, by Israelis and non-Israelis alike, is why I moved to Israel.

The non-Israelis – English primarily – can’t understand why I would have wanted to leave the country of my birth (and first 28 years). Whenever there is any kind of sporting contest between their (our?) country and my adopted one, the English cannot fathom why I support Israel. And, when we get inebriated on the Friday evening of my annual visit to Harrogate, my mate John, a good, solid Yorkshireman, always sets me his own version of the Tebbit Test: “If there was a war between England and Israel, who would you fight for?” Suffice it to say, my answer – like John’s question, the same every year – always leaves him shaking his head, lips clenched.

Many – perhaps even most – Israelis I meet, too, can’t understand why I chose what they consider a far harder life. Following a brief discourse on Israel’s (in my opinion) vastly superior quality of life (cf. standard of living), the positive half of my (now somewhat rote) explanation is that I am a Jew and a Zionist, and believe in the State of Israel (though, of course, that is not enough . . . one has to like it here too).

Somewhat surprisingly, the “Jew and a Zionist” account elicits fewer looks of incredulity from the English than from chiloni (secular) Sabras (born and bred Israelis), many – or perhaps, once again, most – of whom consider Zionism of only marginally more relevance to their lives than Judaism. It is as if these people view their nationality in a total religious and historical vacuum. Whilst I am far from religious, my Jewishness has always come first, being a sine qua non of both my Zionism and my Israeliness (soon after making Aliyah, I had furious arguments on the subject with my then work room-mate . . . though I put them down to Michal being a particularly aggressive Israeli bitch). So, in relation to John’s question (above), if I had emigrated instead to Australia – i.e., if there were no Jewish factor – my reply would be quite the opposite.

The other half of my explanation to Israelis is that I never really felt that I truly belonged in England. Most people find that odd. And I can understand why. I was born in England. I went to school there. I was a BBC journalist. I then qualified as an English solicitor (no, those are not “the ones with the wigs”). I am a keen football fan (some have said even a typical English hooligan). And I like cricket even more, travelling with England’s Barmy Army to the West Indies earlier this year.

Barmy ArmyBut it was that trip to the Caribbean and time spent with said Barmy Army (right) – the only semblance to an “army” being that, after a few days, you can’t wait to get out – which reminded me (not that I had ever truly forgotten) why I am not (really) an Englishman: I simply do not enjoy consuming copious amounts of alcohol for hours on end while standing at some nondescript bar stinking of urine (the bar that is . . . not me), making less sense by the pint (me this time). (In fact, thoughts and feelings fresh, I wrote the first draft of this post during the first leg – from Barbados to New York – of my return journey to Tel Aviv, on the 3rd of March.)

Of perhaps more significance, three of my four grandparents were born in Eastern Europe, while the parents of the fourth only arrived in England a year or so before she was born. And my father was born in Ireland. So, in what way can I meaningfully be said to be English (which many would argue constitutes a distinct ethnic group)?

I grew up in an area of North-West London that could justifiably be classified as a “ghetto”. With the exception of an Indian family and a Greek one, everyone in our crescent of approximately fifty houses was Jewish. I went to a Jewish kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, and – other than merely dutiful or perfunctory exchanges with non-Jewish teachers, my father’s hospital colleagues, our cleaner Mrs. Hart, and my babysitter Mrs. Smith – did not experience any form of meaningful interaction with Gentiles until I attended university, aged 19.

And, after discovering Amy Henderson – tall, willowy, blonde, dreamy bluey-green eyes, and bra-less under fine lambswool jumpers in the biting cold Manchester winters (if you get my drift) – on the first day of my philosophy degree, it took until my graduation, some three years later, to regain my composure (and if any of those stories about going blind are more than bobe-mayses [old wives’ tales], then, God, I am truly sorry).

But my Jewishness and ghetto upbringing aside, even the ‘true’ English – though they believe, and will argue, that they do – have little sense of identity. Ask an Englishman why he is proud to be English and he will puff out his chest and boldly tell you about the Second World War – unless you enjoy pain, reminding him that it was actually the British who fought the War is ill-advised – and, err . . . football. He might also mutter something about the flag of St. George (see the photograph above). But you won’t understand what. And neither will he.

This lack of meaningful identity can be readily observed whenever you mention an Englishman’s compatriots to him. Geordies (from Newcastle) are knobs, Mackems (Sunderland) are dicks, Tykes (Yorkshiremen) are foul, Mancs (Manchester) are horrible, Scousers (Liverpool) are scum, Brummies (Birmingham) are prats, Cockneys (London) are twats, etc. They all bloody hate each other.

So, if a ‘true’ Englishman struggles with his identity, what hope is there for the English (ostensibly) grandson of Lithuanian and Galician Jews?

Of course, in terms of nationality, I am part British (part Israeli). Being so, however, is not synonymous with being English (whatever Israeli sports commentators might believe). And, certainly as far as the Englishman is concerned, if he has to share his Britishness with the Scots and – worse still (from his perspective) – with the Welsh, he has no problem admitting a mere 280,000 Jews too.

Notwithstanding all of the above (spot the contract lawyer), I identify myself as – probably because I instinctively feel – Jewish first (and very foremost), English second, then Israeli, and British last.

British last because it is only really meaningful in terms of wars and passports (i.e., formal nationality). The Olympic Games’ Team GB does not inspire a fraction of the passion of, for example, the English football or cricket teams. Indeed, the common traits of the English, Scots and Welsh hardly distinguish them from Uzbeks or Western Samoans.

WWI British Cemetery, Mount Scopus, JerusalemFrom time to time, I visit the British military cemeteries in Jerusalem (left) and Beersheba, where thousands upon thousands of World War One dead rest. It is a deeply moving experience, knowing that these young men – from towns and villages I have only heard of through my former (sad) interest in local league cricket – fell in a far-off land, fighting a war which probably meant even less to them than the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan do to today’s British servicemen. And I always wonder whether anyone still mentions – never mind visits – them . . .

After everything I have written, however, how can I identify myself as English before Israeli?

Whilst you are entitled to be confused, unlike my Israeliness – which, as I explain above, is inextricably linked to my Jewishness – my Jewishness and Englishness stand alone. I am also far more English in character (cf. sense of belonging) than Israeli, which I will never truly be (other than, again, by nationality). And, in my adopted home, I am widely regarded as English – whenever I visit the café next to my office, its owner unfailingly “outs” me with a loud “Ahhhh . . . English-man!”

There are never lumps in my throat, however, when I watch A Bridge Too Far, The Bridge on the River KwaiThe Dam Busters, or Battle of Britain . . . and they are proper movies, unlike those “B” Entebbe ones. The excrutiating experience, however, of watching Yoni (Netanyahu, Bibi’s brother) slowly expire, and the exhilarating one of the freed hostages running down the ramps of those Hercules transport aircraft, touches me in a way that nothing English or British ever could.

Bertrand RussellAt a time when it was not common, or widely acceptable, for people to question the existence of the Deity, British philosopher Bertrand Russell (right) felt the urge to write his essay Why I Am Not a Christian (a good read, incidentally, for anyone prepared to open their eyes and mind).

And today, when it is not widely acceptable to be a Jew, never mind an Israeli, I guess that I am feeling a similar need to examine and to understand my sense of identity.

And, if that sounds a bit f*cked up, well . . . that’s because it probably is.


16 responses to “Why I Am Not (Really) an Englishman

  1. Moshe Abelesz

    Mike – absolutely right – this is your best yet. On a similar issue, I took my son to see Hapoel Tel Aviv vs Spurs two years ago. I dressed him up in my old Spurs cap, scarf and top, yet the whole journey he could not understand why we were supporting Spurs and not Hapoel. I tried explaining the difference between England and Israel (then we would and did support Israel), but that Spurs was in our blood. Moreover, we did not live in Tel Aviv and had no reason to support them – but he just didn’t get it – I was very distraught. Thank God, we got to the game, and suddenly all his questions were answered. He is now addicted to Spurs – there is a God!!

  2. Hi,

    Just a question….as a recent law school graduate in the US, how do many foreign taught attorneys now in Israel fare in the marketplace? Do a lot still practice law? Are they required to speak fluent Hebrew in order to work? Do many forego law altogether? I have heard horror stories, as well as positive ones about attorneys who make aliyah and about their subsequent employment options, and as someone who has always loved Israel and has visited numerous times, I am never closed to the idea of making aliyah, but fear that I would be stuck working at some telemarkeing position, like many “Anglos” and basically using my law degree as back-up toilet paper. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  3. Yes, Moshe, I am familiar with that. I supported Hapoel against Chelscum at Stamford Bridge a number of years ago. Hapoel won and, making my evening complete, I bumped into and goaded media “rent a Jew” David Baddiel on the way out. Yet, when Hapoel played my beloved Leeds, a year later, it was a “no brainer”.

    But I just couldn’t comprehend how most English Olim I know supported England in the Euro 2008 qualifier in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago.

    (Marni, I’ll be in touch with you off-blog after the weekend.)

  4. Zionist or no Zionist – in my opinion any English Jew with any self-sense of decency should, at least when it comes to football, abide by “I’m England ’till I die”.

    And how can you possibly support an Israeli national team that nationalizes already abhorrent traits such as laziness “the ball was going too fast”, shaking blame “it’s your fault not mine” and hopelessness “there was no chance to reach that ball anyway”?

  5. Mike,

    I remember that night at Chelscum well.. when we sang “Moshiach” I thought how blasphemous it was to do it in the home of the NF.

    And of course when I went up to ER to see The Mighty Whites trounce Hapoel there was only one team I was going to support.

    Enjoy the Golan trip.


  6. Dovid Maslin

    Was it the Hapoel keeper, Elimelech (Rebbe), who pulled off save after save after save to keep out the rent boys?

  7. Yes, the keeper had a blinder.

  8. I write perhaps my most thoughtful piece yet – admittedly, with only very indirect reference to Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys and none whatsoever to homosexuals – and the only ‘discussion’ it generates is about a football match in November 2001 . . . ?!

    Wankers, the lot of you!!

  9. Daniel Marks

    I must be one of the worst football players in the world. I never recall having scored a goal and thus threw in the towel at about the age of nine. The football has always hated me and I’ve returned its hate.

    For that reason I reluctantly return to the topic of this page and find that I identify, if not agree, with much of what Mike says, especially the part about being asked by other Israelis as to why I made Aliyah. Incidentally, it’s a question asked much more rarely by religious Jews. A religious Jew knows that living here is a mitzvah of enormous proportions, which he may or may not keep. When he doesn’t keep it, however, he’ll always have some ridiculous excuse.

    When irreligious Israelis ask the question it’s a whole different kettle of fish. About 25 years ago, one of my more pleasant reserve duties at a checkpoint near Sodom, very early in the morning, one of the guys I’m serving with, a moshavnik of Moroccan descent, discovers that I was born in England.

    “But, why did you come here?”

    I smile and think. Not because I don’t know. I always knew. I’ve been asked the question a hundred times, I always have answers, I just try to vary them to make the conversation less tedious. I’ll talk to him this time in his own language.

    “Because it’s better here.” There, no mention of Herzl or of G-d. Can’t get much more simple than that.

    “What! I thought it was better there.”


    “Are you sure?”

    “Yes.” Now, comes the shocker. “Well, maybe from a financial point of view it’s better there, but from all other points of view Israel is better.”

    My new friend looks confused.

    “What do you mean?” In his life he’s never contemplated the possibility that there are other ways to look at the world other than through the hole of the Grush (an old coin with a hole in its middle). “What do you mean?”

    I have no idea who or what I’d be if I lived today in England. I made aliyah straight after my A levels and I’ve rarely returned.

    I love and miss many things, not football. I miss the pubs and the bookies. I miss the British goy who always seems to be laughing about nothing and unlike his Jewish neighbor is truly happy with his lot. As a child I met a painter and decorator whose father and grandfather did the same thing, and by now probably his son and grandson. Had he been a Jew he would have had to expand, become a contractor, do great building projects and eventually either conquer the world or kill himself trying.

    I miss the theater and I miss Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon too. I miss all the people who insert “ye know” at least twice in every short sentence and use four letter words when they’re so superfluous. I miss the shikses, so beautiful till they open their mouths.

    I was born in England, as were my parents, most of my grandparents and great grandparents. If England was in a war with Israel, I together with all of Anglo-Jewry would watch it on TV. I, because I’m far too old to be of any use to anyone. I’d send kosher food parcels to my son and daughter, infantry and intelligence, in the vain hope that they arrive before Her Majesty’s army hoists the white flag. The postal service here has improved of late, so who knows.

  10. Mike,
    Have you ever read Jeremy Paxman’s book “The English: A Portrait of a People”, an amusing look at the English and how difficult it is to define them? Perhaps the difficulty in defining what being English is, is part of the reason that our US compatriots seem to display much more patriotism for their old country than those of us who grew up in England.

  11. Jeremy Cardash

    I reckon this sums up exactly how most of us feel or should feel (especially as I am also half Irish :)).

    I think most of us actually only connect to our Englishness through sport. If you, like Moshe and myself, support the Yids you even get a sense of belonging.

    Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech summed up what the average John Bull was thinking but was afraid to say. And it was as true then as it is now, probably more.

    But at least in Asda, that melting pot of cultures and civilizations, they are still friendly.

  12. Stefan Greenfield

    Full marks to Daniel Marks. Spot on “ye know”.

    Now in Israel for over 12 years, I used to work in an office in the West End with an English bloke. Most evenings he went to the pub with his Dad and most weekends he went fishing. Boy, was he “happy with his lot”. I don’t know if Jews ever get to that level.

  13. Excellent piece, Mike.

    Sometimes I don’t feel as home here in north-west London where I’ve lived more or less all my life, than I do mooching around Tel Aviv, where I hardly speak a word.

    My wife and I have talked about making alyah since we met and have developed an extremely good line in excuse making. At the moment we’re waiting for our children to finish school and go to university so that gives us at least another 5 years of procrastinating.

    Whatever the political/religious problems Israel is failing to resolve, whenever I’m there I’m struck by the contrast of its vibrancy against Britain’s lethargy.

    I’m living in a country in decline and the only thing that’s good about it is Arsene Wenger. And he’s not even British.

  14. Daniel, I return your begruding agreement (“I identify, if not agree, with much of what Mike says”!) re your excellent observations about the refreshing contentment of “the British goy”. Where I disagree with you, however, is that “the shikses” were “so beautiful”. Amy Henderson (see my post above) was the exception rather than the rule!

    MK, funny you should ask me about Jeremy Paxman’s book on the English . . . I picked up a copy at Halper’s just a few days before your comment.

    And, NWJew, procrastinate no more . . . IMHO, every day spent in England rather than Israel is a wasted one! It depresses me just to recall how, on weekends while I was back in the UK (2002-05), I would drink coffee with friends at some miserable Italian cafe on Mill Hill Broadway. TA’s Rothschild Boulevard is certainly rather more upbeat!


    Without making too finer point of it and at the risk of offending any mosaic members of the fairer sex, I strenuously maintain that until they opened their mouths, there were many beautiful shikses. I never had the privilege of being acquainted with the thrice referenced Amy Henderson, from our the editor’s hints – he was, very much so; however, I assure you that she was not the lone lovely of that now forgotten era.

    I recall a pub in Wembley where a fellow adventurer SC and I chanced upon a pair of such bonny maidens of the Christian faith but punk persuasion. The year was 1978 or 1979.

    As is often the case, the conversation drifted in the way of many conversations, and one of the aforementioned handsome lasses eventually (after about three minutes) inquired:

    “Are you into chains and whips?”

    Never being able to resist the opportunity of a good one-liner, I gaily retorted:

    “Actually I prefer having my head smashed through a plate glass window.”

    Once again my sense of humor had been my Judas, and the young lady was not amused. She turned to her companion and was heard to utter, “I think they’re Jews.”

    As the enthralled reader has already deduced, from this moment there would be precious little social intercourse, nor would it be replaced by intercourse of any other type, certainly of the variety that has been extensively referenced by Mike in early lavatorial postings.

    I hazard a guess that the damsels of then are today’s overweight, late-middle aged check-out girls at Sainsbury or Boots, always calling everyone “lovey”, “darling” or “deary” or just plain “dear”.

    Their hair is no longer green and the safety pins are long gone. But they too were once quite divine.

  16. I have just come across an interesting New York Times Op-Ed, A Jew in England, and even more interesting comments thereon.

    My late father z”l was, similarly, a Litvak, old Rover-driving, consultant physician. He, however, sent his son for rather contrasting schooling to the author’s . . . where no scholarships – Queen’s or Honorary – were achieved.

    Moreover, unlike Nigel Lawson’s at Westminster, my ‘interview’ – by a certain Rabbi M. Roberg – was brought to a swift end with the following note:

    “Not Jewish enough.”

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