Olympics London 2012 – Watershed moment for British Jewry

August 10, 2012 by

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First appeared at www.cartoonkippah.com


Something strange is happening. There is definitely something in the air.  Perhaps the water has been contaminated.  I feel unusual – not different as such; just a little disorientated.  I think I remember these feelings but they are a distant memory that I thought belonged to another time, another place, perhaps even another person.

I feel British!  And I don’t think it is just me…

This is something that has been burning slowly for a while now.  It started with the royal wedding.  We watched the celebrations with peeking eyes through our cynical fingertips – but we continued to watch and smile nonetheless.  The jubilee weekend was supposed to just be an excuse for a party; the bunting nothing more than tacky and contrived patriotism – but the first green shoots of our national renewal were appearing.

Even a week ago the common perception was that the Olympics were a failure before they had begun.  Over budget, traffic, security, ticket mayhem, commercial protectionism, and cronyism – these were the things that would define London 2012.  The media were hardly onside, seemingly looking for any excuse to damn the IOC, LOGOC, Seb, Boris and co.  But then along came Danny Boyle.

Four years ago we saw the Beijing opening ceremony and were gobsmacked.  It was a monumental performance that was designed to showcase the confidence of modern China and to make sure that we, the old world, new exactly where we stood.  At the time, we rhetorically asked how we could ever live up to such standards, – organisation, symmetry, perfection – but we already knew the answer.  It was impossible.

As it turned out, we were correct.  But what we couldn’t believe at the time was that we could do it differently – do it British.  The problem was that seven years ago we never knew what it meant to be British.  Back in those days, much of what it meant to be British felt contrived.  The Union Flag had been hijacked by the BNP, whilst New Labour toyed with the idea of establishing a new national bank holiday to fix ‘Broken Britain’. 

It is now obvious that this Government have taken a different approach.  They haven’t tried to define what it means to British.  Actually, they haven’t done much at all.  They seem to have concluded that Britishness cannot be defined from the top and, in fact, cannot be defined at all.  We might well imagine David Cameron turning to Danny Boyle and saying, ‘let’s leave all the in-your-face nationalism to our American cousins (Mitt Romney included!!) and just get on with it’.  In turn, Boyle would have repeated back the phrase from The Tempest that was central to his statement of intent for the opening ceremony – ‘Be not afraid; the isle is full of noises’.

The beauty of Boyle’s vision was that it never tried to match the Chinese epic.  In Beijing they wanted to create history but, in London, Boyle simply opened himself up to the everyday narratives of our streets and our communities.  Boyle’s vision was an unashamedly positive biopic of the British common experience; the story of Frankie and June taking us on a magical journey through British pop and youth culture.  We always knew that our cultural institutions and their rich historical legacy would play their part but we were taken by surprise by the symbolic smallness of Boyle’s characters and the inclusivity of the torch lighting.  Oddly enough, for a production that was so obviously ‘of the left’, this might be the first time anyone has managed to illustrate what the Big Society is all about!

All of this leads us to an interesting conundrum.  As British Jews, what does – or should – the Olympics mean to us? 

Apart from an underwhelming campaign by the Jewish Committee for the London Games and the emotive issue of the Munich remembrance, the British Jewish community has been unusually quiet.   As a minority community, we often struggle to deal with our dual identity – especially in sport where the default option is frequently to support the Israeli national teams. 

I wonder what effect these Olympics – and the opening ceremony in particular – will have on our sense of Britishness?  The spirit of the Games certainly resonates deep within me, even if British pride remains something too abstract and loaded to grasp fully.   Boyle’s vision has undoubtedly stirred a sense of belonging – almost giving me permission to feel British again.  With uncritical support of Israel no longer a given and an increasing ambivalence towards practical Zionism, perhaps these Olympics will be a watershed moment for this generation of British Jews – as it might well be for the rest of British society?

It remains early days of course, and there will surely be questions concerning cost and legacy that will dampen the spirit.  However, for a few weeks let’s enjoy the ‘greatest show on earth’, celebrate the athletes and re-evoke everything that is special about this green and pleasant land.  After all, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the ‘father of the internet’) so momentously tweeted – ‘this is for everyone’.

By day Russell Collins works as a management consultant; by night he gets excited by social and community organisation, Jewish and local wellbeing, as well as having a keen interest in open and critical discussion.

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