'It's sad we're being engulfed by antisemitism' says organiser of UK Jewish Film Festival
Benjamin Till doesn’t describe himself as particularly religious. But he’s started to wear his kippah – a traditional Jewish headcovering – as an “act of visibility”.
“It’s extraordinary how many people will now come up to me on the tube and say I feel safer sitting with another Jewish person, is it okay if I sit with you? I’m frightened,” he explains. “You have conversations with them about what’s going on and how they’re feeling. And that’s an essential part of what we do at UK Jewish Film.”
The charity was set up to develop an environment in which Jewish film entertains, educates and enlightens audiences in the UK and internationally. Throughout the year, it provides support and training to new and emerging filmmakers, and produces education events including exploring Holocaust, genocide, racism and interfaith themes.
Key in its calendar is the UK Jewish Film Festival, which showcases films from around the world that explore Jewish life and culture. This year’s event, taking place this month with screenings in both Leeds and Sheffield, has never been more important, creative director Michael Etherton says.
"It’s a really difficult time for Britain’s Jewish community. We’re a pretty small minority and there’s a lot of concern and fear about the huge rise in antisemitism being experienced. The festival is a chance for the community to come together in solidarity with each other, to be able to share their own stories and Jewish culture and to show their resilience.”
"It’s more important than ever for us to screen in areas where there are smaller Jewish communities too,” adds London-based Till. “Some of the Jewish communities in Yorkshire - Sheffield, Hull, Leeds, Bradford, are some of the smaller Jewish communities and as such they may be feeling even more isolated.”
A rise in antisemitism in the UK has been noted in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israel last month, which sparked the Israel-Gaza conflict. In the 28 days from October 7, the Community Security Trust – a charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism and related threats – recorded more than 1,000 incidents, the highest ever reported in a four-week period. Just under 40 were in West Yorkshire.
Composer and film-maker Till, who studied music at the University of York and has worked extensively in Yorkshire, says he has been on the receiving end of abuse on social media, being personally described as “a killer of Palestinian babies”. Etherton, meanwhile, tells of how those attending a synagogue in the area of West London where he works have been encouraged to take away “any visible links” to being Jewish, and says Jewish buildings there are being guarded with increased security.
“Regardless of what our feelings are about Israel, and believe me everyone has a different opinion, we can’t control what happens in Israel as British-Jewish people,” Benjamin says. “That we’re suddenly being engulfed by antisemitism feels very sad.”
“It’s worrying before the festival,” Etherton adds. “But we are resilient, we are going ahead, we have additional security this year including in Leeds and Sheffield so we’re thinking about all of those things.”
“I hope people [leave the festival with] a more complex and more real sense of the diversity of Jewish community, of Jewish life in Britain and around the world, how interesting it is, how amazing some of the stories are,” he continues. “You have time in a film to challenge stereotypes and prejudices...Film and literature and all the arts enable you to deal with complexity. It’s about a window onto Jewish culture, sharing it, and a coming together.”
The festival is highlighting four titles at gala screenings with special guests in attendance. As part of the Leeds programme, there will also be an event showcasing the output of UK Jewish Film’s two film funds. The funds support the production of short films reflecting British-Jewish stories, experiences and culture.
They are overseen by Till, who says he has focused in particular on supporting smaller British-Jewish communities outside of London, and older women film-makers. “Finally you’re hearing Jewish people on screen talking with broad Yorkshire accents, for example, and that for me is a great, great thrill," he says.
Three of the films at that particular event are set in Leeds. The first, The Peacock That Passed Over, premiered at last year’s festival and tells the tale of a peacock which settled in the grounds of a Leeds synagogue. Another, The Balance Sheet, premiering this year, focuses on a Polish couple who settled in Leeds and for 61 years, over wedding anniversary dinners, reviewed each year and planned the next. The third, ContEruversial, will also premiere. A film looking at a plan to build an ancient symbolic boundary known as an ‘Eruv’ in the heart of the Jewish community in Leeds, it explores the divisive responses from both Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants.
Another in the short the film series is particularly pertinent, Till says. The Soldier on Smithdown Road, set in Liverpool in 1947, explores the kidnapping and murder of two British soldiers in Mandate Palestine and how a wave of antisemitic riots sweep across the UK in the aftermath.
“In the present climate, you watch a film like [this] and it’s in period costume and it’s set in the past but suddenly you’re aware you’re looking a modern day event right in the eye and it’s triggered by exactly the same set of circumstances,” Till reflects. “Something kicks off in Israel and suddenly the British-Jewish community are held somehow responsible for that. That’s a really chilling and wonderful film to be premiering this year.”
The UK Jewish Film Festival has screenings in Leeds and Sheffield from November 16 to 26. Visit ukjewishfilm.org