Arts & Culture Shared Experiences of Immigrants Are the Focus of New British Exhibit

Successive waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia and the Caribbean have given modern Britain its own unique character. Now, a new exhibit sets out to explore the relationships and shared experiences of the country’s Jewish, black and Asian communities.

The exhibit, which opened at the Jewish Museum in London earlier this month, is the brainchild of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, a nonpartisan political organization committed to fighting prejudice, and the Black Jewish Forum, a community discussion group.

“There have been exhibitions looking at the history of black, Jewish and Asian immigration, but there hasn’t been anything comparing their experiences before,” says Vicky Joseph, the exhibition’s project manager. “That’s what makes this unique.”

Aimed particularly at youngsters, “Connections: Hidden British Histories” highlights the importance of cooperation, mutual learning and support, and celebrates the music, comedy, food and language of the three communities.

“We anticipate that the project will be a valuable tool for combating the alarming increase in support” for extremist political parties, as well as “challenging young people’s increasingly negative views of refugees and asylum seekers,” says the council’s director, Edie Friedman, pointing to a 2003 poll that showed almost 60 percent of 15- to 24-year-olds believe these groups do not make a positive contribution to life in the U.K.

Jewish groups, she adds, have to be seen to play a key role in combating that trend.

To that end, the display features 24 colorful panels on black, Asian and Jewish history packed with pictures and personal testimonies.

Highlighting cities with histories of immigration — including London, Liverpool, Cardiff and Edinburgh — the exhibition investigates themes such as the fight against racism and histories of oppression, from slavery to the Holocaust.

Case histories include the tale of two tennis players — Angela Buxton, a British Jew, and Althea Gibson, an African American — who joined forces in 1956 to win the Wimbledon doubles tournament.

Also sharing her experience is Labor legislator Oona King, only the second black woman ever to win a seat in Parliament, who represents London’s Bethnal Green and Bow, one of the most multicultural areas in the U.K.

King is also Jewish.

“For me, racism is not an academic point,” she writes. “My father is black and my mother is Jewish. As a child my mother was put up against a wall and stoned because — as her schoolmates put it — she was responsible for the death of their Lord.”

The exhibit also highlight the current fragile situation between Muslims and Jews with the story of Yasmin Hai, who grew up in Stamford Hill, an area of London where the two groups live side by side.

Hai recalls the high esteem in which her Pakistani-born father held the Jewish community and compares it with the attitude of some of her Muslim contemporaries, among whom discussions about Israel are likely to include ugly remarks about Jews.

The project is accompanied by an interactive Web site and CD-ROM, as well as events including a panel discussion on issues of race and identity, an evening of performance poetry and a private viewing for educators.

Beginning next September, the exhibition will be available for schools, libraries and community centers to use for free, and organizers say a high degree of interest has already been shown.

“While this is an effective short-term learning experience, we want to ensure that visiting the exhibition is not the end product,” Friedman says.

“Our aim is to extend the exhibition to other venues around the country and to inspire and support people in those places, to create a project with wider communal resonance.”

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