British Jews meet hatred at the end of a razorblade
They once felt safe in liberal, multicultural Britain, but anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise and fears are palpable
Eli was chatting with some friends outside his college, wearing his Jewish skullcap and prayer shawl as usual, when a young man came by on foot. “Nick their caps,” he shouted to his mate, before directing a derogatory comment about Jews to Eli’s group. Then came the attack.
“He punched me and had a razorblade between his fingers,” says the 18-year-old from Gateshead, England. “It was an inch from my eye and I was bleeding a lot from my face.”
The wound was stitched up. The attacker, who had also slashed one of Eli’s friends in the back, got away.
“In Gateshead people shout stuff at you quite often. I’m used to it,” he says. The incident, in April, is now being treated as a hate crime by Northumbria Police.
Eli, who did not want his real name published, is far from alone. Anti-Semitism is referred to as the oldest hatred, one that’s reared its ugly head time and again throughout the Jewish people’s history. Here, in liberal, progressive, multicultural Britain, many once felt they were safe. But today, growing numbers are afraid.
This week, the Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that protects British Jews from anti-Semitism, said it had recorded 727 anti-Semitic incidents across the UK in the first six months of 2018, only beaten last year, when 786 incidents were recorded between January and June and a record annual total of 1,414 incidents logged.
They range from assaults – some involving stones, bricks or other objects being thrown – to verbal abuse and desecration of Jewish property. The vast majority occurred in the main Jewish centres of Greater London and Greater Manchester.
“My little brother, who’s 17, got eggs thrown at him from a passing car a couple of weeks ago while walking down the street in his kippah [skullcap] with friends,” says Shaya in a kosher food store on King’s Road in Prestwich. “People press their horn and shout things as you’re coming out of shul [synagogue],” says Barry Rich, 71, who’s visiting the Jewish shops on Salford’s Leicester Road. “It’s been going on for a while now.”
Alan Jacobs, 57, a local Jewish taxi driver, says: “I know a few religious people who have had milk thrown on them.”
Sruli Silverstone, 30, who is from Manchester but studies law in Bournemouth, plans to emigrate to Israel next year. “You get people shouting comments here when you’re wearing your kippah. People drive past and say ‘fucking Jew’,” he says.
Among other recent alleged incidents, the Campaign Against Antisemitism lists the attempted arson of an Exeter synagogue on July 21 and a spate of attacks on a Jewish cemetery in Manchester, causing about £100,000 in damage.
Holocaust denial ‘not hate speech’
Meanwhile, on social media, such hatred appears to be thriving. Last week, it was reported that anti-Semitic posts branding the Holocaust a lie and Jews “barbaric and unsanitary” remained on Facebook even after they’d been flagged to the company. The dark days of 19th and 20th-century Jew hatred have found a new home online, it seems, where a free exchange of unthinkably toxic ideas now takes place.
“Social media has broken down the old barriers between far left and far right,” says Dave Rich, head of policy at the CST. “It’s all blurred now.”
Facebook’s community guidelines notably do not class Holocaust denial as hate speech, while Rich suggests “there’s a sense that people with anti-Semitic opinions are more emboldened to express them [on social media]”.
Amid all this, an ongoing row over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party is fueling a deepening sense of unease among many British Jews. Ivan Lewis, the Labour MP for Bury South, who is Jewish, is in no doubt that what’s going on in his party is responsible for a “very widespread anxiety and concern” in the Jewish community.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has for some time been dogged by accusations of permitting anti-Semitism to go unpunished, but the row reached boiling point this month when Labour’s new code of conduct partially rejected an internationally recognised definition of anti-Semitism. Margaret Hodge, a Jewish former minister and current Labour MP, denounced Corbyn as an “anti-Semite and a racist”.
On Thursday, Britain’s three main Jewish newspapers published the same front page, warning a Corbyn-led government would pose an “existential threat to Jewish life”, a day after left-wing singer Billy Bragg sparked outrage by suggesting on Twitter that it’s British Jews who have “work to do” to rebuild trust with the party. Then, on Friday, it was reported Labour had suspended Damien Enticott, a Bognor Regis councillor, over an anti-Semitic post on Facebook claiming that Jews drink blood and sexually abuse children. Enticott is said to have denied posting the clip, suggesting someone else may have shared it in his name.
Sitting in the garden of Noshers kosher café in Prestwich, Lewis is clear about where the problem lies: “Obviously people feel the current leadership of the Labour Party is very hostile. This is inevitably tied up with, I would say, a relatively small number of people’s lifelong hostility towards Israel and unwillingness and inability to understand the Jewish community’s sensitivities and act on them. In my view that’s what stops the leadership taking the steps that would begin to rebuild confidence and trust.”
He describes the party’s failure to accept in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism as “a kick in the teeth because it’s another example of not seeming to care enough to want to rebuild a relationship, a bridge”.
Damage has been done
Out on the ground, the repercussions are evident. “I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never [before] heard people say ‘we think we may have to leave the country’,” he says. “In the mainstream Jewish community that talk is greater than it’s ever been before. I do think there is now a serious risk of flight of Jews from this country.”
Jews are telling him in “ever-increasing, overwhelming numbers” they couldn’t vote Labour because of its perceived anti-Semitism problem. It’s been suggested that Labour may have made a crass electoral calculation that the Jewish vote matters less than the Muslim vote. But, Lewis warns: “If that’s their calculation, that’s a big mistake. Many non-Jews are also uncomfortable about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.”
In North London, as elsewhere, the electoral damage has been done. “My whole life I’ve voted Labour,” says Avi Schleider, 28, a Haredi Jew who manages a kosher wine store in Hendon. “But now I would be scared if Labour got into government.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Bhre, 49, sounds a wary note: “I always keep my eyes open,” she says. “Even if I take a train, I’m always looking around.”
Judging by the CST’s appraisal of how bad things have become, she would be well advised to.
– © The Sunday Telegraph