Record anti-Semitism weighs heavily on British Jews
With anti-Semitism in Britain at record levels, life is changing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways for the country’s Jews.
Armed guards escort Orthodox Jews in Manchester walking to synagogue. Vendors sell Arabic-language editions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” outside train stations. Academic and labor unions routinely issue calls to boycott the Jewish state.
Jews in Britain say they feel a growing sense of unease and insecurity.
“Jews today, compared with three or four years ago, are feeling increasingly worried about anti-Semitism,” said Mark Gardner, a spokesman for the Community Security Trust (CST), the organization charged with providing security for the country’s Jews.
Apparently they have good reason to worry. A recent CST report showed that all forms of anti-Semitism in Britain increased in 2006.
Last year saw the highest number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in Britain since recordkeeping began in 1984 — a 33 percent increase over the previous year. Anti-Semitic incidents in Britain have doubled in the last decade.
Jews are violently assaulted and subjected to threats. Schoolchildren face abuse. Communal property and synagogues are damaged and desecrated. And Britain is home to a growing cottage industry of mass-produced, anti-Semitic literature.
The sharp rise in anti-Semitism has not gone unnoticed in Parliament, which in 2005 formed an investigative committee to address the Jewish community’s concerns.
In its first report in September 2006, the All Party Inquiry into Anti-Semitism recommended investigating the reason for the low number of prosecutions of anti-Semitic crimes and developing strategies to combat rising anti-Semitism. The report found that only a minority of police forces in the country were even equipped to record hate crimes as anti-Semitic incidents.
“Anti-Semitism has not been taken as seriously as other forms of hatred in some parts of our society,” Iain Wright, the parliamentary undersecretary of state for communities and local government, acknowledged this summer.
Wright pledged to significantly increase funding for monitoring and classifying anti-Semitism as a hate crime.
But are any of these responses to the problem making Jews feel safer?
In some communities, residents are volunteering to help provide security for Jews.
“Community leaders are trying to find ways to harness the fact that people want to help,” Gardner said.
For secular Jews in Britain, who may not be subject to the same street dangers that visibly Orthodox Jews face, the country’s increasingly populist anti-Israeli campaigns have been unsettling.
“When people start talking about how terrible Israel is behaving, I feel sensitive about it and how it might possibly be linked to anti-Semitism, even if it wasn’t meant that way,” said Lauren Tobias, who works in London. “Then I find myself acting very defensive.”
Gardner said the boycott Israel movement “has an anti-Semitic impact psychologically on the Jewish community. Boycotts remind us of the Nazi boycott of Jews.”
One British journalist, Richard Littlejohn, said bashing Israel has become so trendy that it is “this year’s AIDS ribbon.”
As in other places in Europe, anti-Semitism in Britain isn’t limited to the extreme right. On the far left, in unions and other forums where liberal-leaning Jews once felt politically at home, activists now leading the charge against Israel are driving Jews away.
Josephine Bacon, director of a Hebrew and Yiddish translation company, said she feels under attack at her volunteer office job in the Labor Party.
“I get incredible hostility at work at the Camden Labor Party,” said Bacon, who holds dual British and Israeli citizenship. “The only reason it’s not the same as the anti-Semitism of the ’30s is that Israel exists now.”
Bacon says many Jews are “voting with their feet” and cutting ties with the Labor Party, Bacon said, or “if they stay in the party, they don’t talk about their past.”
Anti-Israel activists by and large reject accusations that their campaigns are anti-Semitic. Ian McDonald, a senior lecturer from Brighton who supports the University College Union’s proposed academic boycott of Israel, said in debates about the boycott, “We have to challenge the notion that to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Semitic.”
At a recent debate on the All-Party Inquiry into Anti-Semitism, Wright called the boycott proposal “anti-Jewish in principle.” But that pronouncement hasn’t changed matters much on the streets.
Last year the CST launched a program to safeguard Jewish schools and community centers, pledging more than $6 million over a three-year period to install bomb-proof windows in some 600 community buildings.
Despite those efforts to help religious communities across the country beef up security, for some it hasn’t been enough.
British Jews are choosing to move to Israel in record numbers. British aliyah last year set a new record with 738 new immigrants, a two-thirds increase over the year before, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Nevertheless, agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said he doesn’t believe the aliyah is the result of British Jews fleeing anti-Semitism at home.
“By and large the reasons for aliyah are positive ones,” he said.
Bacon said that despite the hostility she faces in Britain, she has no plans to move.
“I’m determined to tough it out,” she said. “I think that the current wave of anti-Semitism will eventually die out. But I can’t say how soon.”