Could London Suffer an Attack Like Paris? British Jews on Alert

A solid security infrastructure and good relations with the Muslim community enable most British Jews to feel safe.

English Defence League rally against the "Islamification" of the UK and in support of Israel, outside the Israeli Embassy in London. October 24, 2010.
AP

Security in Jewish neighborhoods in the United Kingdom has been stepped up in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks last week. All communal institutions and schools have been put on alert by the Community Security Trust (CST,) the body that monitors threats to U.K. Jews, and patrols by both the police and the CST were increased in Jewish areas last Saturday.

Despite the state of alert, religious Jews went to synagogue as usual on the Sabbath and community events are going ahead as planned. The bagel bakeries and kosher shops of north London continue to do a brisk trade, with their clientele displaying a defiant mood. People aren’t talking seriously about changing their daily lives, let alone making aliyah to Israel.

AFP

“The attack was tragic and upsetting, but it doesn’t radically alter my perspective because the threat is nothing new, though it does make me think more about how to explain it to my kids,” said one Jewish Londoner, who asked not to be identified.

“It’s hardly time to pack our bags,” agreed another young Londoner who lives in the north-west London suburb of Hendon, which is popular with Orthodox Jews. “But there is every reason to believe this will happen in the U.K. I think the ‘success’ of Paris will embolden others.”

Most British Jews, a notably integrated Jewish community and the second-largest in Europe after France, seem to feel they are facing the threat alongside their compatriots. But they also know that their community presents a softer target. The British government raised the national threat alert to “severe,” its second highest level, in late August last year. Then, in November, the government distributed leaflets to London commuters advising them to “Run, hide and tell” in the event of a mass terror strike.

The flyers met with some accusations of scaremongering, but security experts say it is clear that the public is being prepared for what is now viewed as inevitable. The statements of senior government, police and security figures appear to back that up.

Certain locations, such as “postcard” sites like St. Paul’s Cathedral, Heathrow Airport and Canary Wharf, are at greater risk. And, of course, the Jewish community presents a so-called “soft target.” Events in France, including the Toulouse killings two years ago, in which a Jewish school was attacked by an Islamist gunman who killed three children and a teacher, have foreshadowed what could happen in the U.K.

“We know that what happened at the Jewish primary school in Toulouse could happen here,” said CST spokesman Mark Gardner.

He points to intelligence of extremists actively planning such actions. Documents found with Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s commander in East Africa who was killed in Somalia in 2011, included plans to attack high-profile targets, including the Ritz Hotel and Eton School, the alma mater of princes William and Harry – as well as the heavily Jewish London neighborhoods of Golders Green and Stamford Hill.

In the summer of 2012, a British couple – Mohammed Sajid Khan and his wife Shasta – were handing lengthy prison terms for plotting to carry out terror attacks on Jews in the north-west of England. Their trial heard how they were preparing bomb-making materials and had scoped out local Jewish institutions.

What comforts U.K. Jews is the community’s well-developed security institutions and close ties to government. Coincidentally, Jewish leaders are scheduled to meet with Prime Minister David Cameron this week, giving them another opportunity to raise security concerns.

The French situation is very different. For one thing, the community there lacks the same security infrastructure as the UK. Until the Toulouse attacks, the French authorities had preferred to deny the existence of such potential problems, reluctant to contradict the integrity of the Republic. It has been a steep learning curve ever since. The CST, on the other hand, is well-resourced and long-established, with an extensive track record of working closely with the police. As the siege in the Paris kosher supermarket unfolded last Friday, one police authority after another contacted CST head offices. All necessary co-ordination was completed within hours.

The current, high-visibility security precautions are also an attempt to soothe the community, Gardner explains. “They need to see that the CST, the police and the government are all on their side. Providing reassurance is part of the picture,” he said, adding, “We stress that there is no formal intelligence of a specific threat.”

These measures seem to be effective. “I definitely feel safe here,” said Tal Ofer, an Israeli-born businessman and a newly-elected member of the Board of Deputies, the representative body of British Jewry. Ofer says he has full confidence in Britain’s counter-terrorism services and leaving is not an option.

“Of course there is a fear that it could happen here, having witnessed terror attacks like the 7/7 bombings and the murder of Lee Rigby. However, the solution is not to run away, but to stand for democracy and liberty and demand our government protect us as citizens.”

The highest-ever recorded levels of anti-Semitic incidents were experienced last summer, as Israel went to war with militants in the Gaza Strip. Anglo-Jewry was left shaken.

“Yes we are jittery, particularly in the wake of Gaza, but the threat level is nothing like France,” said Richard Ferrer, editor of the London-based Jewish News. “U.K. Jews aren’t packing their bags en masse. However, the Paris attacks are yet another reminder that, when it comes to terrorism, the number one target after the U.S., Europe and Israel is Jews.”

Nonetheless, the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities in Britain is very different to that in France, despite tensions over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The U.K. is at heart tolerant and liberal,” continued Ferrer. “Brits tend to balk at bigotry. And U.K. Jews and Muslims have fostered warm relations.”

Ferrer points to last year’s Mitzvah Day – an annual social action event – in which more than 50 synagogues and mosques teamed up to work on grassroots community projects.

“Be wary, yes. But not worried,” he added. “France has a whole different set of issues to contend with when it comes to Muslims and Jews. There are significant numbers of alienated radical Muslims – often young men intoxicated by a perceived cause or vendetta – who have become violently opposed to the Jewish community. Mercifully, that is not a level of menace British Jews have to contend with.”

Keith Khan-Harris, a sociologist and acting editor of the Jewish Quarterly magazine, agrees that the situation in the two countries is very different.

“We aren’t facing the constant stream of low- and high-level assaults that French Jews have faced in the last few years. But I’m acutely aware that it only takes a small and committed group to perpetrate atrocities although the CST is very effective in ensuring resilience against opportunist stuff.”

Nonetheless, despite real reasons for concern, Kahn-Harris says he has no plans to change any aspect of his daily life. Neither does he fear for the safety of his wife, who is a rabbi.

“The single thing I do that worries me most is going on the Tube. That’s still the most vulnerable target – and it isn’t specifically Jewish.”

“If I was a religious Jew, I would think twice about wearing a kippa in public,” admits Ferrer. “But that would be more out of paranoia than any clear and present danger on the streets of London.”

A survey carried out this week by the Campaign For Anti-Semitism, a grassroots lobby group formed this summer, appeared to reveal that more than half of U.K. Jews feel that anti-Jewish prejudice in Britain has some echoes of the 1930s.

Community figures say this is far-fetched, and polling experts note that the results were far from representative, with leading questions disseminated primarily via social media and synagogues. That makes the CAA’s findings - such as the claim that a majority of U.K. Jews fear they have no future in this country – particularly dubious.

“Because of the methodological flaws, there is no way of knowing whether that finding is empirically true,” said Jonathan Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research think tank.

Jews clearly have been rattled by the Paris events and the summer’s spike an anti-Semitic incidents, he added. “There is a real threat, and people rightly expect authorities to analyze and assess it with extreme care and accuracy. We should demand the same from people trying to analyze attitudes and responses to that threat.”

Gardner agrees that the message is “be alert but not alarmed.”

“I haven’t heard of anyone changing how they go about their daily life, and we don’t expect a spike in aliyah figures,” he added.

People are still nervous, though. “If, God forbid, there is a terrorist attack tomorrow, you may find parents at Jewish schools turning up to take their children home,” said Gardner. “You won’t find that at normal schools.”