British Jews: Pro-Gaza Protesters Trying Harder to Avoid anti-Semitism

Long-standing U.K. traditions of tolerance, as well as efforts by Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups to avoid incitement, have meant Britain has not suffered similar experiences to France.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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Protesters outside the Israeli Embassy in London, August 1, 2014.
Protesters outside the Israeli Embassy in London, August 1, 2014.Credit: AFP
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

Britain has seen a sharp uptick in anti-Semitic instances since the start of Operation Protective Edge last month, but communal leaders say the United Kingdom has largely escaped the violent attacks seen in Europe. However, they warn that the growing success of the boycott movement is making many British Jews uncomfortable.

Observers say that long-standing U.K. traditions of tolerance, as well as efforts by Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups to avoid incitement, have meant Britain has not suffered similar experiences to France, where Gaza rallies have seen anti-Semitic chanting and descended into violence.

In Germany, where incidents included the firebombing of a synagogue, the government vowed to clamp down on hate speech, and in the Netherlands the home of the chief rabbi was attacked repeatedly.

In Britain, the Community Security Trust – the body that monitors threats to British Jews – recorded more than 200 incidents in July, making it the second-worst month since its records began in 1984 (the worst followed Operation Cast Lead in 2009).

In one incident in the northern city of Bradford, which has a large southeast Asian population, a car driven by a Jewish couple was caught in slow-moving traffic. Each driver in the queue was asked for money by people collecting for Gaza. When the Jewish man declined to donate, he was repeatedly called a “fucking Jewish bastard.”

In Gateshead, northeast England, a rabbi was attacked outside a boarding school by four Muslim teenagers, while a group of Asian men in Manchester shouted anti-Semitic slogans and threw rubbish as they drove through a Jewish area.

In Belfast, Northern Ireland, bricks were thrown at the city’s sole synagogue on two consecutive nights.

However, the CST’s Mark Gardner said that these remained “isolated incidents,” and noted that the mass demonstrations have largely been trouble free given the many thousands of participants.

Observers say a number of factors have changed since previous rounds of violence in the Middle East fuelled trouble in Britain.

Behavior and language used at public rallies has changed, they note, with organizing bodies such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) at pains to clamp down on manifestations of extremism.

Lindsey German, convenor of the Stop the War Coalition which helped organise the marches – and is fiercely critical of Israel – released a statement insisting that “Any sign of anti-Semitism should be challenged and opposed, wherever it occurs … it would be inconceivable to tolerate a form of racism on pro-Gaza demos that we would otherwise find utterly unacceptable.”

Indeed, in contrast to France, where Gaza rallies have ended in violence targeting police officers as well as synagogues and Jewish-owned shops, events in the U.K. have been peaceful.

Dan Judelson, an activist with Jews For Justice For Palestinians who has been on several of the recent Gaza marches, said that although some individuals had raised offensive signs, organizers had done their best to prevent this.

“At a protest outside the Israeli Embassy last Friday, one guy had a placard drawing comparisons between the Nazis and Israel. PSC stewards asked for my help in persuading him to take it down, and he did. I think the PSC is taking active steps to stop this kind of thing featuring in the marches.”

The organised Muslim community has also been at pains to stress that anger over the war should not be allowed to spill over into racial hatred.

Dr. Shuja Shafi, the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, released a statement on July 14 calling on all “to ensure that the Israel-Palestine conflict does not affect the excellent relations held between Muslims and Jews in the United Kingdom.”

Urging only “legitimate protest against Israeli action,” he said it was vital that communal relations were maintained – “or better still, if ties are made stronger than ever before.”

The Asian Times, a newspaper often strongly critical of Israel, published two pieces unequivocally condemning anti-Semitism.

British Jews say they feel protected not only by the country’s strong tradition of multiculturalism and tolerance, but by legislation.

“Britain has always been a friendly country for Jews; it is pretty inclusive and we have tough hate laws,” said Adam Wagner, a prominent human-rights lawyer and activist. “You can be prosecuted here for saying grossly offensive things and there is a lot of protection in criminal law.”

Wagner said he has never experienced anti-Semitism in Britain “in my entire life. I have never felt uncomfortable and I have always been a very outspoken Jew and outspoken supporter of Israel.” The only race hatred he ever encountered, he added, was as a leader on Jewish youth group tours in France.

The CST’s Gardner said that the situation in France was clearly fuelled by the alienation of young men from North African immigrant communities. “They could just as easily burn down a police station as a synagogue,” he said. “Jews are seen as part of the establishment there.”

London, on the other hand, was a “genuinely multicultural place” with protests held in a very different atmosphere.

That’s not to say that supporters of Israel feel they have been given an easy ride.

“I am seeing a lot more anti-Semitism coming out of the anti-Israel stuff than seen before,” said one head of a U.K. branch of an Israeli charity. “Generally the tone of debate seems more angry and virulent.”

But some in the Jewish community stressed they felt that the threat of racial hatred had been inflated.

Daniel Reisel, one of the founders of the left-wing Zionist lobby group Yachad, said that while he acknowledged extreme incidents like the synagogue attacks in France, his feeling was that the reported spike in anti-Semitism was “somewhat exaggerated.

“I think it’s worth saying that as much as we claim that anti-Semites are conflating legitimate anti-Israel criticism with illegitimate anti-Semitism, we are as guilty of this fudging ourselves. Many people see instances of political opposition to Israel, and they label it anti-Semitism,” he added.

Gardner emphasized that his organization distinguished strongly between criticism of Israel and hatred of Jews, but stressed, “There are philosophical and legal definitions of anti-Semitism, but what matters most is how people perceive the situation. If they feel vulnerable or isolated, then there is a problem.”

In particular, he emphasized that the issue of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) – while not intrinsically anti-Semitic – raised many difficulties for the community.

Gardner noted that last year’s Fundamental Rights Agency survey of European Jews and anti-Semitism found that 34 per cent of British Jews consider supporters of a boycott of Israel to be “definitely anti-Semitic” and 33 per cent “probably anti-Semitic.”

Anglo-Jewry was certainly outraged this week when the UK Jewish Film Festival was forced to find a new venue after a north London arts centre, its home for the last eight years, refused to host an event partially sponsored by the Israeli Embassy. The Tricycle Theatre suggested it replace the funding provided by the embassy, an offer declined by the film festival.

The move follows hot on the heels of the vote by the country’s National Union of Students’ national executive committee to adopt a BDS policy, which will allow campuses to boycott Israel.

Two acts in receipt of Israeli government funding – a Jerusalem hip-hop opera and a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev dance performance – were also dropped from Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival after protests.

While British Jews are clear that levels of incitement are nowhere near those experienced elsewhere in Europe – noting that there has been no spike in aliyah figures such as seen from France – they do not rule out a future deterioration.

“I studied anti-Semitism for decades and it is better to err on the side of caution,” said Tony Lerman, a former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “But I can’t see anti-Semitism in Britain developing to [European] levels.”

The danger, he added, lay if the Gaza cease-fire broke down again and again, or if Israeli policy took an extreme right-wing turn.

“There is a clear link between what Israel is doing and manifestations of anti-Semitism,” said Lerman. “I am not saying Israel deliberately wants anti-Semitism, but the effect of its actions is to provoke anti-Semitism. If, for instance, [Avigdor] Lieberman became prime minister and began a process of transfer; those sorts of policies implemented in Israel could increase the tensions here and result in more violence.”

A protester outside the Israeli Embassy in London, August 1, 2014.Credit: AFP

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