Shaken by post-Gaza War Hostility, U.K. Jews Push Back

Frustration at inability of established bodies to respond coherently to perceived or actual threats to community, after Israel's Gaza op, spawns rise of grass-roots initiatives.

Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled
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A Gaza war protest in London, July 26, 2014.
A Gaza war protest in London, July 26, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Daniella Peled
Daniella Peled

British Jews have long been proud of their exemplary integration into their wider society, with their experience often being held up as an example for other minorities. But the spike in anti-Semitic incidents that accompanied this summer’s war in the Gaza Strip seems to have shaken Anglo-Jewry’s self-confidence.

There is not just concern that the rise in public harassment of Jews, vandalism against synagogues, and racist comments on social media could be a signal of worse things to come: The Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Protective Edge has sparked a deep-seated frustration at what some complain is the inability of the community’s official leadership to respond in a coherent fashion.

But professionals involved in monitoring security threats to the community, in pro-Israel activism and in liaising with the government warn against succumbing to “mass hysteria,” as one veteran official put it, noting the importance of making a distinction between speech and actions that are offensive, as opposed to illegal.

Nonetheless, the frustration has led to an outburst of grass-roots activism that is challenging the old Jewish establishment. One example is the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, a group formed in early August by half-a-dozen activists and funded by private donations to “empower individuals to counter anti-Semitism all in its forms.”

The Campaign succeeded in bringing over 4,000 people to a rally against anti-Semitism on August 31 in central London, an initiative which was quickly backed by the United Synagogue and the Office of the Chief Rabbi, with other bodies quickly following suit.

“The establishment was very supportive; some might say they didn’t want to get left behind,” said Jonathan Sacerdoti, spokesman for the group. But at the rally, speakers from the Board of Deputies, UK Jewry’s main representative body, were greeted by boos and repeated calls of “You must do more!”

Similar cries were heard at a “Town Hall” meeting called by established Jewish bodies to address concerns over the community’s response to the Gaza conflict.

For some critics, the tipping point seemed to be the Board of Deputies’ recent decision to issue a joint statement with the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim community’s largest umbrella body, condemning all forms of religiously fuelled prejudice.

Previous incarnations of the MCB had strong links to the Muslim Brotherhood, and for six years the body refused to participate in the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day observance – a decision the group reversed in 2007 (although it once again boycotted the event in protest during the IDF’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, in 2008-9). Since then the MCB has had a low-key representation at the main memorial event.

However, some members of the UK Jewish community were outraged by the joint Board-MCB statement – particularly the line that condemned the targeting of civilians, which quickly became the subject of controversy with the sides arguing over whether it referred to Hamas rocket fire on Israel or the IDF bombings of Gaza.

But while discontent with communal institutions is evident, it’s less clear what grass-roots activists want to achieve.

“When you go on a demo you feel good – it’s comfort food,” one professional said. “They [the community] want to see people saying things they agree with. People want things to feel better.”

For his part, Sacerdoti called for the police to step up "confidence-building measures" among the Jewish community, although the Campaign has yet to formulate any concrete suggestions. In addition, he added, “I think everybody spreading online racism against Jews or any other minority should be prosecuted.”

Some of the underlying tension felt among UK Jews can be attributed to the actual nature of the dangers they face, with observers pointing to a gap between real and perceived anti-Semitic threats.

What’s clear is that there was a sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents recorded by the Community Security Trust, the body tasked with monitoring threats against UK Jewry, as the war in Gaza raged this summer. In July, CST logged 302 anti-Semitic incidents – the worst monthly total ever recorded.

But the CST has also emphasized that a large proportion of the incidents aimed at the Jewish community are not easily defined.

“A lot of anti-Israel language and activism isn’t anti-Semitic or illegal, but makes the majority of Jewish people who support Israel feel uncomfortable,” said Dave Rich, CST’s deputy director of communication.

One event that enraged local Jews was the decision, quickly reversed, by a North London art-house cinema to end its seven-year-long stint as host of a Jewish film festival because the event received funding from the Israeli embassy. Moreover, an incident in which a central London supermarket manager ordered kosher food on display to be removed for fear that nearby pro-Palestinian protesters would target his store also horrified many people.

However, as Rich pointed out, these were “very much isolated incidents … bad decisions quickly overturned. But they had a huge impact on people’s perceptions.”

Many Jews were also distressed by the massive Gaza solidarity rallies over the summer, but again, the actual significance of such events may have been a matter of perception.

Rich: “Examples of anti-Semitism at the demos did exist, on the fringes, with home-made banners – it didn’t characterize the demos as a whole.”

In fact, according to him, there was a marked improvement during recent anti-Israeli protests over previous rounds of violence, such as after Cast Lead, when “people were praising Hamas from the platform.”

Inflammatory Web rhetoric

Online rhetoric further served to intensify emotions this summer, he added: “Social media magnifies and multiplies the opportunities for supporters and opponents of Israel to meet in the same space.”

While the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism articulates a widespread feeling that more must be done by law-enforcement bodies, the community leadership is unanimous in its praise of British policing. Relations between the police and the community are consistently excellent, Rich said, and the force has largely been sensitive to its concerns.

“We get very few complaints from people in the Jewish community about how they were treated by the police when reporting anti-Semitism,” he pointed out.

However, while there have been calls for the police to pursue instances of online anti-Semitism, this does not appear to be a practical option. Two years ago, the Crown Prosecution Service – the body responsible for prosecuting criminal cases investigated by the police – tightened its guidelines on dealing with offenses committed on social media; that occurred in response to a period of excessive prosecution and harsh sentences.

This was a decision the CST also supported, partly due to freedom of speech considerations, but the group continues to stress that it would like to see more prosecution of online manifestations of anti-Semitism.

Said one Anglo Jewish leader involved in consultations between the government and the community on prosecuting online hate crimes: “Bringing successful prosecutions in such cases is notoriously difficult, and you can’t prosecute every individual comment.” A more realistic approach, he added, would be to work with individuals and networks to reduce the space for people to promote violence.

“The core message is that the law is not being enforced as rigorously as it should,” he continued. “But while it may be illegal to wave a Hamas or Hezbollah flag at a rally, if there are 30,000 people there is it going to reduce or inflame the situation if the police wade in to arrest someone? I am not sure we should be seeking to decide [about] communal policing. It’s an operational decision.”

Outside the establishment

The frustrations which sparked the Campaign’s protest last month also reflect deeper feelings among younger Jewish activists, who prefer to work outside the mainstream communal framework on a range of issues. But some of the veteran bodies are trying to recruit this new energy.

Steven Jaffe, who works to promote Israel advocacy among regional communities at the Board of Deputies, described “a great surge in grass-roots activity” in recent years. Jaffe, who grew up in Belfast, is also co-chair of the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, a group formed after Operation Cast Lead.

Social media are allowing such grass-roots groups to flourish, he said, pointing to the example of the Kedem cosmetics shop in Manchester, where pro-Palestinian protests this summer were met with pro-Israel counter-rallies mobilized by a tight-knit local community. The police eventually restricted the pro-Palestinian protesters to a site located at a distance from the store, but Jaffe said the response should have been quicker.

Events such as the London rally were important inasmuch as they highlighted Jewish concerns and put a certain degree of pressure on the police to take them seriously, he added.

But fighting anti-Semitism and finding ways to support Israel are not the only areas in which grass-roots activities are flourishing. Among the most famous of these is Limmud (an annual event focusing on Jewish learning which started in the UK and has become an international brand), but there has also been a surge of other self-starting initiatives, from volunteering both inside and outside the Anglo-Jewish community, to arts projects and ad hoc prayer quorums.

Grassroots Jews, a group of young Londoners, bring hundreds of people together each year for pop-up egalitarian, grass-roots services in a marquee in a north London garden on the High Holidays. For its part, London’s vibrant new Jewish community center, JW3, has mainstream appeal, but its image is emphatically not “establishment.”

“People often ask me: ‘What is the Board of Deputies, or Bicom, or the embassy doing' about a certain situation,” Jaffe said. “I am very rarely asked, ‘What can I do?’ Anglo-Jewry has been very deferential and hierarchical, and maybe this is changing as the rest of our society changes, too.”

But as far a fighting anti-Semitism goes, some expectations are unrealistic. “The assumption in the community is that everything offensive is prosecutable, but it’s not,” noted Jaffe. The issue of BDS is particularly sensitive.

“The whole concept of boycotting Israel does have anti-Semitic connotations for a lot of Jewish people," he added. "But the sentiment of the Jewish community is one thing and legal analysis another.”

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