Are British Jews Afraid? And if They Aren't, Should They Be?

A spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the wake of last summer's Gaza war rocked the sense of security of British Jews. The Cossacks Aren't Coming: A special series on the future of European Jews.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past the Ahavas Torah synagogue in Stamford Hill, north London, on March 22, 2015, after a suspected anti-Semitic attack there.
An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks past the Ahavas Torah synagogue in Stamford Hill, north London, on March 22, 2015, after a suspected anti-Semitic attack there.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON – On a cold evening last month, a loud crack was heard inside a kosher café on a bustling street in the north London neighborhood of Edgware. A small circular hole in the window quickly led to reports on local and Jewish websites – immediately shared on social media – that a shot had been fired at the café. Police arriving on the scene failed to find any ballistic evidence and reached the conclusion that it had been the work of teenagers cruising on their skateboards and throwing marbles. Other shops on the street had been similarly vandalized. But two hours later, as glaziers were already replacing the window, there were conflicting accounts in neighboring, Jewish-owned establishments.

“They shot at the café” insisted a waiter at the shawarma joint, along what is one of north London’s most prominent kosher strips. Did he hear any shots? “No, but my friend did.”

“The police should have more of a presence here,” complained one of the diners. “Someone could have been killed.”

In the kosher grocery across the street, shift manager Moishe was dismissive. “It wasn’t an anti-Semitic attack, just a couple of wild kids,” he smiled. Isn’t he worried that his workplace could become a target for a terror attack, like at the Hyper Cacher in Paris in January, where four Jews were murdered? “There’s so many police around. I really don’t feel apprehensive at all. Anyway, if you get scared and change the way you act, they win without firing a shot.”

Mixed feelings

Unlike communities on the continent, such as France, Denmark and Belgium, the Jews of Great Britain so far remain untouched by terror. But while some feel secure and shielded by a combination of competent policing, professional intelligence services and good fortune, others are convinced that not only is it just a matter of time before a similar atrocity takes place in the United Kingdom, but that the current level of Judeophobia is already reminiscent of the 1930s.

Read parts 1-8 of “The Cossacks aren’t coming here”:

Part 1, Krakow: The Jewish Community Center on the doorstep of Auschwitz

Part 2, Krakow, continued: An unexpected generation of Polish Jews is coming out of the closet

Part 3, Budapest: Fork in the road for young Jews in Budapest: Tradition or Tikkun olam

Part 4, Denmark: A wake-up call for Danish Jewry, not a siren call to head for Israel

Part 5, Budapest: Hungarian Jews more worried about threat to democracy than anti-Semitism

Part 6, Paris: The New Jewish Children of the Republic: Jews reexamine their place in France

Part 7, Paris: From the Seine to the Jordan: Is there a French Jewish exodus?

Part 8, Did the 21st century’s first pogrom take place near Paris?

It is hard to gauge what proportion of the community is in either group – the polling is contradictory – or to understand why some feel that British Jews are in a situation that in any way resembles the period in the previous century when Fascism swept Europe.

What is inescapable is that it is out there, and not just within Jewish circles. Over the last couple of months, the British media has extensively dealt with the issue of whether anti-Semitism is indeed on the rise, and whether the country’s Jews are at risk. And while many, often self-appointed, Jewish representatives are pleased with the public debate, the largest communal organization dealing with anti-Semitism in Britain, the Community Security Trust (CST), is not so sure.

“We have mixed feelings about where the debate has gone” says Dave Rich, CST’s deputy communications director. “We reached the conclusion several years ago that having the media talking about this on the front-pages is not, in the end, good for the community.”

Surely a body whose raison d’tre is to warn about all manner of threats to Jewish security would be pleased with the increased focus? Rich explains that his group’s goal “is not to have as many people as possible worrying about anti-Semitism. Our goal is that Jews can live their lives in confidence and openly, in security.”

This is the dilemma facing the CST and the rest of the Jewish establishment. And how to remain vigilant while not encouraging a siege mentality is exacerbated by the part of the community that may not be very large but is certainly vocal, and which accuses them of downplaying the threat.

Accusations that the Jewish leadership was not doing enough began last summer, in the wake of a wave of protests against Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza and the corresponding rise in anti-Semitic incidents. It was partly also a generational divide, with the younger voices clamoring for a more vigorous response. There was also a political divide at play, with many of those further to the right keen to portray the more extreme criticism of Israel as being against all Jews in general. And, of course, this is not a new dilemma but very old Jewish angst, which never allows one to fully believe things are as good as they have ever been.

In most conversations about anti-Semitism in Britain today, you realize immediately that people are talking about something they have never actually experienced firsthand. As writer and journalist Ben Judah puts it, “Our view of anti-Semitism usually boils down to arguing about the language which certain politicians and Muslims, and certain parts of the left, are using about Israel – which for Jews is super-emotive language and we feel is inciting against Jews everywhere. It really is a lot about the language.”

In the vast majority of cases, the headlines, reports and polls that speak of rising anti-Semitism in Britain are concerned with verbal – and, especially, online – abuse. But besides a few incidents of low-level vandalism (mainly graffiti), there have been almost no physical attacks. When you ask those who claim not enough is being done to fight anti-Semitism in Britain what actual steps they would like to see taken, you either get a blank response or unrealistic proposals to go after anyone who makes a racist remark on Facebook or Twitter.

The reality, insist those within the Jewish “establishment,” is that support and coordination with the authorities has never been better. “On the day of the Paris attacks [January 9], we had government ministers calling and asking what security arrangements we needed,” recalls one community official. “It was all in place already.”

Some community leaders are worried that if things do get worse for the Jews in the future, it may be more difficult to attract attention. “What concerns me,” says Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi of the Movement for Reform Judaism, “is that we have raised the alarm now and been responded to beautifully – by the media, government, the public, even our Muslim neighbors. But who knows what awaits us down the road. By raising the alarm now, we may have made it less effective in the future.”

The ‘anti-Zionist’ catchall

In the second half of the 20th century, anti-Semitism in Britain could usually be divided into two categories. There was the casual violence and vandalism emanating from what was called “yob culture” or “skinheads” – and is now ascribed to “ASBO kids” (a reference to the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders handed out to young miscreants). And then there was the more genteel and snobbish anti-Semitism, which still lingered among the more educated upper classes, the kind that often appeared “on the edge of a remark.”

Better policing and changing societal mores have, to a large degree, shrunk both these strands of Judeophobia. They still exist in a few places, though. In some soccer stadiums, especially Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge, there are hissing noises (simulating gas chambers) and nasty chanting, especially when Tottenham Hotspur (aka “the Yids”) visits. The fact that the West London club is owned by Jewish oligarch Roman Abramovich and for a short while had an Israeli manager (Avram Grant) and players (Yossi Benayoun, Tal Ben Haim) adds to the irony.

That old suspicion of Jews among the “chattering classes” has largely been rendered obsolete by political correctness and the fact that so many members of the group are now Jewish themselves. But it has been replaced by another acceptable hatred, one many feel is just the same old thing but masquerading under the label of “anti-Zionism.”

Anti-Semitism in Britain is now inseparable from the conflicts in the Middle East. Whether it’s low-level violence, vandalism or verbal abuse, the source these days is most likely to be young and disaffected members of Britain’s growing Muslim community. Very few Muslims in the United Kingdom are of Palestinian descent. The great majority are not even Arabs, hailing instead from the Indian subcontinent. But it’s not the India-Pakistan rivalry over Kashmir or the murderous enmity between Sunnis and Shi’ites that motivates them; it’s the Israel-Palestine conflict. And this is the conflict that receives the most saturated coverage in the British media and is exploited by opportunistic lawmakers such as MPs George Galloway (Respect) and David Ward (Liberal Democrats), to curry favor with their predominantly Muslim constituencies.

Abusing Jews, as Jews, is simply not done anymore in the media or polite society. But legitimate criticism of Israel creates a gray area where the word “Zionist” is interchangeable with “Jew.” This dichotomy is magnified and brought home to many by social media.

In the past, when a 15-year-old hooligan sprayed a swastika on a synagogue wall, only a small number of people arriving for morning prayers saw it before the paint was washed off. Today’s 15 year olds, however, all have smartphones and regularly see Nazi imagery and memes such as “Hitler was right” on them. In many cases, these were posted by other kids or losers living in their mother’s basements on the other side of the world. But seeing it on your pocket communication device can make it very personal and disturbing. The Internet has created a situation where people without a voice have suddenly found a form of amplification and losers are taken seriously.

Worst year ever

In February, the CST published its annual report on anti-Semitic incidents in Britain. The headline finding, which was extensively reported in the media, was that it had been the worst year since the organization began reporting these statistics in 2004. With 1,168 incidents, 2014 had more than double the previous year. It had surpassed the previous worst years of 2006 and 2009. The correlation was clear: those were the years in which the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza took place. Last year, anti-Semitism peaked in July and August, while the latest Gaza war was raging.

The figure is disturbing, but the breakdown shows that only 81 incidents (7 percent) were actual acts of violent assault (there was one case of “extreme” and potentially life-threatening violence when a Jewish man was attacked with a club) and a similar number of acts of vandalism. Eighty-six percent of all reported incidents were verbal or online abuse and threats.

“When people are more worried about anti-Semitism, we get more reports,” says the CST’s Rich, who, like his organization, has tried to present a more nuanced picture. “The numbers are the numbers and we don’t change the methodology, but there are factors. The situation in Israel and Gaza caused a spike, but for the previous three years there was a drop in incidents. After the summer, things went back down to ‘normal’ levels,” he adds.

However, not everyone wants to deal with nuances. In January, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA), a “grassroots” group formed in the wake of the anti-Israel protests during last summer’s Gaza conflict, published an attention-grabbing poll, which claimed that nearly half of British citizens hold at least one anti-Semitic view. A second poll carried out by CAA and published in the same report claimed that 45 percent of British Jews feel “Jews may not have a long-term future in Britain,” and 56 percent agreed that “the recent rise in anti-Semitism in Britain has some echoes of the 1930s.”

The CAA report is replete with overgeneralizations and shoddy methodology. One veteran researcher of British-Jewish affairs called it “pretty dodgy” and “an odd mixture of impassioned naive idealism and cynicism.” It flew in the face of other data, which showed both the levels of anti-Semitism and Jewish fear being much lower.

But while being privately vituperative, most of the Jewish leadership was guarded in its criticism of CAA. While calling the report “hysterical” off-the-record, one senior official in a large Jewish organization also admitted, “They do represent a certain constituency who feel things are that bad. They’re wrong, but we have to take Jews’ fears seriously – even if they’re baseless.”

Jonathan Sacerdoti, director of communications for CAA, sees no reason to apologize. “We felt that ordinary people wanted us to say these things,” he tells Haaretz. “People who said ‘I’m really worried about what I’m hearing’ and felt they needed an outlet to talk about anti-Semitism.”

When asked about the absurdity of comparing contemporary Britain – with its massive representation of Jews in politics, media, business and academia – with the situation in the 1930s, Sacerdoti responds, “We weren’t saying whether it’s right or wrong, it’s not a very useful comparison.” But he insists that “even if we think it’s unfounded, it’s something we should be saying if people think that.”

Even those not given to sweeping historical judgments and who try to cling to nuance say something has definitely changed in Britain. “The nasty anti-Israel atmosphere in the summer gave people an excuse for verbal Jew-bashing,” says public-relations expert Rachel Silver. “I was quite shocked to hear what some of my old friends thought,” she recalls. “People say, ‘Oh it’s only criticism of Israel,’ but forget that Israel was created for a purpose; Jews had nowhere else had to go.” But she believes some Jews “protest too much about anti-Semitism, because it’s a very fuzzy line.”

Ben Judah spent years living in Eastern Europe, first as a teenager, then as a student and journalist. He regularly experienced “the old style of anti-Semitism” there. “You know its boundaries. A lot of people there saw me as Jewish first. I’d hear stuff about ‘Your country,’ and I’d realize they were talking about Israel, not Britain. They were very open and honest about it.”

During the last summer in London, he says, “all my Jewish friends – even those who were never seen as Jews and not political – felt under attack.” As a journalist in Britain’s metropolitan-intellectual center, he feels the threat from two sources. “For part of the middle class, it’s anti-Americanism. For them, Israel is America and the Jews are America. The English are famously indirect, so when British Jews start hearing about ‘the Zionists,’ they know what it means. Someone said to me, ‘I don’t like my boss, he’s a massive Zionist.’ It means he’s a massive Jew.”

And then there’s the Muslim issue.

No one can predict if and when a radicalized Islamist will carry out an attack in Britain, like those that took place in France, Belgium and Denmark earlier this year. So far, the security services have headed off such plans. It does already affect people in other ways, though, explains Judah. “On the street where I live, there’s a mosque whose preacher was a jihadist suspect,” he says. “Before the war in Gaza, I wore a little pendant with a Shema. One day, I saw a group coming out of the mosque and I took off the pendant. I didn’t want the minute risk, the 0.000001 percent, of something happening. I just don’t want to think about. It means that being a British Jew today is increasingly defined by being afraid of the Muslim minority.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism