The Smart British Way to Look at anti-Semitism

A new Community Security Trust survey on incidents involving U.K. Jews offers a sober and balanced perspective of the phenomenon, and bursts a few myths.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Damage to a north London synagogue, 2015.
A damaged door outside the Ahavas Torah synagogue in the Stamford Hill area of north London, March 22, 2015.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON – Jewish NGOs and think tanks that are dedicated to monitoring the spread of racism and anti-Semitism have an acute dilemma when reporting on incidents involving Jews around the world: Is it their duty to highlight them no matter what or to put them in a wider context? Is their job just to ring alarm bells warning that the ancient hatred has not gone away, or to reassure local Jewish communities that things are under control and the Cossacks aren’t about to attack them?

Surely a responsible organization would provide both warning and reassurance – but it turns out that this isn’t so simple. Few read the actual detailed reports and surveys these institutions put out, and the media on which they rely to amplify their work will rarely publish much more than a few sound-bites and factoids from the headlines, or a brief summary of the press release that accompanies the report’s publication.

Faced with this dilemma, many organizations trying to stay relevant and build their media profile (and boost their fundraising) will descend to absurd depths of headline-chasing. Even the most venerable are not immune to this as the American Anti-Defamation League proved in 2008 when it denounced an innocent and rather funny book of knitting patterns of little dictator puppets which included also a “knitler.” The fact that these were humorous designs lampooning bloodthirsty tyrants was completely lost on an ADL anxious for more publicity.

In the overblown hysteria accompanying many of the reports on anti-Semitism in recent years, one group stands out as taking a sober and level-headed view of what regrettably remains a feature of the lives of Jews all over the world.

Britain’s Community Security Trust, a charitable organization, has just published its latest report on anti-Semitic incidents as reported to it in the first six months of 2015. If the CST had simply wanted to cause a public stir, it could have simply stuck to the bottom line and said that it had recorded 473 incidents during this period – a shocking rise of 53 percent in relation to the corresponding period in 2014.

However, the CST went further and added an important caveat: that the data did not necessarily reflect an actual increase in the number of incidents that had taken place, but a growing tendency by many individual Jews and organizations to report these incidents, largely due to a heightened awareness following the terror attacks against Jewish targets in France and Denmark in January and February.

One victim of such an attack earlier this year, during which he was threatened, pushed against a wall and called a “fucking Jew,” told me, “I would have normally shrugged this off but with everything that happened over the last year, I felt I had a duty to other Jews to report it.”

The CST scrupulously investigates the reports it received to ensure they fit its classification, whereby “an anti-Semitic incident (is) any malicious act aimed at Jewish people, organizations or property, where there is evidence that the victim or victims were targeted because they were (or were believed to be) Jewish.”

Forty percent of the incidents (333 in number) reported to the organization over the past six months failed to meet that criterion and were not entered in its survey.

The heightened awareness the importance of reporting didn’t begin with the hostage-taking and murder of Jewish shoppers at the kosher grocery in Paris on January 9. For British Jews, there has been a feeling of high tension since the wave of protests last summer in their country against Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip and the corresponding spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.K. and in Europe.

But for those who feared that their local community was about to become the target of a wave of Islamist violence, the CST report bursts some myths. Of incidents in which the ethnic appearance of the offender had been described, 57 percent were white and only 30 percent were either Asian, or Arab and North-African looking. Of all the incidents where there was some connection to politics or political events, it was of a “far right” nature in three-quarters of them, while only in about 20 percent was there also an anti-Israel or anti-Zionist element, and in less than 10 percent, an Islamic element.

In only nine percent of incidents was there any form of physical violence and in just two percent, a level of violence which could be seen as potentially life-threatening or constituting “grievous bodily harm.” By far the most prevalent forms of anti-Semitism, according to the CST survey, were comments targeting Jews made online or shouted at them from a car window.

All these data tell us that there is anti-Semitism in Britain, in some cases violent and often linked to Israel as well, and/or coming from Muslims – but nothing in the CST’s measured report indicates that the Jewish community is in particular danger. Moreover, the unequivocal response of senior government ministers to the report has reflected the fact that the authorities in Britain are taking any level of attacks against Jews seriously.

At some points during the last 12 months, it seemed that members of the U.K. Jewish community were losing their self-confidence, and there was even a clutch of far-fetched and hysterical surveys purporting to prove that many Jews were thinking of “packing bags” and that a majority of non-Jews held anti-Semitic views.

The CST report is not only an nuanced and balanced perspective of the level of hatred Jews face in Britain, but a reminder that the country is capable of handling the threat proportionally and with a healthy degree of self-assurance.

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