Photographer Franck Allais had a great idea for a community street art project. Using photographs he has snapped of people crossing the street, the French-born 42-year-old artist made and hung some 20 triangular-shaped mock “hazard” road signs around the Stamford Hill neighborhood: each one depicting a different character in the neighborhood.
Except maybe it wasn’t all that great an idea after all.
It seems no one took much note of his sign with a woman with a shopping trolley, nor cared about the one with the man with a dog or the man with a child triangle. But the sign containing an image of an ultra-Orthodox man, affixed to a lamppost not far from one of the neighborhood’s many synagogues, did not go over well, to put it mildly.
The sign was discovered by the Stamford Hill Shomrim, a Jewish neighborhood and community watch group, who quickly reported it as a hate crime to the Metropolitan Police and the local council – setting in motion both an investigation and a barrage of condemnation and breast beating.
“This latest hateful incident shows the lengths to which anti-Semites are prepared to go to tell Jews that they are unwelcome in their own city,” charged Stephen Silverman, director of investigations and enforcement at the volunteer charity Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, who, like many others in the heavily Orthodox Jewish community interpreted the sign as being a message that Jews were a hazard.
“For many in the Haredi Jewish community, this type of abuse and harassment is becoming a part of life. It has no place in a city that prides itself on its inclusivity,” said Silverman.
Local lawmakers were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Diane Abbott, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, called it “Disgusting. Unacceptable,” while David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, called it “despicable, nasty behavior that has absolutely no place in our community.”
The context is important here: A report released just last month by the Community Security Trust showed that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain rose by more than a third to record levels in 2016.
The CST, a body that monitors anti-Semitism and provides security to Jewish communities, recorded 1,309 incidents of anti-Jewish hate last year, compared with 960 in 2015. These incidents include violent assaults, damage and desecration to Jewish property, anti-Semitic graffiti, and verbal and social media abuse.
The previous record number of incidents took place in 2014, when 1,182 were recorded. Back then, many attributed the spike in incidents to the war in Gaza, deemed to be a “trigger event.” This past year, however, no such one trigger was identified – but rather, the CST talks about a “cumulative effect,” of a series of events and factors – including Brexit and the underlying increase in racism and xenophobia, as well as the perception – or reality – that some in the Labour party here condone anti-Semitism.
In Stamford Hill, home to one of Europe’s biggest Hassidic community, where over 20,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews live, these anti-Semitic incidents are not just data points.
According to a report put together by Shomrim, recent incidents in Stamford Hill include an eight-year-old boy being beaten up on his way home and called a “stupid Jew,” and an 11-year-old told to remove his kippa or face a beating. One Orthodox woman complained that a man had confronted her, gave a Nazi salute and asked if she covered her hair because Hitler had shaved it off. Another Jewish woman charged that she and her children were barred from boarding a bus and jeered by someone yelling: “I’m not going to move for you, you Jewish people are selfish, you Jewish people are bad.” These incidents, say Shomrim, “are the tip of an iceberg.”
Overall, according to the CST, over three-quarters of the incidents recorded last year took place in Greater London and Greater Manchester, where the majority of British Jews live. Greater London saw a 65 percent increase incidents on the previous year. Recently, in an effort to improve the reporting of anti-Semitic hate crimes, Shomrim and other volunteer watch groups in the ultra-Orthodox communities were given £50,000 by the Ministry for Faith and Integration.
Meanwhile, back in the art world, once Allais was tracked down, the father of two immediately apologized and insisted he has no malicious intentions and had not intended to cause any offence: “I did not expect this. I respect everybody,” he told the Daily Mail Online. He regretted the whole incident, he said: “'I did not want to hurt anyone.”
The photographer went on to explain the idea behind the project: “I like seeing the way people cross the road, because when we cross the road we are out in the open. We change our character and the way we act when we cross the road. I have been taking lots of pictures of this,” he said. “Of course, it was a Jewish man – everyone in the area knows that. I cannot pretend it is not a Jewish man. But I did it because I like the different characters in the area. For me, what makes us human is that we are all different and I wanted to show that.”
Hundreds of Londoners took to Twitter and to the radio waves to explain to the hapless photographer that, in these tense times, he should be more careful: “Unhelpful and not funny. Please think about what you are doing before displaying your 'art'” suggested one. “I don't think your sign was offensive or racist. But you failed to understand the fear of a community under siege from racism,” read another.
Others apologized to the artist: “I didn't see 'hate' in your sign. Once people see your project in context I think it'll all calm down,” one man took to Twitter to say. “I'd like to apologize on behalf of my compatriots for the way you have been treated,” piped in another.
Rabbi Herschel Gluck, the president of Shomrim, gave a nod to the photographer’s apology, but emphasized that any implication that Jews were not wanted or deemed a “hazard” was disturbing, no matter what the back-story or joke was. “The fact that it’s put up is wrong, because everyone is allowed everywhere in this city of London,” he told he told London Live, a local London TV channel.
“Even if it was a joke or part of an artistic project – it’s in very bad taste,” he continued. “This is a community that has suffered terribly from racism, and anti-Semitism, that has been traumatized in the past by similar such signs barring them from professions and parks.” Not to mention, he added, “This is a community where many members were victims of the Holocaust, or their parents and grandparents were victims."
A joke is a joke, he concluded, "but this kind of sign is deeply traumatic and deeply disturbing.”
Even as the debate continued, the offending sign was taken down, removed by the Hackney Council. The sign of the woman with the shopping trolley, along with the one of the fat child and the one depicting a cat, were also nowhere to be found.