LONDON – Britain’s Jewish community is experiencing “nonstop” reports of antisemitic incidents as pro-Palestinian demonstrations grow in the wake of the current flare-up between Israel and Islamist militants in Gaza.
The verbal, physical and online targeting of Jews has soared as the conflict entered its second week. While there is a long-established pattern of conflict in the Middle East spurring increased attacks on Diaspora Jews, many communal figures in Britain say this round of violence feels more extreme.
Last Sunday, in one of the most startling and widely reported incidents, a video appeared on social media showing a convoy of cars decorated with Palestinian flags driving through Jewish neighborhoods in north London. A man in one of the cars was heard shouting antisemitic and misogynistic abuse from a megaphone.
In total, around two dozen cars were believed to have been in the convoy, which had been advertised online the previous week in Bradford and other cities in northern England. Four men were later arrested in connection with the incident.
However, there have been reports that a further car convoy is being advertised for this Sunday, with a stop-off planned in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Stamford Hill, northeast London.
Also last Sunday, Orthodox Rabbi Rafi Goodwin needed hospital treatment for head injuries after being attacked outside his synagogue in Chigwell, Essex (east of London). Two men were subsequently charged with assaulting the rabbi, who was allegedly struck over the head with a brick.
The incidents spurred a response from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wrote on Twitter: “There is no place for anti-Semitism in our society. … I stand with Britain’s Jews who should not have to endure the type of shameful racism we have seen today.”
The Community Security Trust, the body that monitors threats to British Jewry, reported a fivefold increase in recorded incidents in the days following the escalation of violence in Gaza on May 8. That in itself was “almost certainly” an undercount due to delays or lack of reporting, it noted.
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Dave Rich, the trust’s director of policy, said that reports of incidents had been “nonstop,” with extra staff brought in to answer calls to its 24-hour helpline.
Those incidents included random Jewish people being targeted with abusive, threatening language or gestures, and having “Free Palestine” shouted at them. “Free Palestine” graffiti was also daubed next door to a synagogue in central London.
In one reported case, a man stopped Jewish high school students in London and threatened to punch them if they did not say they supported Palestine. He then said: “Tell your fucking mum and dad they are murderers and killing babies.”
Extensive antisemitic content was also reported across multiple social media platforms and sent directly to Jewish students and communal leaders.
Rich said Jewish children and teenagers had been particularly affected by abuse, either at school or online.
“It’s different from [the last war in] 2014, because social media is so much more pervasive and image-based,” he said. “Whereas before the focus was on Facebook and Twitter, now you also have Instagram and TikTok. And teenagers are much quicker to join social movements; we’ve just had Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, #MeToo – now Jewish kids find all their friends are joining this movement where they don’t feel welcome or they are singled out because they’re Jewish.”
‘Things are getting worse’
Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have also been held across Britain, with thousands of people gathering last Saturday outside the Israeli Embassy in London. Daily protests are also planned in a number of locations over the coming week. Some protesters carried homemade signs featuring swastikas and other Nazi imagery, while antisemitic chants were also heard.
But what has really shaken the Jewish community, according to Rich, “is that demos are being held all over the country every day about this issue. After 18 months of lockdown, suddenly massive crowds emerge to shout about getting rid of Israel.
“Even the moderates have become extremists,” he said. “Ten years ago, a lot of marchers just wanted Israel to behave better. Now the movement is dominated by the view that Israel is an apartheid, genocidal, settler-colonialist state that basically shouldn’t exist, and the moderates have become the fringe.”
David Hirsh, senior lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a longtime activist on the subject of antisemitism in public life, is unable to offer a more optimistic view.
“I feel things are getting worse,” he said. “There used to be a struggle in Palestine solidarity between a politics of peace – two states living side by side – and a politics of denouncing one side as essentially evil and hoping for its total defeat.”
This had changed, he said, arguing that support for a two-state solution was increasingly “thought of as a Zionist trick.”
He added: “Saying Israel is apartheid and calling for its isolation and destruction is more and more a condition of membership of the ‘community of the good.’ With this absolute demonization of Israel comes a demonization of Jews who aren’t willing to disavow Israel.”
What he described as “academic and political cultures” had begun to spill over into explicitly antisemitic incidents in real life, he said. “If you teach that Israel, and the Jews who refuse to disavow it, are evil – that is, most Jews – then you’re teaching antisemitism.”
Daniel Korski, vice-president of the Jewish Leadership Council (an umbrella body made up of the heads of major community organizations), noted that while historically flare-ups in the Middle East have led to a rise in antisemitic incidents in Britain, “the spike we have seen [now] is more virulent, more aggressive.
“You can criticize Israel without being antisemitic. But we need to have a difficult and uncomfortable conversation about the tone and language being used about a conflict thousands of miles away, on intercommunal relations,” he said. “We don’t see the same kind of outpouring of emotion when it comes to the Rohingya or the Uighurs or Syria, and it makes a lot of Jews feel this is about them [as Jews].”
Korski said it was possible that the proliferation of demonstrations was partly due to that fact that people had been “cooped-up” in successive lockdowns since March 2020 “and have a great deal of pent-up aggression.”
He added, “We have to continue to make clear that this is unacceptable, to ensure that there are the means to prosecute those responsible, that the government funds added security, and that as Jews we are proud of our heritage and at the same time in no way responsible for the actions of a government thousands of miles away, no matter our feelings or connection to it.”