A FEW weeks ago, I attended the local synagogue in north London on a Saturday morning for the Jewish sabbath with my young daughters, as I do every week.
Everything seemed normal, until one of the volunteers in charge of security came to the front to make an impromptu announcement. He said that there had been an incident in the area, and that people should be vigilant on their walk home. (As this is an Orthodox synagogue, people are not supposed to drive on the sabbath.)
We found out later that a man carrying two knives, who had been seen in the area running towards another synagogue, had been arrested. The immediate thought was that this was a terrorist attack aimed at the Jewish community; so it was a strange relief to discover that the man had been detained under the Mental Health Act.
The fact that most of my fellow congregants were not surprised by the possibility of danger shows how we live with a climate of hostility that surrounds the Jewish community. Jews in Britain are not only the target of hatred: they are singled out for attack. That is why my own synagogue, along with others, runs a security rota every week. Volunteers keep watch and filter access to the building. My young daughters’ school near by employs a security guard.
ONE of the reassuring factors in this ugly, uncertain climate is the presence of the Community Security Trust (CST), a professional and sophisticated organisation that protects the Jewish community and monitors anti-Semitism.
So, why is it needed? It has been 72 years since the end of the Second World War and the evil of the Holocaust, but anti-Semitism has not fizzled out. The CST’s latest survey of anti-Semitic incidents, published this month, showed that, in the first half of the year, there were 767 recorded incidents in the UK. This marked a 30-per-cent increase from the 589 incidents recorded during the same period in 2016. This worrying survey was published at about the same time as The Sunday Times dropped Kevin Myers as a columnist for using anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews and money in the newspaper (News, 4 August).
Anti-Semitism has always been hard to pin down. It has evolved over the ages. Jews were hated for being capitalists and Communists; for being rich and poor; for being left-wing and right-wing — whatever suited their oppressors.
In the Middle Ages, the Church was a sponsor of prejudice against the Jewish population. Jews in Britain were attacked, verbally and physically, for their religion. Britain was the inventor of the blood libel, the shameful claim that Jews drank the blood of Christian children. It surfaced in Norwich in 1144. The following century, the ferment of hatred led to the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.
NOWADAYS, anti-Semitism does not originate from a single source. In the UK, it has three main perpetrators: the far Right, the chattering classes on the Left, and Islamic extremists.
Much of modern-day anti-Semitism revolves around attacks on Israel. Of course, the Jewish state is not perfect, but attacks on it seem out of all proportion to its inadequacies.
It goes without saying that criticising the policies of the government of Israel is not anti-Semitic in itself; but it is anti-Semitic to hold Israel to different standards from other countries, or to deny its right to exist. Many anti-Semites use Israel as the means by which to attack Jews. This is particularly prevalent on the Left.
Anti-Semitism has also found a welcome home among radicalised fundamentalist Muslims. Disturbingly, an ICM poll published last year suggested that British Muslims were far more likely to hold anti-Semitic views than the general British population.
The climate of opinion has fomented anxiety and insecurity among Jews in Britain. Anti-Semitism is a “very light sleeper”, and the traumas of the Holocaust still run deep. I recall one respected Jewish intellectual from the Continent once saying, at a public debate in London, that a Jew should always sleep with a suitcase packed.
Two things have fed this heightened unease: the macro-climate and social media. Historically, economic downturns have spelt trouble for Jews, and usually lead to attacks on minorities. Meanwhile, social media incubate and spread messages of hate. An erudite report, published in April by the Kantor Center, said: “The discourse on the internet has become more and more threatening, cruel and violent; it escalates the real situation on the ground and inflates it a hundred times in no time at all.”
The CST’s figures show that 20 per cent of recorded incidents of anti-Semitism involve the use of social media — and this is rising. A high-profile example was the persistent and foul online abuse aimed at the Labour MP Luciana Berger, who is Jewish, which led to a two-year prison sentence for the miscreant.
NOTWITHSTANDING this bleak picture, a degree of perspective is required. Twenty-first-century Britain does not equate to 1930s Germany. The Government and the police recognise the situation, and acknowledge that anti-Semitism is not just a problem for the Jewish community. The Government’s adoption of the definition of anti-Semitism framed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has been welcomed by the CST and other Jewish organisations.
Jews are not the only faith community to face attacks and hostility — each community has its own challenges; but anti-Semitism has proved to be horribly resilient. Volunteering for the security rota at my synagogue is still, sadly, required.
Zaki Cooper is a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews. He writes in a personal capacity.