There is a view among north-west London Jewry that anyone living in what the late writer Philip Roth might have called goyishe south of the river is missing out on community life. Admittedly, it is hard to find a good bagel and the schlep around the North Circular for kosher supplies is not ideal.
But there are great compensations in the shape of the greens spaces of Richmond Park, nearly four times the size of Hampstead Heath, neighbouring Wimbledon and Putney Commons and walking distance to the Thames.
The concentration of Jewish life in north London provides a community comfort blanket but also plays into the hands of our enemies. A recent family arriving from Israel, having decided to send children to a Jewish school in north London, genuinely was shocked by the amount of security required to keep students and teachers safe.
It was hard to process the idea that in city as diverse, established and multi-cultural as London the threat of antisemitism and terrorism requires such heavy defences. An outsider picking up a copy of Jewish News could not but think British Jews are a community under siege. The appropriation of symbols of the Holocaust during recent pro-Palestinian demonstrations is among the most deeply disturbing developments.
Even more shocking was the grotesque convoy of vehicles which snaked from St John’s Wood up the Finchley Road, screaming hatred twoards Jews. They were enough to turn even the calmest of stomachs. In the midst of their own much worse horrors on the streets of Lod the Israeli NGO, with which I work, felt it necessary to send a message of support.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the invidious invasion of civil society by pro-Palestinian forces who turn unthinking fire of British Jews who have no responsibility for what is happening in Israel and, on occasions, are as disturbed by events as non-Jewish counterparts. It is unadulterated racism. Such attitudes have become hard wired in some municipal authorities, the trades unions and sections of the Labour Party in spite of the effort by Kier Starmer to purge antisemitism. Recent events tarnish Britain’s reputation for tolerance.
Living, as we do, on the fringes of Richmond Park in south London the recent demonstrations, threats and intimidation faced by north London communities might seem to pass us by. Where I work in Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Israeli embassy, the windows of empty stores are covered in anti-Israel slogans and signage. Most of us in south-west London have family further north, many of whom moved there in search of better Jewish education and more facilities for young people. Every assault on their communities is an assault on us.
Away from the heartbeat of British Jews in north London it is never possible to relax our guard. Locally in Richmond, for all our efforts to build bridges with the local communities, there is a strong pro-Palestinian sentiment. I have never forgotten that during operation Protective Edge in2014, our local theatre, the Orange Tree, provocatively held a pro-Palestinian even on a Saturday. The middle-class burghers rose in their tweed jackets to condemn Israeli violence as if there was one party to the conflict.
Recently there was a minor incident involving synagogue security. With the advice of CST and support from a neighbouring housing association, a rear gate was erected from the shul which would allow an emergency exit in the case of fire or a terrorist incident. When the shul returned after covid the gate has been locked and blocked by a resident who declared he didn’t want to do anything to help ‘you people.’
A minor infraction I know. But the inflammatory seed of antisemitism planted by Labour’s left and trades unions and inflamed by media reporting from the Middle-East means no neighbourhood, however pastoral and prosperous, can escape can separate itself from the broader narrative. There is an insidious effort to undermine the legitimacy of Jewish support for Israel.
The ring of steel around Jewish schools is not for show: it is an absolute necessity.