I used to teach at a Jewish school in London. One day, we took the students on a trip. We climbed on board the bus with the children, the staff and our security guards and the first set of automatic gates were opened. The bus trundled over the humps in the road designed to slow down vehicles that may pose a potential threat, and made its way towards the second set of automatic gates which were opened by more guards. Finally, we passed the concrete blocks designed to foil would-be bombers and off we went.
Around 15 minutes into our journey, Sam, one of the students, had a question. He was pointing to another school that we passed along the journey.
“Sir?” he politely asked me. “Sir, why doesn’t THEIR school have security guards like ours?”.
The truth is, I had no answer. Well, that’s not exactly correct. I had an answer but it wasn’t one that I wanted to delve into with a 13-year-old, so I changed the subject.
Here’s what I could have said: “Well, they don’t need the security measures and unfortunately we do. You see, Sam, we’re in danger and that danger is real. There are many people who don’t like us to the extent that they would like to harm or kill us. I know that other schools you see don’t have the same precautions, but that’s because the kids that go to those schools aren’t in danger like you, because you are a Jew.”
You can see why I decided to change the subject.
September 11, 2001 was a school day and news was breaking of the attack on New York City. As we walked the corridors attempting to calm nerves, I overheard one conversation between students: “I can’t believe it. They just blew up the World Trade Center! [Pause] We’re probably next.”
The child speculating on what might happen next on that day of terror was not joking. As it turned out, Osama Bin Laden’s target list did not consist of one of the most important financial buildings in the world first, and then a British-Jewish school, but in that boy’s mind it might have.
His thought process is instructive. Jews are insecure. Not Woody-Allen-unsure-of-themselves-type-insecure. Not conspiracy-theory-everyone-is-out-to-get-us insecure. We lack personal security — the very worst kind of insecurity.
I loved growing up in Britain. I thought myself lucky. My family, typical of our community, raised me to be proud of being Jewish and British. But like other Jews, there was an underlying insecurity. How could we not be insecure? At synagogues and communal buildings, security guards manned the entrance, there was always news of headstones at Jewish cemeteries being defaced and every so often we would hear of — or experience — some kind of antisemitic incident. Our defense mechanism, I guess, was to put it into context. It was not as bad as it could have been and we lived with people who knew from personal experience in the last century in Europe just how bad things could have been.
I personally experienced casual anti-Semitism. More than a few times, I heard a shout from across the street or non-quiet whisper from some: “Go back to where you came from.” In the end, that is what I did — I went to Israel.
Herzl’s vision of a reborn Jewish state was inspired as a response to antisemitism. It is an answer, but not the answer. “Traditional” antisemitism persists on the extreme left and the extreme right. Israel acts as a sanctuary from antisemitic persecution for many, but is also a lightening-rod for modern-day antisemitic.
In a world of 193 countries; Israel stands alone as the world’s only Jewish one. 1/625 of the Arab world surrounding it, the Jewish ancestral homeland is the place to which we are indigenous. Understandably, Israel has a special place in the heart of Jews worldwide. Sadly, Israel remains a target for radical regimes who often attempt to target Jews worldwide as a proxy. While caught up in a conflict it has sought to end over decades of peace attempts, there is clearly also a rising tide of extremism in the Middle East which has nothing to do with Israel at all. Taken together, and inspired by education systems and cultures that teach and preach hate towards Israel, Israelis and Jews, a new strain is injected into traditional anti-Semitism.
In my educational role in London, I was given the responsibility of pioneering a new “multi-faith” curriculum, being rolled out in faith schools and mainstream schools. I designed an engaging program aimed at exposing our young British Jewish students to different faiths and races to engender understanding and positive attitudes towards others. Fast forward to today and the anti-Semitism should be a thing of the past. But it’s not — it’s worse.
The far-right antisemitism is still there. We will forever need to be on our guard to ensure that fascism and racism on the extreme right are kept in check. Far-left antisemitism, though, especially when directed at Israel, is far more socially acceptable. It poses no less a threat to Jewish minorities around the world, and when mixed with radical extremism, can prove deadly.
As I review the antisemitic tweets and Facebook posts from multiple personalities on the extreme left, with their Hitler-fixated and offensive language about Jews and Israel, I wonder: how were they educated? Where do their wrongheaded and radical ideas come from? As we were teaching our youth about coexistence, others, it seems, as Hussein Aboubakhr, Emran Mian and Kasim Hafeez have spoken about, were being raised to hate.
This is why the current focus on antisemitism — which made headlines in Britain while Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party and is now an agenda item in American debate too — is so important and so overdue. Figures show that anti-Jewish hate acts in the US increased by 80 percent in the last month alone. The occurrences are grimly reminiscent of one another, wherever they take place and include damage to Jewish properties and synagogues, antisemitic beatings and violence, not to mention terror attacks like those on the kosher supermarket in Paris or the Belgian Jewish Museum. Even the Jewish dead may not rest in peace: Jewish cemetery attacks in the US may have been overtly reported recently but this is not a new phenomenon — far from it — either in the US or elsewhere. In recent years, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated in Romania, Hungary, Germany, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and Britain, to name a few.
Racism against Jews isn’t going anywhere, but in addition to physical security for Jewish communities, education is key. Many people are misinformed about Jews and Israel. Often, a culture is created in which the demonization of Jews and Israel is tolerated – and social media metastasizes the cancer of antisemitism. Public figures with huge followings – either knowingly or unknowingly – repeat the tropes. The term “Zionists” is switched for “Jews”. Israel is used as cover to target Jews and engage in slurs and dog-whistles that have been hurled at Jews from time immemorial.
A comprehensive education that counters radicalism and is based on facts can engender tolerance and respect. Adopting the gold standard definition of antisemitism – the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance – so far recognized by over 450 institutions, including countries, political parties, municipalities, universities, businesses, states, religious bodies including the Global Imams Council, sports organizations and more.
Within the Jewish community in the diaspora, we need to counterattack the poisonous and one-sided rhetoric on Jews and Israel with positive educational programming that center on Jewish pride, the wonder that Israel represents in our world and on connection points with Israelis themselves. We also need to increase our outreach to, and partnership with, non-Jewish allies so they can identify antisemitism, counter it, and grow positive connections with Jews and Israelis. All of these are themes we address at StandWithUs and are why I wrote a book about Israeli resilience.
Antisemitism has been termed “the oldest hatred.” We Jews know that it will never go away. But we also know where racist comments and insults can lead: Antisemitism is deadly.
And that is why we Jews are insecure.