Since October 7th, the UK has experienced, in common with many other western states, a deeply alarming spike in antisemitism. Like other non-Jewish allies in the fight against Jew-hatred, I seek to urge my country to take this threat far more seriously than it shows any evidence of doing. Since so much of the abuse and threatening behaviour emanates from my own progressive and progressive-adjacent circles, I had hoped that the mainstream organs of progressive UK opinion would see it as their responsibility to carry this article, from one of their own. That they have shown no appetite to do so says much about the low priority placed on the issue by the liberal-left and the country at large. I write here, instead, in the hope that my warnings might be disseminated to Brits online, and so that Israelis at least know that there are some of us on the western left who would not betray the Jewish people in its hour of need.
The worst month in my lifetime for UK antisemitism
“Be a Jew in your home and a man outside”. This was the motto of the Haskalah – the Jewish enlightenment philosophy pre-empting the emancipation of the Jews of western and central Europe. The acculturation of the continent’s Jews, and the lifting of the widespread restrictions on them, the modernizers argued, meant rushing out with open arms to meet and contribute to the wider culture. That the Jews did so, and in spades, has been to the immeasurable glory of an ever-ungrateful continent.
In the western Europe of October 2023, “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside” is back, not as philosophy this time, but as practical safety advice.
In the month following the Hamas pogrom, the Community Security Trust (CST) recorded at least 1124 antisemitic incidents across the UK. This constituted the highest total ever reported to the organization across a 32-day period since its foundation in 1984. This, then, was the worst month for British antisemitism for as long as I have been alive.
The raw numbers tell only a fraction of the story. Let us look at the character of some of the assaults on my fellow citizens in that period. (All examples provided by the CST – if the average Brit had any notion of the work this venerable organzsation is forced to do, he would, I predict, be shocked. But he would soon forget about it.)
- On the underground, a visibly Jewish man was taunted with threats of “kill him”.
- In London, graffiti was painted on a wall depicting a Star of David hanging from a noose next to the word “Yids”.
- A visibly Jewish man was in a London shop when a woman shouted at him, “Yahud” (meaning “Jew”).
- A group of Jewish children were at a soft-play birthday party, when other children shouted, “Dirty Jew”.
- Jewish schoolboys were standing on an underground platform when a man approached and said, “I don’t want to be in a carriage with you f*cking Jews”.
- In a WhatsApp group chat involving children from different schools, one was told to “Go back to the chambers u f*cking big nosed vegan b*tch” [sic].
- A mezuzah was removed from a home in Hertfordshire.
- A visibly Jewish man in Glasgow was hit on the head with steak knife and had his kippah cut in half.
- Leaving school, a classmate shouted at a Jewish girl, “F*ck the Jews”.
- A man was on a London bus and was called a “Jew”. He then had red paint thrown over him.
- A non-Jewish employee at a tube station was abused by males whom he had asked not to force the ticket barrier open. They said, “Oh he’s a Jewish c*nt, isn’t he?” and, “F*ck you, f*ck Israel”.
- In Manchester, a local takeaway owner threw cups and plates at customers and shouted, “we do not serve Jews”.
- Girls were walking home from their Jewish school in Hertfordshire when a man barged past them, saying, “What is this, a Jewish walkway? Free Palestine you c*nts”.
- An academic in Manchester posted on an online platform, “There was a fundraiser for Gaza inside the campus and it was a joy to pass by and donate £5. One dry punch to f*ck the kikes.”
- Bacon was thrown over the gate of a Jewish school in London, with a note saying, “Die U Jewish” [sic].
In another case, two Sundays ago the mother of an opponent in a Maccabi Lions under 14s football game withdrew her son from the field rather than allow him to face a Jewish team.
Jews othered, Jews shunned, Jews threatened, Jews humiliated, Jews assaulted, in incidents redolent of an era complacently assumed vanished. And these are only the explicit cases. Unrecorded by the CST are the looks, the innuendos, the snide remarks that are the constant stuff of Jewish life in our liberal democracy.
Antisemitism and violence under the guise of Palestinian solidarity
Not classified as antisemitic incidents either are the thousands upon thousands of obscenely celebratory reactions – mostly online – to the Hamas pogrom. Israel is a small country with very small degrees of separation. Its current national agony and grief stem partly from the fact that nearly every Israeli knows someone killed, kidnapped, or closely affected by the attacks. And with 71 percent of British Jews having family in Israel, the closeness of this circle is extended here too. We non-Jews have the luxury of not knowing how it feels to know that so many of your compatriots are openly exulting – and still more minimizing – the rape and murder of your friends and loved ones. We owe it to the memory of the dead and to our Jewish peers to reject this bile, loudly and utterly.
The UK’s most senior police officer, Sir Mark Rowley, has opined that while the Metropolitan Police will look to take a stronger line on threatening language at pro-Palestinian protests, it is rather hamstrung by the inadequacy of existing legislation. It is hard to disagree with him when public calls for Jihad and “From London to Gaza, we’ll have an intifada” are considered the lawful exercise of free speech. I don’t know if the chanters are historically informed enough to discriminate as to which intifada they are hoping to replicate in Britain, the first or the second, or to know that there is a world of difference. (Let’s hope they meant the First – a complex cocktail of a popular campaign of civil disobedience and a less peaceful mass uprising of a kind that still should in no way be called for on the streets of London. The Second is not complicated at all – a lethal pandemic of Jew-murdering suicide bombing.)
I generally have little sympathy for governmental efforts (and this UK government’s in particular) to stifle free expression. But I must confess to going full outraged-of-Tunbridge Wells when I saw the video of an older man in Birmingham turning to an officer for aid on encountering a “pro-Palestinian” demonstration. There was nothing the officer could do, he said – without much in the way of support or apology – despite the fact that the man’s rather polite entreaties to the protestors that their language was offensive were met with clearly audible calls for him to “go back to Warsaw” and, chillingly, “smoke him”. Like the calls to jihad, this was not considered a death threat, it seems.
It is perfectly possible, and laudable, to protest in support of Palestinian rights – too long denied – and Palestinian statehood – too long deferred – without recourse to calling for the erasure of Israel and threatening murder on British Jews. It is in fact rather easier to do so than not, a point lost on the “protester”, also in Birmingham, brandishing a placard reading “Now do you understand why the trees and rocks will have to speak.” The reference, most Israelis will not need reminding, is to an article of Hamas’s 1988 Charter – still extant – which quotes the hadith to say that “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
That such a call to genocide is representative neither of the vast majority of British Muslims, nor a wider Palestinian cause which has always deserved far better than the execrable standard of its leadership, must be repeated. I will not be party to combatting one hatred with another. That such a warrant for murder remains the governing ethos of Hamas and is supported by anyone are facts plenty bad enough.
How serious is the threat?
Does all this have impact more serious than the wounded feelings of British Jews (quite serious enough in my view) and the wider national moral degradation? Like my Jewish allies, I am convinced that the prospect of violence is real. I fear for us, and for my Jewish friends. I fear even more for those in America, where we have already seen that the monstrous laxity of gun laws means that pogroms no longer require a mob – one lone gunman will do.
There is a thin line between vigilance and fear-mongering alarmism, and it is with that awareness that I urge us, nonetheless, to face the prospect, and face it now. With classic British hauteur we think ourselves superior to the French, with their banlieue and their far-right’s disgraceful race-baiting interpretation of the noble tradition of laïcité. We will have no Lyon-type stabbing here; no Kosher Hypercacher, no Sarah Halimi, no Mireille Knoll, no Toulouse Ozar Hatorah. May we be worthy of such confidence without ever relying on it.
Lessons from Bialik and Pinsker
Amid all this, it is little wonder that my Facebook wall is littered with British Jewish friends considering their future here; more remarkable that it is also peppered with Israeli Jewish friends expressing relief that they are no longer in the Diaspora. Think on that for a second. Israeli Jews – with the country at war; with the rockets raining down; with Days of Rage called for; with Hezbollah waiting, still to show its hand in the north; and having just endured the worst pogrom since the end of the Holocaust – still they think it worse here.
At least in Israel there is unquestioned mutual solidarity, the knowledge that your neighbor is going through her own comparable agony and has your back. The poignant whiff of history is in the air: it was partly European indifference in response to the widespread massacre of Jews in the late 19th Century which first prompted the realization that only in a state of their own would the Jews be secure. “The tear I weep/Can pierce no gentile heart, or steal from him/A mite of sleep…” wrote the great Jewish-Zionist poet Hayim Nahman Bialik. “No matter how much the nations are at variance in their relations with one another, however diverse their instincts and aims, they join hands in their hatred of the Jews,” wrote Leo Pinsker, following a series of pogroms, in what is justly considered the foundational text of modern Zionism.
The usual excuses
We are told by the antisemites that all this is Jewish melodrama; that “From the River to the Sea” is symbolic and not a call for the erasure of a state and its people, or that ‘Khayber Khayber O Jews the army of Mohammed is coming’ is a performative act of transgressive protest (for context see here.)
We will also be told that a spike in antisemitism is regrettable but to be expected when Israel behaves so badly (the Loachian Gambit). Both are obscene excuses, in violation of the MacPherson Principle which compels us to take seriously and in good faith minority experience of racism – still more so when Jewish concern is so patently vindicated – and of basic anti-racist solidarity. The conduct of Israel’s war on Hamas is an urgent and weighty discussion in its own right; it should have no bearing on an appropriately zero tolerance policy to antisemitism. The rationalizations are old wine in new bottles in any case. There is always – and I do mean always – an exculpatory European explanation for the abuse or murder of Jews. They were Christ deniers; Christ-killers; well-poisoners; usurers; free-thinkers; Bolsheviks; capitalists. Now settler-colonialist-occupiers. Fair game, in other words.
What to do – victims and unvictims
Besides Rowley’s aspirant law changes, what is to be done? We non-Jews, however well-intentioned, might start with a basic acceptance both of our own culpability and our own inevitable emotional ignorance. Though it stains the whole body politic, antisemitism is an offense against Jews, with Jews as its victims. The great German Jewish writer Jean Améry, who took his own life 25 years ago last month, his faith in the world evaporated by the twin burdens of Holocaust survival and watching his beloved left turn on the Jews in the late ‘60s, was wary of the tripartite classifications of “victim”, “perpetrator”, “bystander”. With antisemitism, he said, there were only two true groups: the victim and the unvictim. He was right.
We, the non-Jewish unvictims, have no true sense of how it feels to be frightened to send your children to school; to have to cover up the Magen David necklace in public; to dread the use of public transport – a right usually taken for granted for its mundane normalcy. Though I am never made to feel it by Jewish friends and colleagues, I feel it nonetheless, as a great yawning chasm between our respective human experiences.
There is no Jewish problem – only a non-Jewish problem
We must also accept that the problem is ours and so must be the solution. It is a particular cruelty of all oppressions that the recipe for their redress is sought always from the victims.
I spoke at a synagogue recently and was asked by a young Jewish woman, “What can we do? How can we respond to such hate?” The questions were earnest, not rhetorical: a genuine seeking of advice. I was ashamed at having so little of practical use to offer her, save the undeniable and tragic fact that she should not have to do anything. Just as misogyny is a male problem for which women are blamed and for which we look to women for a solution, antisemitism is a non-Jewish problem for which the Jews are blamed, ad nauseum, and whose combatting they are expected to lead. It is, frankly, obscene.
The great Moroccan Jewish writer Albert Memmi referred to antisemitism as “a living thing of multiple heads that speaks with a thousand grimacing faces,” many of which are deformedly on show in the UK right now. Greater legal protection would be welcome, no doubt, as was the government’s commitment to increased funding for the CST. But I fear they will prove only sticking plasters, and that what is really required is what the French Dreyfussard literary journal La Revue Blanche identified was necessary at the height of the affair in the 1890s: “the internal and involuntary regeneration of souls”. Let it start immediately; it is long past time, and we have been given too many warnings.