Stalked by the shadows of history

Britain, once a safe haven for European Jews, now has the worst record for anti-Semitic attacks, writes Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
When the head of Islamic Jihad, Fathi Shqaqi, was murdered in Malta recently, his followers declared that "every Zionist, wherever he is, [will be] a target of our strikes and of our bodies that will explode in anger". It was not a solitary outburst: since the Israeli government signed the agreement with the PLO on 23 September, committing it to pulling out of six towns on the West Bank, the threats made by those infuriated to see the peace process succeeding have multiplied, aimed as much at the Jewish diaspora as at Israelis.

Yet the response of the Jewish community in Britain to these menaces was negligible. The reason: the community is already at a high state of alert. Jewish schools, synagogues and other institutions are under constant guard when occupied. The offices of important organisations such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews are reinforced by armed policemen of the Diplomatic Protection Group. When members of the board met the Home Office in August, they were advised to maintain security at the existing high level, one degree below the highest level possible.

Why should this be necessary? After all, for decades when other European countries bristled with menace for Jews, Britain was, by comparison, a haven of peace. For many, this has not changed. Rabbi Abraham Pinter, from the orthodox community in north London's Stamford Hill district, says: "I feel more comfortable in Britain than in any of the countries I've been to." A member of the orthodox community in Gateshead says of that bleak town: "It was a comfortable little corner of England in which to settle down." Britain's last "pogrom" was as recent as 1911, when mining communities in South Wales erupted in protest at Jewish landlords - but in the context of the 20th century, it's a pretty small blot.

"The Jewish community does not suffer from violence like blacks and Asians and other visible minorities," says Mike Whine of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. "Social anti-Semitism has been declining for 50 years, and Jews are now seen, not as outsiders, but as part of the indigenous white population."

Yet last year, for the third year running, Britain had the worst record of any country in the world for anti-Semitic attacks. According to the report Anti-Semitism Worldwide, more than 300 incidents were reported. Jewish institutions were blasted by bombs, graves desecrated, children and adults assaulted and abused, and hate mail, resuscitating the most ancient and poisonous religious libels, disseminated across the country.

The report is quick to add that Britain's unenviable position at the top of this league may be due to her "elaborate system of reporting and collecting data". But the alarm is real. In the wake of the huge car bombs detonated outside the Israeli embassy and the office of a Jewish charity in July 1994, hundreds of thousands of pounds was raised within the community to set up a volunteer force, the Community Security Trust, to mount guard outside synagogues, Jewish schools and other community institutions.

To get into Mr Whine's office you pass an armed policeman of the Diplomatic Protection Group and a Jewish volunteer, and cross a strip of pavement cordoned off by tall black bollards. You pass through double doors where two security officers go through your bags with the thoroughness of the people at David Ben-Gurion Airport, under a sign that reads: "SECURITY NOTICE ... In recent months terrorists have attacked Jewish community buildings in Britain." Comfortable is not the word that springs to mind.

One of the trouble spots singled out for mention in Anti-Semitism Worldwide is Gateshead, the suburb of Newcastle which is home to a large orthodox community. About 120 years ago, Jews fleeing Russian persecution began docking and settling down in Newcastle. Several years and quarrels later, a pious Jew called Zachariah Bernstone walked over the Tyne across the Redheugh Bridge, looked around him at the ugly mining town he found there and declared: "Here I am and here I stay."

Slowly a community grew up around his house, and in this century, as refugees poured in from the Continent, it expanded rapidly. During the Thirties, the seats of Jewish learning in Eastern Europe crumbled, but new ones sprang up here, until Gateshead became known to religious Jews around the world, and rabbis and students flocked there to teach and learn. The community numbers some 4,000. A Jew could go from infancy to the pinnacle of Judaical studies without leaving this square mile.

Yet the mark the community has made on Gateshead is a subtle one. "Be a proud Jew but keep a low profile," an orthodox Jewish father will counsel his son, and it is advice that this community has taken. The primary school looks like any other in the country, except for the Star of David on the gable end. A high privet hedge discourages starers. At the heart of the community there are no signs, no monuments, no architectural tempting of fate. There is, however, eternal vigilance: at the corner of the street, three young men in black suits and big black hats stand talking and joking, shooting the breeze, taking the air. But when a stranger walks by, their eyes follow him all the way around the corner.

According to the report on anti-Semitism, there was "a growing number of assaults" against Gateshead's Jewish community in 1994. Mr Whine confirms that it has been a persistent problem for four years, and is getting worse. But the senior teacher in the community, who agrees to be interviewed on condition that we do not reveal his name, is keen to play down the problem.

"You can call it anti-Semitism if you want, but it's not of the professional type. I would call it hooliganism coupled with ignorance: they're out to harass a member of the public, and if they can get a Jew in, why not? It's not planned anti-Semitism: I'm walking along the street and people call out `Jew!' or throw stones or knock my hat off. It doesn't happen every day, but it's something you live with. All the attacks are very minor. We ignore it and we train the students to ignore it."

They have also trained the media to ignore it, as neither the local paper nor the Jewish Chronicle has carried news of the community's difficulties for over four years. "I'd say major harassment and anti-Semitism are on the decline," he says, but adds: "We get full support from the Northumbrian police. I'm in contact with them on a daily basis."

The thuggery with which Gateshead's Jews cope stoically is in a sense an anachronism: they have the conspicuousness here that Asians or blacks have in other parts of the country - and Gateshead has no other significant minorities to take the heat.

Elsewhere, the level of anti-Semitism has receded, but that which exists, says Mr Whine, has become "more concentrated and focused". At the same time those responsible have become more diverse, encompassing Islamic fundamentalists, secular groups opposed to the Middle East peace process and British neo-Nazis.

When the bombs went off in Kensington and Hendon last July, suspicion was directed at groups such as Hezbollah; but Hamas claimed the credit, while the six people arrested for the attacks and now in custody awaiting trial are secular Palestinians.

Combat 18, the neo-Nazi group blamed for the disruption of last year's football match between England and Ireland, has published two magazines replete with anti-Semitic abuse, including material denying the holocaust. Thousands of leaflets have been sent to homes and schools in London over the past two years, accusing Jews of ritual murder and paedophilia - a revival of the most ancient and evil anti-Semitic canard - and trying to spread alarm among unsophisticated non-Jewish parents. "We believe that your children may be in mortal danger," they say. No one has been prosecuted for their publication.

Meanwhile, a new source of hatred and defamation has arisen in the form of the Internet, through which far-right groups in America and continental Europe spread their ideas and co-ordinate their activities, beyond the reach of police surveillance. Then finally there are those among us who find their recreation in smashing tombstones in Jewish cemeteries. Attacks have occurred in Bournemouth, Hull and east London in the past two months.

Is Britain the most anti-Semitic country in Europe? It seems unlikely. Every synagogue in France is under armed guard; in Slovakia and Romania anti-Semitic parties are part of the governing coalitions; in Russia, anti-Semitic remarks are part of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's standard patter. Abraham Israel contrasts Britain's relatively benign mood to that he found in Austria. "I'd heard that one-third of Austrians have anti-Semitic feelings. I couldn't find the other two-thirds. You feel everyone's eyes in your back."

But as Clive Lawton, head of an organisation called Jewish Continuity and formerly headmaster of King David's School in Liverpool, points out, if the phenomenon exists, statistics have little meaning. "It's like asking women if violence to women matters. Of course it does. The damage is far greater on a psychic level than a physical level."

The arrival in Britain since the Fifties of more conspicuous minorities has lowered the profile of the Jews, but as the writer Conor Cruise O'Brien once put it hauntingly, anti-Semitism is "a very light sleeper", and far from withering away, it has once again begun ominously to rise.

Mr Lawton believes that blacks and Asians were never the essential target of the racists. "If they were the real object, denial of the holocaust would not be important. But for these people the Jews remain the core of the race problem, while blacks and Asians are a symptom. They believe it is the Jews who have trapped and confused the whole world. Therefore holocaust denial is very important to them."

Mr Lawton's position is the opposite of that held by Jews for whom assimilation in the white community has never been easier or more sensible. "We Jews are the paradigmatic minority, we are professional refugees. We shouldn't forget that. I wear a skull cap to express my solidarity with blacks, to insist on my difference."