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Around the Jewish World Despite Their Stoicism, British Jews Confront Rising Levels of Anti-semitism

February 15, 2005
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It may sometimes seem that British Jews display upper lips as stiff as their non-Jewish countrymen’s, preferring to suffer quietly or downplay prejudice directed against them. But new official statistics have revealed that anti-Semitic incidents in Britains have reached new heights.

According to the Community Security Trust, the body that monitors threats to British Jewry, a total of 532 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded last year, marking a 42 per cent increase from 2003.

The figures include a 323 percent rise in anti-Semitic threats, with an all-time high of 93 such incidents last year, compared with 22 in 2003.

There also was a 54 percent increase in assaults, with 83 attacks recorded last year, including four in which the victim’s life was endangered.

Britain historically has been a generally tolerant and calm society, but in recent years life has become more uncomfortable for the country’s 290,000 Jews, most of whom live in London.

“Violent assaults increased disproportionately,” said the trust’s director of communications, Michael Whine. “This increase is extremely alarming. The transfer of tensions in the Middle East to the streets of Britain has resulted in an unprecedented level of anti-Semitic incidents.”

“Jews now have two fronts, which wasn’t the case five years ago,” said Barry Kosmin of the U.K.’s Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “There is a constant level that comes from the far right, but there’s the opening of a new front by far-left and Palestinian sympathizers and people antagonistic to the Zionist cause.”

The trust’s figures put the correlation between events in the Middle East and attacks on British Jews in stark relief.

In October 2000, just after the start of the Palestinian intifada, the total number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain leaped to 105, the largest number recorded in a single month for at least five years.

In March 2004, the month in which Israel assassinated Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, there were 100 anti-Semitic incidents, including 54 within 48 hours of Yassin’s death on March 22.

Incidents have ranged from cemetery desecrations — the worst example came in May 2003, when almost 600 gravestones in East London’s Plashet graveyard were defaced — to physical attacks, such as the spate of assaults early this year on members of London’s fervently Orthodox Stamford Hill community.

“The government shares the Jewish community’s concerns about attacks on Jewish people and property,” said a Home Office spokesperson. “Attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are completely unacceptable and we continue to strongly condemn anti-Semitism and all forms of racism.

“Our track record for tackling anti-Semitism is a good one, and we believe that our approach of introducing strong and effective legislation, while working closely with community groups and working in the field of education, is the right one.”

But community leaders are keen to emphasize that this new atmosphere goes far beyond street thuggery. They charge that widespread media hostility toward Israel, which many feel often crosses the line from acceptable criticism into downright bias, has served to legitimize prejudice against Jews.

One such incident was the publication of a cartoon in the staunchly pro-Palestinian newspaper The Independent on Jan. 27, 2003 — Holocaust Memorial Day — that showed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon biting off the head of a Palestinian child.

Not only were official complaints by Jewish groups dismissed, but the drawing went on to win the Cartoon of the Year award from Britain’s Political Cartoon Society.

As for the BBC, whose policy is to describe Palestinian terrorists as “militants,” the corporation’s stance so angered the Israeli government that by mid-2003 Israeli officials temporarily severed all official contact with the broadcaster.

Analysts say that in some cases the demonization of Israel has amounted to incitement.

Pointing to the “insidious and drip-drip effect” of coverage of the Middle East conflict, Kosmin said, “The left-liberal media claim they distinguish between being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, and at an academic level you can make that distinction, but people are attacking the local synagogue, not searching out their local Zionist headquarters.”

The issue has spilled over into university circles, with calls for British scholars to boycott their Israeli counterparts.

In 2002, Mona Baker, a professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, dismissed two Israelis from her academic journal because of their nationality.

In June 2003, Oxford University professor Andrew Wilkie refused to accept an Israeli graduate student because of “Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.”

Most worryingly, community leaders point to a creeping level of prejudice in British politics.

Historically, the far-right British National Party has been steadfastly antagonistic toward Jews, although in recent years it has shifted its focus of prejudice toward Muslims and asylum-seekers. Those tactics helped the party win 17 council seats in June 2004 local elections.

But in recent months Jewish leaders have expressed concern that elements in Britain’s ruling Labor Party have been attempting to make political capital over issues of anti-Jewish prejudice.

In May 2003, Britain’s longest serving member of Parliament, Labor’s Tam Dalyell, sparked controversy when he expressed concern over a “cabal” of Jewish advisers allegedly exerting undue influence over Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Then, in a piece published in the Muslim Weekly newspaper this January, Minister Mike O’Brien of the Department of Trade and Industry said that only Labor would protect the rights of Muslims and campaign for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Singling out the leader of the Conservative party, who is Jewish, O’Brien wrote, “Ask yourself what will Michael Howard do for British Muslims? Will his foreign policy aim to help Palestine?”

Weeks later, Jewish leaders were astonished when trial posters for the Labor election campaign featured the faces of Howard and his shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin — Britain’s two most prominent Jewish politicians — transposed onto the bodies of pigs. Another image showed Howard as a Fagin-type hypnotist.

“There is at the moment a very nasty smell of anti-Semitism around,” said Labor peer Lord Greville Janner, who is Jewish. “Each of these issues or items on its own is not particularly important, but I can’t remember a time since the end of the war when there has been so much of this muck around.”

London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a member of Labor, outrages Jewish groups regularly. Last July he set off a firestorm by hosting a radical Qatar-based preacher, Sheikh Yuduf al-Qaradawi, who has justified Palestinian suicide bombings.

Only last week, Livingstone refused to apologize for comparing a Jewish journalist to a concentration camp guard.

Such high-profile displays of insensitivity have depressed community figures, especially as the displays appear to indicate a more widespread lack of awareness.

When Prince Harry, third in line to the throne, was pictured wearing a Nazi costume, a newspaper survey found that more than half of British adults between 18 and 24 could see no problem with the outfit. According to a BBC poll last December, 45 percent of British adults claimed never to have heard of Auschwitz.

With mainstream ignorance at such levels, British Jews face a battle if anti-Semitism is to be treated as a general human-rights issue, rather than a Jewish problem that Jews are responsible for tackling.

“The single most important thing is for our community to enlist others to join in the protest against the attacks,” said Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. “Jews must not be left to fight anti-Semitism alone.”

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