It is terrifying to see those who oppose Israel’s war in Gaza turn against all Jews
It’s not often that I wish I could unhear Radio 4’s Today programme. But yesterday morning, that’s exactly what I found myself wishing I could do.
The final item before the 8am news bulletin tried to explore how Israeli Jews in the UK feel about the situation in Gaza. The discussion also rather messily strayed into how British Jews feel about the conflict.
In one corner you had Mira Bar-Hillel, representing self-loathing Israelis; in the other, the worried-sounding reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, wringing her hands. Bar-Hillel, a freelance writer who usually specialises in pieces on property, was lent the ears of seven million people to explain why she wants to burn her Israeli passport. “Not in my name,” she said in a breathy, mock-dramatic tone – to enforce just how much she loathes Israel’s latest military operation.
Fair enough: it’s perfectly valid to oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza, even if you’re an Israeli yourself. But it was what Bar-Hillel went on to say that really had me seething. She claimed to have “a lot of evidence” that many of Britain’s 260,000 Jews won’t speak up against Israel out of fear of being “ex-communicated” from their local community. Some of these mysterious people, whose names she couldn’t possibly provide, had told her that should they voice a dissenting view, they would be blocked from their local synagogues, their children would be bullied and they would even be denied a Jewish burial.
The magnificent Sarah Montague pushed Bar-Hillel for proof of this breathtaking accusation, at which point she said she didn’t want to “emphasise” the point too much – and also admitted that she wasn’t part of a Jewish community in Britain. At this point my usually mild-mannered husband, who, like me, happens to be Jewish, has lots of Israeli family members and is extremely concerned about the rising tide of anti-Semitism being disguised as anti-Israel sentiment, stood up and left our breakfast table in disgust.
The truth is that up and down this island, Jews are arguing, debating, crying and worrying about what’s going on in an even smaller country across the ocean. Some British Jews are fasting for peace; some are angry at one or both sides; but many are just scared – scared not just about events in Gaza, but events in Europe. These include reports about gangs of Muslims chanting “death to Jews” on the streets of France, and attacking synagogues and setting fire to Jewish-owned stores. Eighteen people were subsequently arrested in the suburb of Sarcelles, just outside Paris, where this particular outpouring of violence happened. The stunned local mayor says the Jewish community is now living in fear.
Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Germany, too. In Essen, 14 people have just been arrested, accused of plotting an attack on a synagogue. Protesters at a rally in Berlin turned on two Israeli tourists (identifiable by the man’s skull-cap) so viciously that they had to be protected by the police. The city’s authorities have also had to ban pro-Gaza protesters from chanting anti-Semitic slogans and are investigating a sermon last week by Abu Bilal Ismail calling on worshippers at Berlin’s Al-Nur mosque to murder Jews. Jews, not Israelis.
The situation is so bad that the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Italy have issued a joint statement condemning the rise in anti-Semitic protests and violence in response to the Gaza conflict – and saying they will do everything possible to combat it. “Anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish belief and synagogues have no place in our societies,” they felt compelled publicly to state.
Yet since the start of the latest conflict between Hamas and Israel, protesters marching in anti-Israel demonstrations have regularly held up anti-Semitic slogans, shouting for Jews to be gassed, invoking the Holocaust’s chambers of doom. The situation in Britain hasn’t been much better. Last week’s major pro-Palestine rally, which stopped London’s traffic, was littered with placards comparing Israel’s – and Jews’ – actions to the Nazis (“Well done Israel – Hitler would be proud”, read one such sign, accompanied by a swastika). This casual interchange of “Israel” for “Jews” is not just ignorant but often terrifying, especially when linked to references to past atrocities. Indeed, what other group of people get the worst experience in their – or anyone’s – history launched at them like a hand grenade?
Last Sunday thousands of people – Jews and non-Jews – gathered at the Israeli embassy in London to take part in a peaceful pro-Israel rally, which unsurprisingly garnered very little mainstream press attention. Anti-Jewish remarks were lobbed at the crowd by the pro-Palestinian opposition groups who turned up, leading to a few being carried away by the police.
Where is the hand-wringing from the liberal Left about this new wave of anti-Semitism? To Mira Bar-Hillel, and others, I’d say this: British Jews aren’t scared to talk to each other about the situation in Israel. We’re becoming scared to talk at all.