A banner crossing a swastika with the Star of David at a pro-Palestine march in London (Photo courtesy of the Community Security Trust)
According to the Shulchan Aruch – known by some as "the code of Jewish law" – a mezuzah protects a Jewish house from evil. The parchment, inscribed with verses from the Torah, lives on the front door and looks not unlike a doorbell. In fact, it's so discreet that many non-Jewish people hardly notice the 300,000 or so adorning homes around the UK.
However, for some, mezuzahs have attracted more danger recently than they've protected against. For example, when an offshoot from a pro-Palestinian demonstration passed by Isabelle Hanan’s St John’s Wood family home in July, her mezuzah drew the attention of protesters, who decided the Jewish mum-of-four was the ideal target for their anti-Israel vitriol. “She’s one of them!” shouted five women, pointing at Isabelle and her young children standing outside their home. “You and your entire family and your children should all die and burn in hell along with the rest of Israel,” they continued, hassling the Hanans until police arrived.
“Who wishes that on anyone?” Isabelle asks me. “I was in shock. Maybe it’s naivety, but I couldn’t believe the pure hatred that came across. Talking to my friends about it, we feel like we’re facing the same ignorance our grandparents went through.”
Isabelle is one of more than 130 people in Britain who reported being the victim of anti-Semitic verbal or physical attacks this past July. During the Free Gaza protest on the 15th of July, one woman said her phone was stolen after she was accused of being a “Zionist Jew”; at a similar protest in Belfast a brick was thrown through the window of a synagogue; and a Rabbi in north London was accosted with shouts of “Fuck the Jews”. In Liverpool, worshippers have been called “baby killers” while entering a synagogue, and Guardian journalist Eva Wiseman tweeted that when her parents left her London home after a visit a group of men shouted abuse at the couple, including “we hate Jews”.
Shomrim is a patrol group run by members of the Orthodox Jewish community to protect the residents of Stamford Hill in north London – the area with the highest concentration of Hasidic Jews in the whole of Europe. Volunteers have witnessed a surge in calls from victims of (mostly verbal) abuse this month, including one from an Orthodox mother whose young child had a brick thrown at him from a passing car while riding his bike.
A man was interviewed by police last week after launching a vicious verbal and physical attack on an elderly and disabled Hasidic man in the local Morrisons, throwing cans of food at him and shouting anti-Semitic abuse while he was waiting in the queue for the till. Police last week arrested a man from Waltham Forest after Shomrim witnessed him shouting racial slurs from his car at a group of visibly Orthodox Jewish people on Upper Clapton Road. In the same week, a woman was arrested twice in two days for standing on a busy junction in Stamford Hill and shouting phrases that included: “Go back to Germany,” “Jews are disgusting,” and, “You think because the Nazis did this to you, you can do it to Palestine.” She has now been remanded in custody awaiting trial.
(Photo courtesy of the Community Security Trust)
The staggering increase in attacks – up 100 percent compared to the same period last year – is directly correlated to the outbreak of violence between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East, say the Community Security Trust (CST), the monitoring group fielding calls from victims. However, recent stats show that even before the barbaric Operation Protective Edge began last month – and Israel began pounding Gaza with rockets, leading to the deaths of more than 1,100 people, mostly civilians, and international condemnation of the Israeli response – the number of recorded anti-Semitic incidences in the UK had already risen by 36 percent between January and June.
“It’s the most reports of attacks we’ve witnessed since the last Israel-Gaza conflict in 2009, but we expect the real number to be much, much higher – at least three-times what we have seen at any time in the past,” says Mark Gardner, director of communications at the CST. Shulem Stern, one of the 22 volunteers who make up Shomrim, agrees. When I first contacted him to ask about the rise of anti-Semitism across the UK, he said: “Probably every visible Jew in Stamford Hill would have experienced anti-Semitism several times in the past week."
“This is the worst in a generation that London’s Jewish population have had it," he adds. "I personally can’t remember it ever being this bad. There have been so many incidents where people just walking down the road here get screamed at, whether it’s, ‘Free Palestine’, ‘Heil Hitler’, ‘child killers’ – all kinds of unpleasant words thrown at people going about their daily business, but so many people just don’t see the point of reporting it.”
An anti-Semitism Facebook fan page
Shulem and Mark agree that there can be a general sense of fatigue when it comes to relations between police and the British Jewish community, and Shomrim is working to end this sense of distrust in the hope that individuals will report racist abuse. “We encourage everyone who calls us to report hate crime to the police, but often they ask us to do it on their behalf,” says Mark. “A lot of Jewish people in England wrongly believe they should just put up with it. This is something we’ve seen again and again since 2001, which is why Jewish communities invest so much in security – they see the ongoing threat of violence as nothing out of the ordinary.”
Anti-Semitic trolling on social media has been reported to the CST 54 times this year alone. Shulem tells me he spotted "#HitlerWasRight" trending on Twitter earlier this month, and a Facebook group titled "Death to Israel" – as well as others celebrating anti-Semitism – have caused controversy for remaining on the site, despite numerous complaints, because they don't violate community standards on hate speech.
Words like "Hitler" and "Nazis" have popped up pretty regularly since Israel's actions in Gaza have been dominating the front pages. At the two largest pro-Palestine demonstrations in London during July – one on the 15th and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) march on the 26th of July – placards bearing statements like “Hitler was right”, or amalgamating the Jewish Star of David with the Nazi swastika, have commanded widespread media attention.
Shomrim members washing a swastika off the wall of a home in Upper Clapton (Photo courtesy of Shomrim)
Swastikas have also been sprayed on the walls of Jewish homes in Stamford Hill over the last fortnight, which Shomrim’s members have been quick to wash off. “People need to realise that if someone is Jewish, or Orthodox Jewish, it doesn't mean he's Israeli, it doesn’t mean he's served in the Israeli army and it doesn’t even mean he’s pro-Israel,” says Shulem. “It’s very similar to going up to a Muslim person and screaming ‘terrorist’ in his face. It’s a gross stereotype by ignorant people.”
The PSC condemns the anti-Semitic abuse and banners by people “hijacking” their demonstrations, their Jewish executive secretary Ben Soffa tells me. “Obviously passions are running very high, people are seeing images of horror from the Middle East and some do get inflamed,” adds the PSC publications officer, Gill Swain. “But any spill off at our demonstrations into attacks on individuals or communities in this country is not sanctioned by us.”
In recent weeks Shomrim has stepped up patrols of the area, particularly focusing on local synagogues, spending more than four hours each day driving, walking or cycling the streets of Clapton, Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill and South Tottenham in search of crimes being committed. Its members are also on call 24 hours a day and are supported by a hotline that takes around 15 calls a day from people reporting abuse and crimes like thefts, muggings and burglaries.
An update from the Shomrim Twitter account
Local branches of the Metropolitan Police – who have a good ongoing relationship with Shomrim – have also stepped in to help at a time of increased tension, with more officers from the counter-terrorism unit patrolling the Jewish neighbourhood and synagogues, particularly during Shabbat (a period of roughly 25 hours that entails refraining from any work activities, which severely restricts Shomrim’s patrols). “Between 10 and 16 police officers are patrolling Stamford Hill synagogues on Friday nights now,” says Shulem.
It’s been a month that's seen Shomrim members remembering why they offered to volunteer in the first place: to protect Jewish people from anti-Semitic attacks. The tension felt among the large Orthodox community in Hackney is reaching crisis point as people feel “scared for their safety and distressed about the situation”, says Shulem. “Everyone that lives here has been avoiding going into town on the days when a demo is taking place, avoiding the areas where they could become victims. For many people that means hardly leaving the house at all, not letting their children out except for school. There’s no hiding that we’re Jewish, so the risk of attack is great for us.”
Shulem tells me that many local women, including his wife, have stopped going out alone, instead doing grocery shopping in big groups and avoiding unlit back streets. It’s an atmosphere of fear that echoes the unease felt by Isabelle Hanan and her friends in St John’s Wood, who have told their children to hide their school blazers and yamakas – anything that could identify them as Jewish, essentially – while travelling to their faith school on public transport. “The minute my son comes out of school, he knows to put his blazer in his bag and his kippah in his pocket,” says Isabelle.
A placard at a recent Palestinian Solidarity Campaign march (Photo courtesy of the Community Security Trust)
Interestingly, many members of Shomrim, including Shulem and his patrol partner Michael Scher, believe that the recent spate of attacks are being committed by people who deliberately come into Jewish areas from other parts of London, or even outside of the city, to incite racial hatred in places well known for their large Jewish population.
Indeed, social cohesion between Jewish and non-Jewish people – including Muslims – is particularly strong in the area that Shomrim patrols. Last June, amid the rise of Islamaphobic attacks following the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, Shomrim extended its nightly patrols to keep a watch over vulnerable local mosques. The cooperation between the two communities even received recognition last week from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who praised the “courage” of north London's Shomrim’s members.
“All the evidence points to the hate crimes being committed by people not from the area,” says Shulem, “and makes the huge number of such crimes particularly regrettable in a community that has always lived in peace and harmony.”
“The dynamic whereby there is conflict in the Middle East and then it is played out in Jewish communities around the world is really well known,” says Mark. “Anti-Semitism isn’t just a Jewish problem. Pervasive anti-Semitism can have wider implications for social cohesion across Britain. What is happening to Jewish people in the UK now should be seen by everyone as a barometer for the whole of society.”
Comments on this article will be left open until 6.30PM today (05/08/14).
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