The number of antisemitic incidents in the UK is at its highest since records began in the 80s. Abigail Radnor reports on a growing fear in Britain’s Jewish community
In April, as I listened to Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger make an impassioned speech in the House of Commons during a debate on antisemitism, I felt the hairs on my arms stand up. Then I started to cry.
‘I was 19 when I received my first piece of hate mail. It described me as “a dirty Zionist pig”,’ said Berger, who went on to recount 18 years of racist attacks, which resulted in four people being convicted of antisemitic abuse towards her. At one point, police told Berger she was the subject of 2,500 hate messages in one day, linked to the hashtag ‘filthyjewbitch’.
Her speech tapped into the pain the British Jewish community has been feeling lately. In 2017, there was a 34 per cent rise in antisemitic incidents recorded in the UK, a record high since data was first collected in 1984. There is no reason for this spike, but the report pointed towards a toxic combination of an increasingly confident far-right, buoyed by a rhetoric of intolerance, and parts of the Labour party that seem to have given antisemitism a free pass. All this has left the Jewish community feeling more isolated and nervous than ever before.
To find yourself the ‘token Jew’ in a conversation these days, is as exhausting as finding yourself the only feminist in a room of people who think ‘maybe this #metoo thing has gone too far’. It’s draining to have to constantly defend your beliefs. And I wish I didn’t have to convince people of the severity of the problem by pointing out the armed security at our synagogues and terrorist drills in schools as a result of bomb scares.
‘I wish I didn’t have to point out the armed security at synagogues and terrorist drills in schools’
We are on our guard in a way that we never have been before. One friend noticed that when she changed her Bumble profile to include ‘Jewish’, her number of matches dropped dramatically. ‘It could be an algorithm, but it made me wonder,’ she said. Another was affected by the increase in antisemitic attacks in Paris. ‘I became so anxious about dropping my kids at their Jewish school or going to the synagogue that I went to see a counsellor,’ she told me.
Increasingly, my friends and I are encountering a dangerous naivety around antisemitism, not helped by the ignorant rhetoric that means people too often are unable to criticise Israel without using lazy antisemitic tropes. Concern turned to outrage in March, when it was revealed Jeremy Corbyn once offered support to the artist of an offensive mural in East London, which featured age-old antisemitic imagery of Jewish caricatures playing Monopoly on the backs of naked workers. His defence that he hadn’t looked at it closely sounded as pathetic as ‘my dog ate my homework’.
‘Antisemitism must be called out to stem the tide of hate’
Frustration led me to join the 1,500-strong crowd in Parliament Square the following Monday, demanding ‘enough is enough’. Things got worse over the summer, especially when footage emerged of a speech Corbyn gave in Parliament 2013 declaring that British Zionists ‘having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, they don’t understand English irony…’ For many, here was the future leader of the Labour party implying a minority community could never belong in this country. None of the clumsy attempts made to explain or excuse the remark mitigated the offence caused.
Headline news illuminating antisemitic issues is reassuring, but the Jewish community’s anguish must be taken seriously. People like my friend, who told me of a conversation she had with a close non-Jewish friend: ‘She offered to hide my children and raise them as her own if things get Nazi Germany bad in UK politics. Neither of us was joking.’ As Berger said, being a bystander isn’t an option. It is time to stop ignoring this problem or, worse, pretending that it doesn’t exist. We must call out antisemitic behaviour, stand together and stem the tide of hate.