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24 April 2024

Anti-Semitism is rife in Britain – but be wary of simple media narratives

The row over a London police officer calling a man “openly Jewish” at a pro-Palestinian march reveals the perils of rushing to judgement.

By Hannah Barnes

Every time I see the words “British Jews” trending on social media, I know expressions of flagrant anti-Semitism will follow. And so they were once more, in response to allegations splashed across newspapers and filling the airwaves that the Metropolitan Police had suggested the mere presence of an “openly Jewish” man at a London pro-Palestinian march was “antagonising” the crowds.

Details surfaced that the head of the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), Gideon Falter, had been spoken to by the police while wearing a kippa – the skullcap observant Jewish men wear – and carrying a prayer shawl in a case. It was claimed the Met officer involved had singled out Falter for being Jewish, refused to allow him to cross the road and even threatened to arrest him for “breach of the peace”.

Cue indignation from politicians on the right. Former home secretary Suella Braverman called for the Met Police commissioner, Mark Rowley, to resign or be sacked if he refused to do so; the Prime Minister said he was “appalled” at Falter’s treatment and the Met offered various forms of apology.

It soon became clear that this wasn’t the full story. Extended footage of Falter’s encounter with the Met surfaced on the morning of 22 April on Sky News, which provided far greater context. The story was more complicated, more nuanced. Yes, the officer had referred to Falter as “openly Jewish”, a phrase for which he has apologised, but this was part of a 13-minute exchange where the police’s underlying aim appears to be to help Falter on his way, peacefully. Contrary to the claim that Falter was simply trying to cross the road, the officer is heard questioning this: “Unfortunately, sir, you took it upon yourself to go from the pavement right into the middle of a pro-Palestinian march, which is why I asked you to go away… You are looking to try and antagonise this.”

The exchange continues, with the officer repeatedly offering to help Falter reach where he wants to go safely – just not directly through the middle of a demonstration. As the video comes to an end, chants of “baby killer”, “scum” and “shame on you” can be heard. It’s unpleasant. Clearly, some demonstrators do indeed hold Jews en masse – not Israel’s government or military – responsible for actions in Gaza. The police do not act; they don’t search the crowd for those who shouted the abuse. But it seems to me this is not because they condoned the behaviour but are rather trying to keep Falter safe, as at this point he is standing right up against hundreds of noisy protesters.

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There may well be further footage that sheds more light on the encounter, but what happened is not as black and white as originally reported. Yet, those who voiced the strongest condemnation have refused to budge. Worse, they have refused even to watch the longer video that is now widely available. When questioned by Radio 4’s Mishal Husain, Braverman implied that the full context was not relevant; she had been making a broader point all along. This was about a “wholesale failure to combat anti-Semitism” and keep the peace in London, she said. “They’ve chosen to say to the innocent Jewish person that that person must give up their rights and they’ll be arrested if they don’t.” That simply does not appear to be the case here, and it is dangerous to suggest otherwise. It’s worth reminding ourselves, too, that Braverman was sacked after accusing the Met of displaying bias over its policing of pro-Palestinian marches.

Before the full video emerged, I mentioned the coverage of Falter and his alleged treatment by the police at a New Statesman event at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Sunday 21 April. I suggested the “openly Jewish” comment had been clumsy, but didn’t warrant the resignation of Britain’s most senior police officer. And I pointed out that, whatever happened at that particular demo, there was a wider issue of British Jews feeling increasingly unsafe, especially when wearing visible signs of their faith in public. “I don’t disagree with you, Hannah, but what do you think those of us who are black and Asian did during the race riots of the Eighties?” someone said to me afterwards. “We stayed inside.”

I’ve been reflecting on this comment. What did this person mean? It was wrong then that people were frightened to leave their homes because of racism. It is equally wrong now that some Jews do not feel safe in London, a city that so many of us were born in and love. The answer to any kind of racism in society cannot be to “stay inside”.

There have undoubtedly been instances during pro-Palestinian marches over recent months when the police can and should be criticised for not cracking down on indisputable anti-Semitism. And it is undoubtedly the case that many Jews have been targeted verbally and physically for simply being Jewish. But the events in London on Saturday 13 April do not appear to be a clear-cut instance of either. There will be Jews and non-Jews alike who disagree with me. I don’t claim to speak for anyone else. But I can’t help thinking it doesn’t do British Jews, religious or not, any favours to provoke confrontation and then be less than open about the truth. Nor is it any good for their treatment to be turned into yet another part of a growing culture war, used for cheap political point scoring and the furtherance of personal vendettas.

[See also: The Cass review into children’s gender care should shame us all]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger