A fake warning sign depicting an orthodox Jewish man was found in north London on Tuesday night, 14 March. It was reported as a hate crime, and removed by Hackney Council’s night team soon after it was found.
By Wednesday morning, it was being referred to by local police as an “antisemitic sign”, and investigated as a “religiously aggravated hate crime”. The sign appeared at the junction of Clapton Common and Spring Hill in Stamford Hill, Hackney, near an orthodox synagogue. Stamford Hill is home to one of Europe’s biggest Hasidic communities. The message inferred from the sign, which is a red hazard triangle, was: “Beware the Jews”.
A local Jewish group, Shomrim North & East London, condemned the sign and tweeted a picture of it. The group’s Stamford Hill organiser, Barry Bard, said: “The sign has caused a lot of concern amongst local Jewish residents, especially as it’s in such close proximity to a synagogue.”
#Shomrim reported to @MPSHackney and @HackneyCouncil this offensive ‘Beware of Jews’ sign which was fixed onto a lamppost in #StamfordHill pic.twitter.com/mj8AfQTSSu
— Shomrim N.E. London (@Shomrim) March 14, 2017
Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy called it “despicable, nasty behaviour that has absolutely no place in our community”, and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said it was “disgusting” and “unacceptable”.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. A number of other spoof road signs had been found in the area, also reported to the council.
Here’s one of the other signs – put up in Egerton Road N16 pic.twitter.com/cnUcs12Xp9
— Jonathan Savage (@JSavageTweets) March 15, 2017
“We have received reports about a number of fake warning signs and are ensuring that any that we find are reported to the police so that they can be gathered as evidence,” commented community safety and enforcement spokeswoman Councillor Caroline Selman.
These other signs included the silhouette of a woman pulling a shopping cart, a man pushing his wheelchair, a cat, and an overweight person. The police began looking into these other signs. The council had also already taken down the sign depicting a lady, but stopped removing them today so that police could check them for evidence before being removed.
It turns out the signs were the work of artist Franck Allais, who has apologised for causing offence. He told the Guardian that his work is a comment on the identity of the area, showing outlines of real people he had seen crossing the street there. He added to the Mail that he regrets the art project, “because I did not want to hurt anyone”.
Flying Leaps, an art group that is in touch with Allais, defended his project on Twitter, suggesting that its actual “warning” is of London’s variety of communities being under threat, and noting how tense the atmosphere is after Brexit:
@guardiannews @HackneyAbbott Lots of things to beware of, like people jumping to rash conclusions. Post #brexit panic atmosphere pic.twitter.com/KjIpZxPdSo
— Artists’ Posters (@flyingleaps2016) March 15, 2017
The suggestion is that the Jewish group, the London MPs and the press were too quick to condemn the sign – calling it out before knowing its context. The context, in this case, being the other signs.
I would argue that context is indeed key here, but not the context of the art project. The context of swastika graffiti and rising antisemitic attacks and slurs in Stamford Hill, and the context of a spike in hate crime following the EU referendum result, are the most important factors to consider here. In such an atmosphere, it makes sense that such a sign would cause you to jump to the worst conclusions. Especially if you live in that community, and have therefore witnessed and experienced racism before.
Yes, the project may not have had antisemitic intent, and yes, perhaps journalists and politicians were quick to judge. But the fact that a goofy hipster art project in London could cause such a vehement response shows how tense Britain has become, because of real antisemitic hate crime, and real racial tensions bubbling to the surface.