Bradford Synagogue made headlines in 2013 for all the right reasons. The beautiful Grade II-listed Moorish building, on which work began in 1880, had been under threat of closure – the city’s once-thriving Jewish community had become so small that the synagogue had only 45 remaining members; the roof was leaking and they didn’t have the funds to repair it. But with support from Bradford’s much larger Muslim community (the ratio is 129,041 local Muslims to 299 Jews, according to the 2011 census), the synagogue was saved and Zulfi Karim, the secretary of the Bradford Council of Mosques, stood beside Rudi Leavor, chair of Bradford Synagogue, in a display of interfaith solidarity.
“We want to make sure this synagogue is protected, long term, a heritage site for the whole community,” Karim said last year. But a few days ago, Bradford Synagogue was once again in need of protection.
Ahead of Saturday’s service on 9 August, members of the synagogue were reassured that two security guards from the Jewish Community Safety Trust would be present, together with a police officer: three security personnel to protect an average congregation of just 20. What had led suddenly to such heightened safety arrangements? Had they received threats of violence or disruption? Just one, as it turned out – and it came from the local MP George Galloway.
At a Respect party meeting in Leeds the previous weekend, Galloway had boasted that “we have declared Bradford an Israel-free zone”. A video of the speech appeared on YouTube to widespread condemnation.
In it, Galloway seemed to go far beyond criticism of Israeli military action, or even the policies of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel, declaiming from the podium: “We don’t want any Israeli goods. We don’t want any Israeli services. We don’t want any Israeli academics coming to the university or the college. We don’t even want any Israeli tourists to come to Bradford, if any of them had thought of doing so. We reject this illegal, barbarous, savage state that calls itself Israel. And you have to do the same.”
It sounded sinisterly close to an attempt to establish Bradford as Judenrein – literally, “clean of Jews”; a worrying thought, when anti-Semitism is on the rise in Britain. Or was Galloway proposing to ban all Israelis from the borough, whatever their ethnic extraction?
For the synagogue chairman, it was a demagogic flourish too far from the MP, and he immediately instituted the new security arrangements. “His statement was just outrageous,” Leavor told me. “Once a rabble-rouser like George rouses certain feelings there’s no knowing what someone might do. Under the influence of mob rule, even sane people can do things they wouldn’t ever normally do.
“There are a lot of Muslims in Bradford, with whom we have a very good relationship, and I have excellent relations with the Council of Mosques in Bradford. But we are worried people might jump on the bandwagon of what George said. We thought it wise to increase our safety and security.”
The service went ahead on Saturday and the small congregation seemed mostly unfazed – though one woman who attends the synagogue regularly indicated that she would not be coming for safety reasons. Bradford Jews still have a sound roof over their heads, thanks to the support of the Muslim community. You would think a similar display of tolerance would not be beyond a local member of parliament.
Dan Hancox is the author of “The Village Against the World” (Verso, £9.99)