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“They did a Nazi salute”: How anti-Semitism is rising in Britain

A chilling trend of offences against British Jews is also reflected in the US and across Europe.

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The first time he came face to face with the far right, Marlon Solomon was in a kebab shop. He had been out at a friend’s 40th birthday party and was waiting for his order, when two men walked in.

“They weren’t particularly friendly,” he recalls. “I was on my own and they said ‘What are you, a fucking Jew or something?’”

Solomon, who lives in Manchester where the incident took place last month, responded in the affirmative. For the next ten minutes, as the men waited for their order, the abuse continued.

They said that Jews are the “scourge of the world or worst of the lot, that they should have been wiped out...They were denying the Holocaust, one of them gave me a Nazi salute. It was really grim… I was very lucky I didn’t get beaten up.” 

After posting a video of the incident on Twitter, the performer, whose one-man show about anti-Semitism was inspired by the prevalence of stories about anti-Jewish prejudice in the news over the past few years, received many messages of support. He was contacted by the police, who urged him to report what had happened. The police have released CCTV images of the assailants.

Against the backdrop of this fractious election, the constant refrain of Labour’s anti-Semitism debacle in the headlines, reports of anti-Semitic incidents have drawn attention to a long-term up-tick in recorded hate crimes.

Recent cases include a rabbi beaten up in Stamford Hill, the assailants reportedly shouting “fucking Jew, dirty Jew” and “kills the Jews”; a Jewish family subjected to an anti-Semitic rant on the London Underground; and swastikas and “Hail Boris” scrawled on a Conservative campaign board in Golders Green, a part of London with a big Jewish population.

Home Office data published in October showed a 10 per cent increase in reported offences of this nature since 2018. The government says much of this is down to police doing a better job of recording crimes. Overall, recorded offences motivated by hatred of someone’s religion rose by three per cent.

By comparison, recorded transgender hate crime rose by 37 per cent, homophobic incidents by 25 per cent, crimes motivated by prejudice against those with a disability by 14 per cent, and racially motivated incidents by 11 per cent. When it came to religion, 47 per cent of offences – a total of 3,530 – were against Muslims. Eighteen per cent – 1,326 – were against Jews, near double the figure for the previous year.

Statistics compiled by the Community Security Trust (CST), an anti-racism charity that focuses on protecting the Jewish community, indicate a ten per cent increase in recorded anti-Semitic hate crimes in the first half of 2019, compared with the previous year. Some 36 per cent of these were online.

Overall, CST recorded 892 anti-Semitic incidents across the UK between January and June, which is the most it has ever recorded in that time period in previous years.

These most recent incidents reflect that ongoing trend. What was unusual about them, says CST’s director of communications, Mark Gardner, was the extent of the violence of the Stamford Hill attack.

The average anti-Semitic hate crime involves antisocial behaviour with an anti-Jewish slur thrown in. This month, a man was punched on a London bus by an attacker shouting anti-Semitic abuse. Another violent assault was reported in February this year, when an elderly Jewish man was punched in London by a man who reportedly asked if he was Jewish, but such incidents are outliers.

Shomrim, the Orthodox neighbourhood watch group that reported the Stamford Hill attack, says there has been a “massive spike in hate crime targeting the Orthodox Jewish community” since last year.

According to data it published in April, Shomrim responded to 282 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, a year-on-year increase of 1,200 per cent.

“To place this in context,” said the group in April, “the most recent government recognised annual total of anti-Semitic crimes was 1,652, indicating that Shomrim alone records over 17 per cent of all recorded UK anti-Semitic crime.” Those don’t usually involve violence, either, Shomrim says.

Jews who are more visible, such as the Stamford Hill Orthodox community who wear identifiably religious clothing, are more likely to be the target of attacks, says Gardner.

According to CST figures, of the 225 anti-Semitic incidents reported in the first half of 2019 that were against random individuals in the street, more than half of the victims – 110 – “were visibly Jewish, on account of their religious or traditional clothing, Jewish school uniforms, or jewellery and insignia bearing religious symbols”.

One Orthodox Jewish man from Hendon in North London, who wished to remain anonymous, says he grew up expecting to be on the receiving end of abuse. “When you walk around being identifiably Jewish, you expect it,” he says, “You are a target.”

The same is true for Europe in general. A major 2018 survey of European Jews by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that the visibly Jewish were most affected by harassment.

Exposure to anti-Semitic harassment was:

“Greater among respondents who at least occasionally wear, carry or display items in public that might identify them as Jewish. Every third respondent (37 per cent) who wears, carries or displays these items experienced anti-Semitic harassment in the 12 months preceding the survey. By contrast, among respondents who do not wear, carry or display such items in public, one fifth (21 per cent) experienced anti-Semitic harassment.”

In May, Germany’s commissioner on anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, drew criticism with his suggestion that he could not “advise Jews to wear the kippah everywhere, all the time” following an increase in anti-Jewish attacks. In 2018, anti-Semitic crimes including hate speech rose by 20 per cent, according to government data. There were 62 violent anti-Semitic attacks, compared to 37 in 2017. In France, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 74 per cent in 2018, according to government data released in February. Earlier this month, 107 tombstones in a Jewish cemetery in the Bas-Rhin region of Alsace were sprayed with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti, the latest in a seriesof recent incidents.

The notion that the visibly religious would be a greater target of hate crimes against that group is borne out by data on other faiths, too. TellMAMA, which compiles data on anti-Muslim attacks, has found that Muslim women who wear Islamic clothing are more likely to be the subject of hate crimes against Muslims.

What complicates the picture is under-reporting.

When it comes to Orthodox Jews, says Gardner, “It has also always been our assumption that under-reporting from more Orthodox parts of the community is much higher than it is for the rest of the [Jewish] community”. That is partly down to a lack of trust in the authorities among some minority groups.

A similar trend has been playing out in Orthodox Jewish communities in the US. In November, a spate of attacks against Jewish people in Brooklyn prompted the Anti-Defamation League, the US Jewish NGO, to double funding for a local school programme against hate. Earlier this month, six people were killed in an attack on a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, New Jersey, an area that is home to some 100 Orthodox Jewish families. Authorities are investigating that incident as domestic terrorism driven by anti-Semitism and hatred of the police.

“If somebody is looking for a Jew, a visible Jew is a lot easier to find. Those that want to commit acts of anti-Semitism are more likely to target people that are visibly Jewish,” says Yaacov Behrman, who has lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn for 30 years and works in the community.

These latest attacks, with a general increase in anti-Semitic incidents in New York this past year, are a symptom of a complex mix of issues, says Behrman. He attributes them in part to a general increase in anti-Semitic rhetoric online and off, as well as in politics, to “progressive reforms” of New York State’s legal system, and tensions arising from the increased cost of living in Brooklyn, which he says some locals blame on Jews.

As a 65-year-old visibly Jewish man, Yosef Rapoport, a media consultant from the Borough Park area of Brooklyn, says he has “experienced physical attacks in many places”.

“There is, for some, an embarrassing feeling of schadenfreude,” he adds. “When some in the Orthodox community see the utter disbelief of highly-assimilated Jews being confronted with naked, in your face anti-Semitism, you got a feeling of, ‘come on, what did you think?’… But for most Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews], having the worst anti-Semitic bile shouted at them for a minor traffic altercation is just part of the reality of life.”

Polling by ICM for the campaign group Avaaz released just one day before the 12th December election highlighted the uncomfortable position of both the UK’s Jewish and Muslims minorities in what has been a divisive campaign.

More than a third of Conservative voters, 45 per cent of the general public, and 35 per cent of Labour voters admitted to negative views of Muslims. Seven per cent of voters in all those categories admitted to negative views of Jews as a group.

“There is definitely something in the air”, not just against Jews, but against minority groups in general, says Solomon. After the incident in the kebab shop, the police in Manchester told him that, “we are getting so much more racially aggravated hate crime.”

Taken together with hate crime statistics, it’s a reminder that divisive rhetoric in politics and on social media can – and does – trickle down to the street.

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.