Thousands rallied outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Sunday afternoon to demand zero tolerance to anti-Semitism, writes Justin Cohen.
The event, during which the Board of Deputies was jeered over perceived inaction during the Gaza conflict, was organised by the Campaign Against anti-Semitism – a grassroots body formed less than a month ago in response to the steep rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK. It was media partnered by the Jewish News.
“We want all perpetrators of hate crime to be brought to justice,” Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis told the crowd, which organisers estimated to number around 4,500 people.
Referring to the fact it will be year tomorrow since he was inducted as Chief Rabbi in the presence of the Prince of Wales, he said: “That was a historic occasion because of high esteem in which community is held. I would never have believed that I’d be standing here a year on expressing concern about the rise of anti-Semitism. We see it, we hear it and we feel it.”
But Rabbi Mirvis – who called for a similar zero tolerance approach to Islamophobia – insisted the fight against anti-Semitism was one in which the Government and police stood together with Anglo-Jewry. “A threat to Jews is rightly considered a threat to society. We are deeply concerned but we have good people on our side and by our side.” He’d received letters of support from national leaders and regular people during the crisis.
The Campaign Against Antisemitism pledged to pursue court action against the perpetrators of hate crimes, urging supporters to record and report incidents to the police, CST or the new group itself.
Welcoming recent statements of condemnation from Home Secretary Theresa May and Communities secretary Eric Pickles, Campaign co-founder Gideon Falter said they now looked to Government for “urgent action”.
Addressing the crowds, who waved placards urging ‘Zero tolerance for anti-Semites’ and ‘prosecute hate before it’s too late’, he said: “Our families have been here for hundreds of years and our contribution to this country spans science, medicine and philanthropy. Yet here we are afraid of anti-Semitism. British Jews deserve protection under the law of the land.”
To cries of ‘shame’, he referred to the fact chants of ‘Jews to the gas’ were heard and a sign brandished proclaiming ‘Hitler was right’ was brandished during London marches for Gaza, without action from the police. A statement from the Campaign said making anti-Semitic statements in public is an aggravated offence under the Public Order Act and expressing support for proscribed terrorist organisations is illegal under the Terrorism Act.
“We demand that each and every time crimes are committed the perpetrators are arrested and prosecuted,” Falter said. Also taking to the platform was former Islamist turned anti-extremist campaigner Maajid Nawaz, who said the rise in anti-Semitism was down to the far-left and far-right together with Islamists finding common cause.
The Lib Dem parliamentary candidate said he joined the rally both as someone who had been chased as a child due to the colour of his skin and as someone who had later “become the beast” when he turned to Islamism for which he was jailed in Egypt.
“The rise of anti-Semitism across the world has absolutely nothing to with you,” he said. “It’s not your fault. You’ve done nothing wrong. Do not let them make you feel have to hide your Jewish identities.”
The Quilliam founder received rapturous applause when he referred to the “positive” fatwa issued by leading Muslim scholars today in which Britons who fight for Islamic State are branded “heretics”. He urged the Jewish community to form allies across religious divides in the battle against extremism, saying “moderate Muslim voices thrive” on such support. But the crowd didn’t reserve their anger just for the spewers of hate.
Sustained shouts of ‘you’re not doing enough’ rang out during speeches by leaders of the Board of Deputies, which backed the grassroots rally together with the Jewish Leadership Council and synagogue movements across the spectrum.
Jeers later greeted the Board’s insistence that it was on the “frontline” of the fight against anti-Semitism as senior vice-president Laura Marks, joined on stage by president Vivian Wineman, detailed its work in standing up for the community and for Israel in recent weeks. She highlighted its work with Government, the media and other faith communities as well as its buycott initiative to counter efforts to boycott Israeli goods.
Days after the Board drew criticism for a joint statement with the Muslim Council of Britain on the Gaza crisis and its impact in the UK, Marks said: “For sure our views on Israel may never be exactly in line with other faith groups but to have the Archbishop of Canterbury call for an end to anti-Semitism is very powerful. A call by Jews against anti-Semitism is one thing but as we saw this week a call by Muslims that makes the front pages, that even makes the BBC. we can’t do this alone.”
But author and commentator Douglas Murray – who described anti-Semitism as a problem first for Jews but “always for everybody” – rubbed salt into the wound when he urged the crowds to “demand more” of community leaders. “Don’t wait weeks and weeks and then for people to have to take the initiative with things like this,” he said. “Expect more, demand more from the people who say they speak in your name.”
Murray also urged community members to write to MPs and “help stop the lies”. If people don’t speak out when Israel is accused of genocide or of committing war crimes, he warned, “you help to feed the lies”. Among the other speakers were the leaders of the United Synagogue, Movement for Reform Judaism and Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation.
The US’s Stephen Pack said we were engaged in a “war” against extremists while Reform’s Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner reflected on how thousands rallied against Oswald Mosley 80 years ago, proclaiming ‘they shall not pass’.
“Here we are today and anti-Semitism and fascism remain a reality. These attacks on Jews are attacks on the very fabric of the Britain we love. As on Cable Street, we can’t expect others to lead the charge but neither can we do it alone. And we’re not alone. They shall not pass.”
In an intensely-passionate speech, his first to an event of its size since arriving from America, Rabbi Joseph Dwek said people had spoken to him about their fears about expressing their Judaism in public during the Gaza conflict.
He said: “The Sephardi community has lived and led in Britain for three and a half centuries. The culture for British Jewry since then has always been to work hard, invest in society, and maintain a low profile. We cannot however remain quiet when there are shouts and demonstrations from our neighbours in Britain and around the world that call for hatred against us as well as our destruction.” But, despite encountering security levels that made Jewish schools look like prisons, he said he was glad to be in Britain with his family.
Former Board chief executive Jon Benjamin, who attended the event, described it as “great. There’s nothing wrong with in grassroots campaigners initiating something ike this. Everyone needs to take responsibility and think about what they can be doing to mae our collective voices heard”.Falter, part of an 11-strong committee, said: “We are all ordinary people but when we unite and organise ourselves we have great strength. We are at our very best when we speak with one voice. Today the entire Jewish community, every denomination, every organisation, stands side by side.”