By Jeremy Apfel, Chairman Barnet Synagogue
The contrast could not have been more stark. That there were so many out on the streets of France to say Je Suis Charlie is all the more remarkable for the determined lack of action on anti-Semitism and attacks on Jews over the past few years in that country.
It is now crystal clear that the French, other than a few lonely souls, such as Prime Minister Manual Valls, do not care what happens to the Jews, as long as it happens to the Jews.
Very few of them seem to understand the lesson of history: the Jews are merely the hors d’oeuvres; what happens to us invariably happens to others later.
For British Jews, the question has to be, what relevance do these events have for us as UK citizens? And further, what strategy does our communal leadership have in place to fight on our behalf to protect what we have made for ourselves in this country?
Last summer, in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, I chaired two fraught meetings at Barnet Synagogue on the rise in anti-Semitism, the second being a panel discussion with our local MP, Theresa Villiers, and a senior representative from the local police. In total, the meetings were attended by around 350 people, signaling the strength of the fear, anger and disappointment felt about the rise in anti-Semitism and the failure of our communal leadership to set out a clear response to it and strategy for the future. The point was made again and again that there is a sense of drift in the community, that for all the activity that is undoubtedly going on – and there is – it is mostly tactical and mostly aimed at community reassurance.
Despite mounting concern matching the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, the message from figures of influence, from politicians and from the police, seems to be one of concern about events blended with a refusal to articulate that there is simply no excuse for anti-Semitism. An example: In communication with a senior London police officer last summer, I was told that feelings were running high in both [Jewish and Muslim] communities “because of the situation in Gaza” and that both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have risen because of it. When I challenged them about this, I was told that the letter was wrong and that the two should never have been conflated.
Yet the message that Israel and the “situation in Palestine” is a driver of anti-Semitism in the UK is still being used. It was again delivered by Sir Peter Fahy, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, on the Today programme as recently as 14 January.
To my mind there can be no excuse for attacking UK citizens because of something which goes on half a world away.
It is irrelevant. Redundant. To even mention it is insulting.
The simple fact is there can be no excuse for anti-Semitism, full stop.
This obfuscation is worrying. Clinging to timeworn clichés seems to suggest that those in power are either in denial, or are afraid of what might happen if the real culprit is tackled – naked prejudice imported from the murkiest corners of the Middle East.
Given the horrors that took place on European soil in the 20th century and the demonstrations throughout France, showing that Europe does react when the body politic is attacked, it is perhaps no wonder that so-called progressives are fighting so hard to hold the party line.
The BBC is a chief culprit – in a recent report on Radio 4 from Sarcelles, there was no mention, not a single word, about last summer’s attempted pogrom in that Parisian suburb, whilst reference was made to police outside both the Synagogue and the Mosque, as if there is some equivalence.
The danger is that within this obstinate obfuscation lie the seeds of ongoing conflict: look at the poll numbers for Marine Le Pen; look at the establishment of Riposte Laique, the French Pegida. People aren’t stupid; they react badly to being lied to and deal harshly with those who fail to address the root causes of their problems.
If the French recognised that attacks on Jews, which have been going on for years and include the horrific kidnap, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi almost 10 years ago, the massacre of school children in Toulouse, attempted pogroms, robbery, rape and murder, were attacks on Jews simply because they are Jews, they might not have to say Je Suis Charlie. And if that were the case, I would have more confidence in the future of the 5th Republic. Sadly I do not.
So for the moment anti-Semitism remains almost exclusively a problem for the Jews. And to deal with it here, to protect ourselves, we need a strategy.
I for one have not seen or heard of anything that remotely comes close to this from our communal leadership: I urge them to look again at their plans. A starting point would be some basic analysis about our role in a changing society. There should be a view on likely demographic and economic changes in the country and how they will, for example, impact future voting intentions.
Are David Ward MP and Jenny Tonge mere aberrations, or the future of UK politics? This would help the community create a multi-year project encompassing academic, legal, regulatory, legislative and communication initiatives to fight anti-Semitism.
The role of the media needs close scrutiny and real action, but more of the same is not an option. This project should be a community-wide effort, incorporating and using the energy of the many grassroots organisations that have been springing up in response to the vacuum left by the traditional leadership.
In France a clear line in the sand has been drawn and it does not read #jesuisJuif. We British Jews need to fight hard now, today, and for years hence, in a clear and coordinated way, to make sure the same disaster does not come to pass here.