Ask any Israeli or American Jew about Europe and one of the first things they will invariably say is “anti-Semitism.”
This, as far as the majority of Jews in the world are concerned, is the sum total of Jewish existence in Europe: misery, oppression – essentially a ticking time-bomb to the next holocaust.
The truth, of course, is far more nuanced. In fact, Jewish life in Europe is something of an enigma, particularly to Jews who have never lived it.
On the one hand, less than a century since the holocaust, Europe is witnessing its worst rise in anti-Semitism since those darkest of days.
It’s as if Jew-hatred has reached a deadly critical mass.
"When Jews are killed in Europe today because they are Jews, for me that's a critical mass,” a veteran campaigner warned. “If you can be killed in the streets of Europe because you're identifiably Jewish that's as critical as it can be.”
Yet at the same time, while some Jewish communities are packing up and leaving as a result – most notably in France, where terror is not only aimed at Jews – others elsewhere in Europe have no intention of going anywhere, and are flourishing both spiritually, culturally and economically, even as one nervous eye watches the hate simmering beneath the surface.
Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than the UK, the country where I was born and spent most of my life – although I didn’t truly appreciate it until a recent trip back.
It was two years since my aliya, and more than one year since the shocking spike in anti-Semitism during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. That traumatic summer saw Jews physically assaulted and Jewish institutions vandalized with alarming regularity, and anti-Israel protesters were pictured brazenly waving signs declaring “Hitler was right!” among other fiercely anti-Semitic phrases and imagery.
That violent convulsion of anti-Semitism left the community feeling more vulnerable than ever, and for the first time you could hear Jews questioning their future in Britain. It triggered demands for a more activist leadership – demands which took shape with the election of a rather more outspoken president of the Board of Deputies, the body which has represented British Jews since 1760.
Jonathan Arkush, a successful lawyer and longtime campaigner against anti-Semitism, has made good on his promise to remain just as outspoken as ever, if in his very British way; “not whispering, but not shouting either,” as he puts it.
And today, he and other British leaders are overwhelmingly confident about the future, despite the simmering anti-Semitism.
It’s not hard to see why. Visit the UK – London in particular – and you will find a Jewish community that is thriving in every sense: highly successful Jewish schools, a seemingly endless crop of kosher restaurants, a plethora of youth movements spanning every ideological and religious hue (although unlike in America the majority – around 54% – associate with Orthodoxy, with the Reform Movement coming a distant second at less than 20%), thriving synagogues, economic affluence, an endless number of charitable organizations, and plenty of young, energized rabbis and teachers filling ever-more dynamic batei midrash.
What’s more, Britain’s 290,000-strong Jewish community is one of the few in the Diaspora that is not shrinking but growing, albeit at a relatively modest rate (again, unlike the gradually-shrinking American Jewish community). This is in no small part due to the high hareidi birthrate, helped along by the steady migration of Jews fleeing rampant anti-Semitism and economic depression on the continent, particularly France and Belgium.
British Jews are also, largely speaking, free of the sort of life-under-siege experience of their brethren elsewhere in Europe, perhaps most notably in Paris. In contrast to the French capital, London – home to the largest Jewish community in Britain (some 60,000) – is a place where Jews can travel freely on public transport without hiding their identity and not encounter so much as a single hostile stare.
But with all that, anti-Semitism still lurks just beneath the surface, and it’s becoming steadily more difficult to ignore.
It hit me in the face as I strolled down to my old local shul for shacharit on my first morning back, only to be confronted by a fortification not dissimilar to what you might expect to see in a prison: a massive iron gate topped with rather forbidding-looking spikes, followed by yet another gate – both of which required a code to open.
To be fair, most congregants did see it as overkill, but when a study was released a few days later showing a 63% rise in anti-Semitism in the UK over the first half of 2015, it all suddenly appeared a little bit less exaggerated. A September survey showed that in the 12 months between July 2014 and 2015, anti-Semitic crime in London specifically nearly doubled, with 499 incidents recorded compared with 258 the previous year.
Indeed, although other communities also face hate crimes in Britain, no other religious or ethnic community is forced to fortify its places of worship, schools and other institutions in such a way. The Conservative government has been taking the threat seriously, and as recently as May granted an annual budget of £10 million (more than $15.23 million) to provide permanent security for synagogues and Jewish schools. But the very fact it is even necessary, speaks volumes of the precarious situation in which British Jewry finds itself.
Things have gotten tangibly worse. The new Leader of the Opposition is one Jeremy Corbyn, a man who once invited Hezbollah and Hamas members to parliament and referred to them as his “friends” in a video widely circulated online.
Corbyn won the Labor Party leadership elections by a landslide in spite of – or perhaps because of – his astonishingly radical politics, which also included associating with an array of holocaust deniers and extreme, anti-Semitic Muslim and Christian preachers. Among those on the far-left crowing his victory is none other than George Galloway – who just happens to be running for Mayor of London next year.
In Manchester, shockwaves were sent through the community after a Jewish teenager was beaten unconscious in an unprovoked anti-Semitic assault, and left with a bleed to the brain which would have killed him, had doctors not operated quickly.
So, given such an alarming reality, why do British Jews still, for the most part, feel secure enough to stay, laughing off the often alarmist rhetoric emanating from Israel and the US?
“This absurd perception some people have that we are living in Berlin of 1933, and that we should all be packing up, just isn’t grounded in reality,” Arkush told me – and even with all their concerns, most British Jews share his sentiment.
Why, when French Jews are leaving by the tens of thousands, did only 6,356 British Jews make aliyah between 2004-2013, with the rate of aliya dropping by 27% in 2013? Aliya did rise slightly in 2014, and likely will continue to rise in 2015, but it is still no exodus.
For a start, it’s because in 2015, anti-Semitism has adapted. It’s more subtle than the days of the brass-knuckled neo-Nazis my father got “acquainted” with when his family first moved to the UK from Baghdad in the 1970s.
Today, anti-Semitism in the UK comes with a sort of perverse “get out” clause: avoid supporting Israel, and you’ll be spared the brunt of the hatred (until it boils over). It doesn’t sound like too bad a deal, until one considers the implications: surrender your right to dignity, to support Israel and Zionism and all the legitimate national aspirations of the Jewish nation which they represent – and you’ll be fine. For the most part.
Go to any demonstration or anti-Israel event, and you will find the most brazen, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Semitism you could ever imagine – but hop back on a bus or a train and return to Golders Green or Hendon for maariv, and everything seems totally fine. It’s not like living under siege – more like living in two worlds.
But as even the most neurotic Jewish parent will admit, you can only stay sheltered for so long.
And the longer that hatred is left to foster, the bolder it becomes.
This fact was exhibited during Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to London, when anti-Israel protesters subjected their pro-Israel opponents to a torrent of openly anti-Semitic abuse, handily documented by camera-wielding activists.
In one incident, a pro-Palestinian activist waved – then threw – money at Jewish activists; in another, a man calmly explained to an interviewer why the holocaust was a totally reasonable thing to happen to Jews “trying to take over” Germany; and in another incident (currently being investigated by police) a woman goaded pro-Israel activists by first denying the holocaust, then proudly calling for another one.
Footage of the incidents went viral, thanks to groups like the Zionist Federation and Israel Advocacy Movement who documented them, once again sending shockwaves throughout the community.
That shock soon died down, and London mayor Boris Johnson has visited Israel recently to strengthen economic ties between Israel and London. But, as British Jews nervously wait for the next “flare up”, they would do well to ask themselves how often such incidents can be written off as anomalies, before becoming a dangerous trend for Her Majesty's Jews.
Ari Soffer is Managing Editor of Arutz Sheva/Israel National News. He was born in London, UK, and prior to his Aliyah to Israel in 2013, was active in a variety of pro-Israel and anti-extremism organizations. Today, he lives in the town of Shiloh in Samaria, Israel