LONDON – A year after his gala installation as British chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis told a crowd of up to 4,500 that he could not have foreseen needing to rally against anti-Semitism.
In response to the rise of recorded instances of anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom, Sunday’s rally was held outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London.
“We demand zero tolerance of anti-Semitism,” Mirvis said. After the murder of the three yeshiva students in the West Bank, “little did we realize that anti-Semitism would reach high levels around the world and here in the UK as well.”
Calling for an end to all forms of prejudice including Islamophobia, Mirvis noted the “deep esteem” in which the Jewish community of Britain is held.
Organized by the newly-formed Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAAS), the event hosted speakers including Mirvis, Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of the Quilliam Foundation, and Douglas Murray, associate director of the Henry Jackson Society.
CAAS, Hebrew for “anger,” emerged as a response to the decision by the Tricycle Theatre to turn away the UK Jewish Film Festival on the basis that it received funding from the Israeli embassy.
‘Little did we realize that anti-Semitism would reach high levels around the world and here in the UK as well’
The rally received pan-communal endorsement. Initiated independently, it came to be backed by the two main institutions of the British Jewish community: the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), both of whom had representatives at the event.
Leaders from the United Synagogue, Movement for Reform Judaism, and the Spanish & Portuguese Jews’ Congregation addressed the event, which was also endorsed by Masorti Judaism and Liberal Judaism.
“We are among friends. We have the full support of faith leaders and national leaders. A threat to Jews is considered a threat to society,” Mirvis said.
The intent of the rally was “to demand zero tolerance of anti-Semitism under British law,” Jonathan Sacerdoti, spokesperson for the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, told The Times of Israel. “Every example of anti-Semitism that we are seeing on our streets, online, against Jewish property must be prosecuted under British law.”
They are already illegal acts, said Sacerdoti, “but we recognized a feeling among the community that we are not seeing enough prosecutions” in relation to the reported increase in anti-Semitism.
“As a minority group in the United Kingdom we deserve protection under the law. As proud British citizens, we recognize this not only as a Jewish problem but a British problem when a minority group isn’t being protected under the law to the extent they feel safe within their own country,” said Sacerdoti.
In contrast to other European nations, Britain has historically been relatively free of anti-Semitism, and in particular violent anti-Semitism. Moreover, the struggle against what anti-Semitism there is has the full and unconditional support of the political leadership in Britain.
Writing in The Jewish Chronicle, Home Secretary Theresa May (who is responsible of policing and security) said:
Britain has a long and proud reputation as a nation where people are free to speak and practice their religion within the law. So let me be very clear: there is absolutely no place in our country for anti-Semitism. Whatever form it takes — physical attacks, offensive graffiti, or vile comments online — targeting a person or a group based on their race, religion or belief is something against which we must all take a stand.
But it is also so that today, “the British Jewish community is suffering a crisis of confidence,” Eylon Aslan-Levy, chairman of the National Council of the Union of Jewish Students and a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has written.
This year alone the Community Security Trust (CST) has recorded a noticeable rise in the number of instances of possible hate crimes perpetuated against Jewish people in Britain.
Between January and June of this year, the CST recorded 304 anti-Semitic incidents across the country, constituting a 36 percent increase on the same period in 2013. This included a 35% increase in damage to Jewish property including synagogues and cemeteries, and a 34% increase in “abusive behavior,” which encapsulates “anti-Semitic graffiti on non-Jewish property, one-off hate mail, anti-Semitic verbal abuse and those social media incidents that do not involve direct threats.”
With the commencement of Operation Protective Edge, however, the number of incidences increased further. The most recent figure published by the CST showed that in July alone, 240 anti-Semitic incidents were reported to the organization, the second-highest month on record, behind only January 2009 which coincided with Operation Cast Lead. Ten to twenty arrest have been made and other cases are under police investigation.
“British Jews, like those elsewhere, will continue to suffer local anti-Semitic impacts from overseas events and global ideological trends, especially political Islamism and violent Jihadism,” Mark Gardner, Director of Communications for the CST, has said.
The existence of the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism is not only a response to these trends in society, which are to some extent grounded in statistics but also a response to a feeling or fear of anti-Semitism in the community. It is also a manifestation of a discontent felt by some British Jews about what official institutions are or are not doing, when faced with rising recorded incidences of anti-Semitism.
At the rally, there was audible booing when the representatives of the Board of Deputies – President Vivian Wineman and Senior Vice President Laura Marks – ascended the podium to speak. The Jewish Chronicle’s Marcus Dysch tweeted that people were shouting things like “you need to do more,” “resign,” and “shame.”
The Times of Israel was witness to two argumentative confrontations between Wineman and those attending the rally, including one in a coffee shop across the road after the rally had concluded.
“People in the grassroots are so disillusioned,” the man told Wineman, noting the efforts of Friends of Israel organizations across the country occurring independent of the Board, before leaving complaining that the leaders of the community never listen to people’s concerns.
But this criticism is not exclusive and cuts both ways. Other voices in the community have questioned why official community institutions have so swiftly lent support to the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, an organization that is unelected and unaccountable – and to that extent, unrepresentative.
Writing a blog for The Times of Israel, the author and academic Stephen Games argued that since the community knows little about the people who run the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, “I fear, therefore, that the rally is going to be an unknown quantity and that the rest of us — those who attend and those who don’t — may be left having to face unknown consequences.”
“We recognize that this coming together of people, outside of any organized structure or communal body, is one that has spoken very clearly and struck a chord with many people,” Sacerdoti said. “We are campaigning here about something that is very worthwhile, that regular Jewish people in Britain are very concerned about.”