'People just can't believe what's happened'

Different this time: On Israel trip, UK Jewish leaders share grief and deep concern

Members of solidarity mission say that British Jews are worried about spiking antisemitism at home even as they mourn and pray for the victims of the terrorist attacks on Israel

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

UJIA CEO Mandie Winston, left, and members of the solidarity mission that her organization organized to Israel, meet Israeli interlocutors in Jerusalem on October 30, 2023. (Courtesy)
UJIA CEO Mandie Winston, left, and members of the solidarity mission that her organization organized to Israel, meet Israeli interlocutors in Jerusalem on October 30, 2023. (Courtesy)

On a solidarity trip to Israel, leaders of British Jewry told survivors of Hamas’s October 7 atrocities that Jews in the United Kingdom are united in supporting them and helping them and Israel recover.

What the visitors did not tell the survivors, because it would have been tactless to do so, is that the current conflict is causing considerable concern back in the United Kingdom, where many Jews worry both about a huge spike in antisemitic incidents and expressions of pro-Hamas sentiment — and about Israel’s ability to defend its own people effectively.

This double-pronged concern is on the minds of countless Jews around the world as they mourn some 1,400 dead in Israel and brace for retribution and hostility, mainly from Muslims in Europe and beyond, over the deaths of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza in Israeli strikes as it tries to destroy Hamas in response to the October 7 assault.

“Everybody’s just really worried,” Marie van der Zyl, the president of the Board of Presidents of British Jews, told The Times of Israel on Sunday, at the end of a three-day solidarity mission organized by Britain’s United Jewish Israel Appeal for its leadership along with that of the Board, as well as the Jewish Leadership Council and the BICOM pro-Israel group.

“There’s a big surge in antisemitism at home. And before, people thought, ‘Oh, if it’s bad in the UK, we can always come to Israel.’ But now, because of this, there’s also that huge worry because Israel has always been viewed as a place of safety, security from any sort of threat. People just can’t believe what’s happened.”

The Community Security Trust, British Jewry’s watchdog on antisemitism and security department, documented a tenfold increase in antisemitic incidents in October over the same month last year, meaning a net increase of hundreds of cases, most of them non-physical.

Marie van der Zyl, center, with members of the solidarity mission by leaders of UK Jewry, meet lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar on October 30, 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Courtesy)

In parallel, mass rallies are taking place across the United Kingdom in support of Palestinians, featuring widespread denunciations of Israel and backing for Hamas, including three successive Saturday rallies in London that each drew an estimated 100,000 participants.

Both occurrences are recurrent phenomena at times of conflict involving Israel, but this time feels different, according to Keith Black, the chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, an umbrella group of British-Jewish organizations.

“The sheer horror of what has gone on, the sheer revelation of evil on that scale, is beyond most of our comprehension and it makes people that much more anxious,” Black said.

President Isaac Herzog meets members of the solidarity mission of leaders of UK Jewry in Jerusalem, Israel on October 30, 2023. (Courtesy)

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 2,500 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people and seizing 200-250 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists, in what US President Joe Biden has highlighted as “the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust.”

Some of the perpetrators burned their victims alive. Some raped women and mutilated and paraded the bodies of the dead. They burned down houses and even shot pets and farm animals in their murder spree, which many of the terrorists documented themselves and whose images have shocked the world.

Israeli soldiers remove bodies of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The assault also exposed a vulnerability that few attributed to Israel, a military power possessing some of the world’s most secure borders and advanced intelligence capabilities.

“This isn’t just a war that we saw in 2021,” said Black, referencing a previous round of hostilities between Hamas and Israel. “These are scenes and stories of extreme barbarism and savagery. UK Jews, as much as people in this country, are shocked and horrified.”

Against this background, certain behaviors by pro-Palestinian protesters in the United Kingdom are especially chilling to British Jews, including the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which many perceive as a call to abolish Israel and even ethnic cleansing.

Demonstrators march with signs in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza during a rally in Algiers on October 19, 2023. (AFP)

“It’s very upsetting and the authorities seem to be allowing it to run its course,” Black said of the chant. He also said that UK Jews are “very lucky” because “the government has been incredibly pro-Israel.”

Home Secretary Suella Braverman “is actually more inclined to clamp down on it, but the law doesn’t seem to be on her side, so that may need to wait. Some new legislation [would have] to come into place, which, frankly, is unlikely to happen,” Black added.

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks at the annual Community Security Trust fundraising dinner in London, UK, on March 29, 2023. (CST)

The Board of Deputies led a pro-Israel demonstration by some 15,000 people following the October 7 onslaught.

Gary Mond, the chairman of the National Jewish Assembly — which is not part of the Jewish Leadership Council and did not participate in this week’s mission to Israel — said that many British Jews “cannot understand why hate-filled marches promoting Jihad are allowed to proceed on a weekly basis and are demanding that such demonstrations be banned.”

There are also concerns, Mond said, “regarding decisions taken by the British police, as the latter are, in the views of many, being weak and ineffectual in dealing with blatant hate speech.”

Mond describes a palpable sense of anxiety among some British Jews. They are “for the most part very fearful, and in some cases even terrified, of the horrendous levels of Jew-hatred that have developed since the war began. It has reached the point where many are even frightened to go into central London or other city centers,” said Mond.

Large crowds of pro-Israel demonstrators gather in Trafalgar Square, London, October 22, 2023, demanding the release of all hostages abducted from Israel to Gaza by Hamas terrorists. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The delegation members, comprising leaders of the Jewish Leadership Council, the Board of Deputies, and the United Jewish Israel Appeal, which does fundraising for Israel in the United Kingdom, met with President Isaac Herzog as well as other politicians, and providers of aid to the victims and tens of thousands of evacuees who have left the area near the border with Gaza amid ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas.

UJIA is currently raising funds in a special appeal, which it expects will soon yield at least £5 million ($4.86 million), with an emphasis on treating trauma, both physical and emotional, according to Zvi Noé, a trustee of UJIA who participated in the mission along with Mandie Winston, the organization’s chief executive.

Amid the fears and challenges facing Israelis witnessed by the delegation, they also observed “incredible resilience” that they will describe to British Jews and society, said Noé, who organized the mission to Israel.

“The damage is tremendous in Israel. The surprise has compounded the trauma, but the people and survivors we’ve met, to a person, their inspiring sentiment was: ‘I want to keep going, I want to go back home as soon as possible,” Noé said.

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