ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 233

Gideon Falter, left, speaks to a chief police inspector at a Campaign Against Antisemitism rally in this undated photo taken in London. The photo was not taken on Saturday, April 13, when Falter was told to leave a central London neighborhood where an anti-Israel demonstration was taking place. (Courtesy of the CAA)
Main image: Gideon Falter, left, speaks to a chief police inspector at a Campaign Against Antisemitism rally in this undated photo taken in London. The photo was not taken on Saturday, April 13, when Falter was told to leave a central London neighborhood where an anti-Israel demonstration was taking place. (Courtesy of the CAA)
Interview'What starts with the Jews, never ends with the Jews'

Meet Gideon Falter, the man fighting on the frontline against antisemitism in the UK

At the heart of a showdown with London police at a pro-Palestinian rally, the head of the 10-year-old Campaign Against Antisemitism says Britain faces its greatest challenge yet

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Main image: Gideon Falter, left, speaks to a chief police inspector at a Campaign Against Antisemitism rally in this undated photo taken in London. The photo was not taken on Saturday, April 13, when Falter was told to leave a central London neighborhood where an anti-Israel demonstration was taking place. (Courtesy of the CAA)

LONDON — Gideon Falter, director of the Campaign Against Antisemitism, is suddenly and quite literally on the frontline of the fight against a rising tide of antisemitism in England.

Following the October 7 Hamas-led massacre — which saw 1,200 people in southern Israel butchered by terrorists and 253 abducted to the Gaza Strip — and the ensuing war with Hamas in Gaza, antisemitism has surged in Britain to unprecedented levels.

Near-weekly anti-Israel demonstrations have been marked by calls for a global intifada, the glorification of Hamas, and comparisons between Israel and the Nazis. Nine in 10 British Jews, polls show, feel unsafe visiting central London during the protests and nearly half are considering leaving the country.

Falter experienced this antisemitic surge first-hand when, after attending synagogue on Saturday, April 13, he wandered with friends through central London wearing his kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap. He was stopped by a police officer who warned him that, because of an anti-Israel protest, he could prompt a “reaction.” A video released by the Campaign Against Antisemitism, or CAA, shows the officer telling Falter he was “quite openly Jewish” due to his head covering.

“This is a pro-Palestinian march. I’m not accusing you of anything, but I am worried about the reaction to your presence,” the officer stated. Later in the video, a second officer told Falter that if he did not agree to be escorted from the area, he would be arrested.

On Sunday, Britain’s Sky News published a lengthy 13-minute video and transcript of Falter’s altercation with the police officer, which painted a somewhat more nuanced picture than the much-reported soundbites. In the video, the officer offers to escort Falter “to the Israeli flags over there.” He adds, “I am telling you that I will help you by escorting you over there, and that way you will be completely safe just as we promised, so we are keeping our word.”

In response to the initial CAA video, London’s Metropolitan Police initially apologized for the “openly Jewish” remark, but in the same statement criticized pro-Israel individuals for being “provocative.” Following a further torrent of criticism, the police on Friday deleted the earlier statement from its X account and issued a new one, in which the force apologized for the wording of some of the previous apology and clarified that “being Jewish is not a provocation.”

The ensuing media storm following Falter’s altercation with the Met officer has led a slew of British politicians to call for the ouster of the capital’s top policeman, Sir Mark Rowley.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman is among those leading the calls, writing in The Telegraph on Saturday that “after such a litany of failure and a wholesale refusal to change, the Met Commissioner needs to accept responsibility. And he must go… I’ve seen too much fear and even more favoritism in the policing of pro-Palestinian protests.”

Jewish leaders are expected to meet with Rowley on Monday, Passover eve. Police say they will consult with Jewish groups before the next planned pro-Palestinian march, The Guardian reported.

Falter claims in a video statement that he wasn’t engaged in any protest or counter-protest. He says he recognizes that London’s frontline police officers are being placed in an impossible situation by their bosses’ decision not to deploy sufficient manpower and not to fully enforce the law.

At the same time, Falter wrote in a Sunday Times first-person account, “By the actions of the Metropolitan Police, it’s not just that central London is a ‘no-go zone’ for Jews, as has been said previously, but a police-enforced Jew-free zone.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Mark Rowley speaks in London, November 9, 2023. (James Manning/PA via AP, File)

The April 13 video shows Falter was firm but polite when speaking with the police. Some of the officers he spoke to, Falter said, were “very sympathetic” to the situation of Jews in London and the UK at the moment.

“The policing of the marches essentially is a betrayal of the police’s duty, not just to the Jewish public, but to the British public at large,” Falter told The Times of Israel in an interview conducted before the April 13 media storm. While the police have the power to arrest people for glorifying terrorism, carrying antisemitic placards and engaging in “chants of hate,” he noted, they have frequently not opted to use them.

“We know from the way that the Metropolitan Police deal with disorder at football matches, for example, that they can, if necessary, forcefully enforce the law,” Falter said, and yet, when it comes to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, they seem “very much of a mind that their job is to ensure that things are orderly without enforcing the law.”

‘It’s not just that central London is a ‘no-go zone’ for Jews, as has been said previously, but a police-enforced Jew-free zone’

Falter said he believes “the rot starts at the top” and, even before his own brush with the cops, he was sharply critical of Rowley. The commissioner has been “gaslighting the Jewish community,” Falter said, by claiming the marches are peaceful and that his officers are enforcing the law.

“Mark Rowley has presided over a situation where antisemitic criminality in London has breached all records and his city has become a city in which Jews feel afraid to go into the center during these marches,” Falter said.

UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis addresses the crowd at a Campaign Against Antisemitism rally in this undated photo taken in London. (Courtesy of the CAA)

Rowley answers to both the capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the Home Secretary, James Cleverley. Falter wondered how either can have confidence in a commissioner who hasn’t succeeded in preventing the spread of virulent antisemitism.

“It’s a great shame that neither of them have held Mark Rowley to account,” he said.

Falter has now also called for Rowley to quit or be fired.

Indecency tipping point

A decade after it was established in the wake of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014 — a seven-week conflict in Gaza aimed at stemming Hamas rocket fire into Israel — the CAA director told The Times of Israel he considered the current challenge in the UK to be the most serious yet.

The campaign’s bedrock principle, said Falter, has always been that “those who target Jews need to know that ruinous consequences await them.” As the CAA has repeatedly highlighted over the past six months, the Metropolitan Police has apparently failed to ensure that this is the case.

Falter expressed deep concern that the impact of the marches is not confined to either the streets of London or the Jewish community. Instead, he said he believes it is threatening to poison wider society and the country’s body politic.

‘Britain is a nation of tolerance and decency which has reached a tipping point’

“Britain is a nation of tolerance and decency which has reached a tipping point,” he said. “The lawlessness and intimidation which started on these protests has now spiraled into other realms of public life.”

Falter cited the intimidation leveled at British parliamentarians from Islamist and far-left elements of the anti-Israel movement. MPs who failed to back a permanent ceasefire in Gaza have been subjected to what one termed “vile abuse”; their offices have been attacked; and their family homes have been surrounded by demonstrators.

British MP Mike Freer. (Courtesy)

Mike Freer, the pro-Israel MP for Finchley and Golders Green, home to Britain’s biggest Jewish community, has announced he’ll step down at the next general election, in part because of the threats and abuse to which he’s been subjected.

Related: Outgoing British MP Mike Freer on the Gaza war, antisemitism and his Jewish constituents

People walk past the UK Ministry of Defense Building in central London, hours after members of Youth Demand and Palestine Action spayed red paint onto the brickwork to demand that the political parties in the UK impose a two-way arms embargo on Israel and end the development and production of fossil fuels in the UK, on April 10, 2024. (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

In February, concerns about MPs’ safety led the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsey Hoyle, to tear up the parliamentary rulebook ahead of a contentious vote on a ceasefire.

As he was doing so, demonstrators outside projected the words “From the river to the sea” onto Big Ben.

“The icon of our democracy, Big Ben, [was] subverted and used as an antisemitic billboard,” said Falter.

‘The icon of our democracy, Big Ben, [was] subverted and used as an antisemitic billboard’

“British people should be extremely disturbed that our democracy is being tampered with in such a way,” he said. “If the people at the top of our democracy, the members of parliament, feel unable to freely speak their mind and act according to their conscience, then there is a corrosion present in society which threatens the very nature of that society.”

Falter quoted the words of the late Jonathan Sachs, Britain’s much-revered former chief rabbi: “What starts with the Jews, never ends with the Jews.”

Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel activists and supporters wave flags as they gather for a protest in Trafalgar Square in central London on March 30, 2024, calling for a ceasefire in the Israel/Hamas conflict. (BENJAMIN CREMEL / AFP)

The UK government, Falter said, has not been “sufficiently active” in tackling domestic extremism or in curbing the influence of foreign powers. CAA was part of the coalition that, over the past five years, forced ministers to proscribe the political wings of Hezbollah and Hamas. CAA and others now want them to go further. A top priority is banning Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Falter also argued that the government must take “very urgent action” to combat the radicalization taking place in schools and religious institutions, many of which are registered charities, as well as on social media.

‘Old wisdom was that everybody had an embarrassing elderly relative whose views were stuck in the past and were a bit racist’

Earlier this year, CAA published polling it had commissioned that showed “particularly frightening rates” of anti-Jewish prejudice among 18-to-24-year-old Brits.

“The polling shows that the next generation is growing up as ‘Generation Hate,’” Falter said. “Whereas the old wisdom was that everybody had an embarrassing elderly relative whose views were stuck in the past and were a bit racist, now, unfortunately, many families seem to feel that they have an embarrassing younger relative who has become radicalized on TikTok and some of the other platforms.”

Polling released this month by the Henry Jackson Society think tank also  highlighted the problem of radicalization in some sections of the British Muslim community.

An anti-Israel activist shouts through a loudspeaker on a march through London, during a National Day of Action for Palestine on March 9, 2024. (Photo by HENRY NICHOLLS / AFP)

“We are very worried about some of the efforts that we have seen by Islamist extremists in the UK to capitalize on the October 7 attack to spread their hatred,” Falter said. “We are facing a very sophisticated enemy in the form of Iran, and some of the other foreign powers that are doing everything they can to radicalize people in our country.”

Some of that effort is targeted at the general population, while other elements are focused on British Muslims. Islamist extremism, Falter said, isn’t just damaging to Jews and British democracy, but also to the Muslim community itself.

“When Muslim voices stand up to antisemitism,” he noted, “they are often targeted far more viciously than anybody else.”

‘When Muslim voices stand up to antisemitism, they are often targeted far more viciously than anybody else’

Falter chose his words carefully when speaking about CAA polling showing that, since the October 7 Hamas atrocities, 48 percent of Jews have considered leaving the UK because of antisemitism. There is no evidence, he said, that there is going to be a mass exodus of Jews from the country. Anecdotally, however, he is aware that some of those who had been talking about leaving are now actually doing so.

“That is not something that I was seeing in any kind of significant way previously,” Falter said.

Upcoming vote may restore confidence

In the run-up to Britain’s 2019 general election, polls picked up similar numbers of Jews thinking of moving abroad if the far-left Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, became prime minister. CAA played a key role in exposing and challenging the growth of antisemitism in the party on Corbyn’s watch. Its arguments were vindicated when, the year after Labour went down to a landslide defeat, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission found the party to be institutionally antisemitic. The watchdog’s inquiry was initially triggered by a complaint from the CAA.

Anti-Israel activists and supporters wave flags and carry placards on a march through London, during a National Day of Action for Palestine on March 9, 2024. (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

With a general election just months away, Labour — which has been dragged back to the center ground under its leader, Keir Starmer — appears on course for victory. Falter praised the Labour leader’s efforts to rid the party of antisemitism over the past four years. However, he admitted disappointment that Starmer’s “pretty impressive” record was dented when the party initially chose to stand by its candidate in a special election in the northwest constituency of Rochdale despite leaked recordings that he had made antisemitic remarks about the October 7 attacks.

Falter noted that CAA polling indicates that two-thirds of Jews still believe Labour is too tolerant of antisemitism in its ranks. That figure has dropped significantly since Starmer became leader, but it remains much higher than that registered for other parties.

‘The test is not whether antisemitism arises, it’s how the party deals with it’

“I believe Keir Starmer wants to address that, but that effort has to be consistent. The test is not whether antisemitism arises, it’s how the party deals with it,” Falter said. “Rochdale seems to have been a wobble which hopefully Keir Starmer will learn from and won’t repeat.”

A decade after the CAA’s formation, with antisemitism reaching shocking levels, Falter nonetheless maintains faith in his fellow Britons which gives him optimism for the future.

“I think at times like this it’s very easy just to look at the terrible things that are happening around us, but it’s also at times like this, when, in the past, the British public has made its voice quietly but forcefully heard,” Falter said.

“Many people are disgusted by what they see on these marches, they find some of the rhetoric on social media and the fringes of politics revolting, and they are afraid that, if they don’t stand up against it, the country that we all call home is going to change very quickly for the worse,” said Falter.

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