LONDON — Huge weekly pro-Palestinian demonstrations have rocked the streets of London following the Hamas onslaught on Israel six weeks ago, dominating headlines and much of the discussion about the continuing conflict.
While organizers claim these protests have been largely peaceful, the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) argues that placards carried by demonstrators bear “slogans and imagery that would not have looked out of place in Nazi Germany.”
This past Saturday’s march through central London, which drew more than 300,000 people, saw some demonstrators dressed as Hamas terrorists; chants of “Khaybar, Khaybar, ya yahud, jaish al Mohammed sauf yaud” (an antisemitic call referencing an ancient massacre and translated as, “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return”); and banners declaring “Resist and fight Zionism the disease,” and “Welcome to Gaza, twinned with Auschwitz.”
The CAA claimed in a press statement that the Jewish community was “terrified,” and said it had received “multiple reports” of police having to escort congregants as they left synagogues.
But the “hate marches,” as former Home Secretary Suella Braverman dubbed them, are just the most high-profile example of a surge of antisemitism in the UK.
That surge, polls indicate, doesn’t reflect wider British public opinion. Nor, according to experts, does it indicate an absence of tough laws to combat racism or a broad political consensus on the need to do more to protect the country’s 270,000-strong Jewish community.
The ongoing Israel-Hamas war was triggered on October 7, when some 3,000 Hamas terrorists stormed into southern Israel, where they unleashed a brutal massacre. The terror group killed approximately 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took some 240 hostages.
Israel vowed to destroy Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007, and launched an operation carried out by air and on the ground. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry has reported more than 11,500 deaths since October 7, but the numbers cannot be independently verified and are thought to include the terror group’s own members, as well as civilians killed by misfired rockets.
“Unfortunately, the Jewish community was fully aware that in the aftermath of the Hamas attack, there would be a steep increase in antisemitic incidents reported here in the UK,” says Russell Langer, director of public affairs at the Jewish Leadership Council. “The government has been clear in its rejection of this hatred, and we are grateful for their clear support.”
In addition to the expected surge in antisemitism due to the regional conflict, there are also concerns that the problem of Islamist extremism in the UK is going unchecked, with police chiefs warning that they lack sufficient powers to tackle it.
“It is evident from the nature of many of the current pro-Palestinian marches that Islamist extremism is alive and well in the UK,” says Alan Mendoza of the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy and national security think-tank. “Public declarations of jihad and intifada, and the proliferation of antisemitic messaging, show that all those who believe in British values have a major problem on their hands.”
A shocking picture
Statistics gathered by the Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors antisemitism and protects Jewish venues, paint a shocking picture.
“In the 35 days inclusive between the Hamas terror attack on Israel and Friday 10 November, CST recorded at least 1,205 antisemitic incidents across the UK,” it reported last week. This is the highest-ever total reported to CST across a 35-day period since the organization began recording antisemitic incidents nearly four decades ago.
In total, the CST says, it has recorded more antisemitic incidents — which range from assaults to damage to Jewish property, direct threats, and abusive behavior — over the past five weeks than in the entire first six months of the year. Anti-Jewish “hate acts” are up 531 percent on last year. Even compared to periods of previous conflicts involving Israel, the number of incidents is “unprecedentedly high,” the CST says.
The CST has provided examples of some of the antisemitic incidents it has recorded since October 7. They include posters of Jewish hostages being removed or defaced; lit fireworks thrown towards Jewish girls in Manchester; and a man on a bus in the capital called a “Jew” before red paint was thrown over him.
It will require years of hard work and coordination to beat this evil cancer
Eric Pickles, a member of the House of Lords and former Conservative cabinet minister, describes the “level of Jew-hatred in the UK” as “deeply shocking.” Pickles, who now serves as the parliamentary chair of Conservative Friends of Israel in the upper chamber and as the UK’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust issues, believes the rise in antisemitism in the UK is all the more disturbing given that Britain was the first country in the world to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. “Yet the level of hatred is just as strong as neighboring countries and the USA,” he says.
“We have learned that adoption is not enough; implementation is the key,” says Pickles. “This is not something that can be done quickly; it will require years of hard work and coordination to beat this evil cancer.”
The case of Braverman
The timing of the November 11 march in London — which coincided with the annual Remembrance Day weekend — heightened tensions around the event. Braverman wanted the demonstration to be banned. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, also made clear his unhappiness about the event going ahead.
But the government doesn’t have the power to ban demonstrations. In the capital, that power rests with the head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Mark Rowley. The Met initially appealed to the organizers — a coalition led by the far-left Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) — to cancel the event. However, Rowley ultimately opted not to use his powers to apply to the Home Secretary to ban the march. As the commissioner noted, the legal threshold to prohibit a demonstration is high, rarely used and, intelligence suggested, hadn’t been met in the case of the PSC march.
Braverman – a right-wing populist with designs on the Tory leadership – responded by writing an article for The Times newspaper in which she attacked the police and accused it of operating a double standard.
“Right-wing and nationalist protesters who engage in aggression are rightly met with a stern response yet pro-Palestinian mobs displaying almost identical behavior are largely ignored, even when clearly breaking the law,” she argued. On Monday, Sunak fired Braverman in a Cabinet reshuffle which saw former Prime Minister David Cameron return to government as Foreign Secretary.
Whatever the merits of her argument about the police, the former Home Secretary’s comments – which were apparently not approved by Downing Street – were simply the latest in a long line of controversies angering Sunak and many Tory MPs.
In a stinging letter to Sunak, Braverman accused the prime minister of a “failure to rise to the challenge posed by increasingly vicious antisemitism and extremism displayed on Britain’s streets.” She wrote: “I have become hoarse urging you to consider legislation to ban the hate marches and help stem the rising tide of racism, intimidation and terrorist glorification threatening community cohesion.”
But Braverman’s sacking this week doesn’t reflect a fundamental difference of opinion within the government over the demonstrations or the need to crack down on antisemitism. Instead, the prime minister, a more moderate figure, has run out of patience with Braverman’s provocative rhetoric which, critics suggest, helped fuel a violent, far-right counter-demonstration on Saturday.
Indeed, hours before firing Braverman on November 13, Sunak was reported to have been drawing up a package of legislative measures to prohibit provocative chants as a condition of allowing protests and to take into account the “cumulative effect” of weeks of marches in deciding on a ban.
It’s also the case that the police have moved swiftly to investigate various individuals after Saturday’s march. They include a woman recorded shouting “Death to all the Jews,” and a man who proclaimed, “Hitler knew how to deal with these people.” The Home Office has also announced that it has begun revoking the visas of foreign nationals living in the UK for alleged antisemitic behavior or comments.
“The fact is that the organizers of these protests and their more seasoned activists will always go up to the legal limit and they usually know where that line is,” says Dave Rich, director of policy at the CST. “However, people have been arrested and charged this time around for saying and doing things that even just two years ago they were not being arrested for, and the law has not changed in between, so this is partly a result of a more robust approach by police, which is very welcome.”
Time to review the UK’s anti-extremism laws?
Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UK Lawyers for Israel, believes that the British police have “extensive powers to counter extremism, and UK criminal law prohibits most problematic conduct — or would do so if properly applied.”
Nonetheless, he says, there are some problems in how the powers are used. “One is a tendency to assume that words have an intrinsic meaning of the kind found in a dictionary. This is incorrect,” he says. “The meaning and effect of words depend on the circumstances and the audience. Decision-makers need training to understand the significance of chants and slogans to different groups.”
The meaning and effect of words depend on the circumstances and the audience
At the same time, pro-Israel and Jewish groups believe that while the UK’s laws against supporting or glorifying terrorist groups — which include both Hamas and Hezbollah — are clear, there is a degree of ambivalence around extremist rhetoric being exploited by some activists.
“There have been some obvious examples where demonstrators have said and done things that feel like they ought to be illegal, but police and prosecutors have determined that they are probably not,” says Rich. “The situation remains muddled and it may be that new legislation is needed to close up some of these loopholes, as the kind of public displays of extremism we have seen are clearly harmful to the well-being of Jews and society as a whole.”
“The prevalence of anti-Jewish hatred seen at the anti-Israel demonstrations has been unacceptable,” agrees Langer. “The current hate crime and public order laws must be enforced to their fullest extent by the police and CPS [Crown Prosecution Service], and we will welcome new legislation if there proves a need for these to be strengthened.”
Michael Rubin, director of Labour Friends of Israel (LFI), is among those calling for the government to look again at the UK’s anti-extremism laws.
“The rise in antisemitism and glorification of Hamas terrorism on the streets of Britain is shameful,” he says. “The government must immediately act to ensure the police have adequate powers to protect the Jewish community and ensure those who commit hate crimes, glorify terrorism and express support for Hamas face the full force of the law.”
Last month, LFI’s chair, Labour MP Steve McCabe, wrote to Braverman highlighting a 2021 report by the Commission on Countering Extremism that warned of a “gaping chasm in the law that allows hateful extremists to operate with impunity.”
Embarrassingly for ministers, the report’s co-author was Rowley. Now head of the Met, he has pointedly argued that his officers’ hands are tied by the legal definitions of extremism.
There’s no point arresting hundreds of people if it’s not prosecutable, that’s just inflaming things
“The law was never designed to deal with extremism, there’s a lot to do with terrorism and hate crime, but we don’t have a body of law that deals with extremism, and that is creating a gap,” he recently said. “There’s no point arresting hundreds of people if it’s not prosecutable, that’s just inflaming things.”
The Iran connection
Mendoza believes that, over the long term, the only way to resolve the threat of Islamist extremism is through “a program of government intervention into radicalized communities.” He says the outlines of such an approach have already been sketched in a series of government-commissioned reviews.
“The pathways already exist,” says Mendoza. “We just need leaders with the courage to walk down them.”
The Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has indicated that a Labour government will look again at the findings of the various government reviews into extremism. But experts question whether the UK’s main political parties are really prepared to take the problem on.
“Thirteen years of Conservative governments have failed to see progress on this issue beyond the commissioning of various reports that keep telling us the problem is getting worse,” warns one who spoke with The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity. “And if the Conservatives are bad, we can only imagine how Labour might be worse — with a large majority of British Muslims voting for Labour and some already prepared to flex their political muscles over something like a Gaza ceasefire, how can we expect any action on radicalization and extremism without tearing Labour apart?”
Labour is currently split over its leadership’s strong support for Israel and refusal to back calls for a ceasefire. But it has nonetheless moved a long way since Keir Starmer, who is favorite to become prime minister after the next general election, took the helm in April 2020. A reminder of that came just this week when the far-left former leader Jeremy Corbyn, refused at least 15 times to describe Hamas as a terrorist organization during a television interview.
While Corbyn has a long and controversial association with Iran, the current Labour leadership has taken an altogether more hardline approach towards Tehran. The Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, has repeatedly called for the UK to proscribe Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Up until this week’s ministerial shake-up, the government was seen as split between Braverman’s Home Office — which wanted to ban the IRGC — and the Foreign Office, which reportedly feared the impact on the UK’s intelligence-gathering operations.
The issue is critical, warns Iran expert Kasra Aarabi. “There is a direct terror threat against the Jewish community in the UK emanating from the IRGC,” he says. “We have hard evidence that the IRGC has put together a list of Jewish targets and is also proactively nurturing homegrown Islamist radicalization and extreme antisemitism in the UK, using tactics identical to proscribed terror groups from ISIS to Al-Qaeda.”
But, notes Aarabi, the director of IRGC research at United Against Nuclear Iran, unlike ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the UK’s existing sanctions regime on the IRGC doesn’t prohibit its ability to spread its “jihadi propaganda” and conduct “soft-power” operations in Britain.
“Proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organization would fundamentally change this,” he says. “It would provide government, the police and tech companies with a mandate to impose an outright ban on any IRGC activity — including propaganda.”
Aarabi says the “horrific rise in antisemitism” in Britain has provided an added urgency to proscribing the IRGC.
IRGC-linked groups in the UK are proactively involved in the marches across London and are seeking to propagate extreme antisemitism, he says.
“The government has acknowledged the terror threat emanating from the IRGC yet it has failed to proscribe it,” says Aarabi. “The longer this goes on, the greater the terror threat becomes not least against the Jewish community and Iranian diaspora in the UK — the two primary targets of IRGC terrorism. All the evidence to proscribe the IRGC is there — it’s just the political will that’s missing.”
Universities a hotbed of antisemitism
As the CST notes, whenever Israel is at war, there is an increase in antisemitic incidents across the country. However, it says, “an acute rise” is usually reported specifically in, and related to, places of education. Since the outbreak of the war with Hamas, there have been 77 incidents related to universities across the UK — compared to 56 in the whole of 2022 — and 80 incidents related to schools.
In one primary school cited by the CST, for instance, a Jewish boy was asked by a classmate, “Who do you support, Israel or Palestine?” He answered, “Israel,” to which the boy replied, “I support Palestine, I want to kill all the Jews.” In another incident, Jewish students wearing kippahs at Scotland’s renowned University of St. Andrews had eggs thrown at them. (The perpetrators are thought to have been local teenagers, not fellow students).
A major problem on campuses is unsatisfactory complaint procedures, believes Turner. “Prevarication and victimization of those who complain seem to be commonplace,” he says. Turner also cites a prevalence of “vicious anti-Israel propaganda” in course content and reading materials. “There has to be freedom of speech, but content of poor academic quality should not be acceptable,” he says.
Citing a litany of incidents, including academics defending the Hamas attacks, Prof. Alan Johnson, the editor of Fathom magazine and a senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Center, says: “None of this should be a surprise. Intellectual incitement against Israel’s existence has been the stock in trade on campuses for decades.”
Intellectual incitement against Israel’s existence has been the stock in trade on campuses for decades
He notes US academic Judith Butler’s suggestion in 2006 that students should treat Hamas as “progressive and a part of the global left.”
“That’s what many have been doing since October 7,” says Johnson. “It’s a bloody disgrace.”
Part of the solution, believes Dr. Toby Simpson, director of the Wiener Holocaust Library, rests with better education about the Shoah. He says addressing the problem of antisemitism requires asking “hard questions about how we foster civic culture in Britain and elsewhere.”
Simpson cites research by the Claims Conference that found huge gaps in popular knowledge of the Holocaust around the world, particularly among younger generations.
“If there is hope of combating antisemitism more effectively, it surely rests in the evidence that young people continue to understand that the Holocaust and antisemitism are important subjects that they want to learn more about,” Simpson says. “We must not let these young people down.”
There is, however, one important bright spot in this grim picture: UK public opinion.
“The vast majority of the ordinary, decent British public have felt an innate revulsion towards those who seek to target Jews,” the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) Claudia Mendoza, argued in the Jewish Chronicle last week. “It is very easy to look at social media or recent demonstrations and imagine these alienated fringes represent the view of the whole country. But I plead with you not to believe that.”
Mendoza cited work the JLC has conducted with public opinion experts which found public support for Israel’s right to defend itself. While around one in five Britons say they sympathize more with the Palestinians than Israel, 10 times as many sympathize with Israel more than with Hamas. Twice as many members of the public said Hamas carried out its attacks simply to murder Jews rather than to defend Palestinians.
James Frayne, a founding partner at Public First, a public policy research agency, is similarly clear about where British public opinion lies.
“Most people were horrified by the terror attacks on Israel,” he says. “The complexity of Middle East politics means they initially found the protests confusing and remote. More recently, however, many have become irritated by the mass inconvenience resulting from the protests and angered the police haven’t sufficiently dealt with sporadic violence.”
Frayne added: “British people detest extremism and feel this exists around the margins of the protests. These sentiments are only likely to increase in coming weeks.”
A crucial test will come on November 26, when the Campaign Against Antisemitism has called a “national solidarity march” against antisemitism in London.
The fight against antisemitism is not, leading British politicians insist, a matter simply for the Jewish community.
“Antisemitism threatens liberal democracies and undermines community life,” says Pickles. “In Parliament, we stand by our Jewish citizens as they represent a fundamental part of the British identity. Their pain is our pain.”
And Pickles believes the role of the Jewish state in this battle is central.
“Israel is on the frontline fighting bigotry and barbarism,” he says. “That is why we are proud to stand by Israel.”
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