“WE JEWS used to keep our heads down, so no one would notice us. We didn’t want to stand out or be seen as different. We just wanted to get on and be accepted as part of British society like everyone else. But now it’s all become very different. Things have changed…”
As the sun goes down on Friday night a north London Jewish family is gathered around the dinner table, like many others from Britain’s 291,000-strong Jewish community, for the ancient ritual that marks the beginning of Shabbat. Here are prayers and the blessing of bread and wine – and as befits a ceremony designed to herald the day of rest, it’s followed by animated conversation about the events of the past seven days.
This week, with three generations of this large extended family present, ranging in age from 80 to eight, you might expect the chatter over the chicken soup and kneidlach to be the Test Match score, or the Labour leadership contest. Or who’s going to watch the new Bake-Off series on TV. Instead, there’s something more sombre on the agenda – a worrying new report detailing the rise of anti-semitism in Britain.
According to the Community Security Trust – a charity that monitors anti-semitism – the number of anti-semitic incidents in the UK has risen by 53 per cent compared with 2014, with 473 such incidents recorded between January and June. These included 44 violent assaults, two involving “extreme violence” as well as damage and desecration of Jewish property and threats on social media.
Most around the table tonight have long shrugged off the snobbish prejudice against Jews that clung to British society in the 1950s and 1960s – it was partly why Grandpa Arnold’s parents anglicised their names when they arrived to escape oppression in Poland. But now the atmosphere has palpably changed – and the word everyone mentions is “fear”.
The murder of Jewish shoppers at a Parisian kosher supermarket in January after the killing of 12 people at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine has sent a shiver down the spine of British Jews. As the former chief rabbi Lord Sacks put it: “An ancient hatred has been reborn.”
For Adrienne, an HR consultant and mother of three boys, this means she has to wear a stab-proof vest when doing parental duty at her synagogue. “How could I imagine I would ever have to do this? The first time I wore it I was petrified…” For Aunt Pat, seeing the images of the hostages at the Paris supermarket has permanently coloured her routine trips to the kosher grocery in Golders Green.
Fo me it is especially surreal. As a practising Christian married into a Jewish family and bringing up our young children in the Jewish faith, I’m both part of it and not. But that doesn’t make what is happening any less horrifying. Unlike those journalists who pose as members of beleaguered communities to get a little extra grit in their reporting, I cannot scuttle back into the comfort of normal life.
Now my eight-year-old daughter has to do counter-terrorism exercises at her Sunday school, practising how to hide and take cover under furniture in case the synagogue is attacked. Despite the fact that it is guarded by ex Israeli-army heavies, bulging with all sorts of kit, there is no way that this unfortified building, on “the front line” in a prominent part of London’s West End, could withstand being stormed in the style of the Paris attacks.
Once, I would drop her off and collect her later. Now I stay around anxiously in the building. Like other parents, I feel we must be there in case the unthinkable happens. (Although we have all passionately debated which is worse – instilling tiny children with a permanent fear of terror, or ignoring it and taking our chances. There is no obvious answer.) As for me, I’ve come to regard the Je Suis Juif tag, casually assumed by many non-Jews in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, as something rather more than a stunt – it is now hard-wired into my identity.
Yet there are comic moments, too – albeit sometimes grim. The rabbi who comes to our house to teach our son understandably hides his kippah (skull cap) under a hat and finds himself mistaken for the priest from the Greek Orthodox cathedral at the end of the road because they sport similarly luxuriant beards. A Hassidic rabbi told me how he became an object of fascination for children in his area because they thought his broad-brimmed hat was fancy dress for Halloween.
All may not be as bleak as it seems. The CST’s latest statistics show that the number of anti-semitic incidents is starting to tail off again. People are increasingly willing to speak out if they are targeted. And there are no signs that the oft-predicted exodus of Jews to Israel is happening. In fact some UK synagogues report quite the opposite, with new memberships from French professionals working in the UK who perceive Britain to be a much more congenial place to be Jewish.
Despite the awfulness of recent events, some leading British Jews remain optimistic. Michael Helfgott, co-chair of the influential Hampstead United Synagogue, and a leading lawyer, tells me the story of his father Ben, now 85 and one of the last British survivors of the Holocaust as well as a former captain of the British Olympic weightlifting team. “Compared with the horrific experience of my father’s generation, many of whom died in the camps, I’ve had an idyllic existence living in such a tolerant society,” he says.
“Certainly there is fear. But what’s going on has also made us all more aware of the need to reach out to one another. People have rallied round. The police have given us great support. And our local [Muslim] MP is coming along to talk to to us. After all, what is happening to the Jews now can happen to Muslims and Christians, too.”
Michael Williams’s new book ‘The Trains Now Departed’ is published by Preface, a division of Penguin Random House