The alarming spike in anti-Semitism in Europe since the start of Israel’s military operation against terrorists in Gaza has hit headlines repeatedly in the past few weeks, both in Europe itself as well as further afield.
While not as seriously affected as countries on the European continent – such as France, Holland, Belgium, or Germany, where anti-Semitism has reached fever-pitch – the UK’s Jewish community has also been shaken by a serious rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, stoked by an increasingly familiar and tawdry alliance of the militant-left, Islamist groups and elements from the fringe-right.
The Community Security Trust (CST), which monitors and combats anti-Semitism in the UK, has recorded the second-highest level of anti-Semitism in the country since its records began (the highest being during Operation Cast Lead).
In July alone more than 200 anti-Semitic incidents were reported, many of them at political demonstrations – a staggering spike considering that the previous six months combined saw a total of 304 incidents. And when you add the fact that police sources say a significant number – perhaps even a majority – of anti-Semitic crimes go unreported, the picture looks grimmer still.
Against that backdrop, discontent by British Jews towards their community’s establishment leadership has itself hit record levels. A full-page ad in the Jewish Chronicle, published at the end of last week and addressed to the “elected” Board of Deputies of British Jews and "self-appointed" Jewish Leadership Council, demanded action after months of silence and bland assurances of "work behind the scenes" which few are buying.
"What are you actually doing about this situation? Apart from issuing the odd press release," asked the ad, which was sponsored anonymously and called for direct action such as large-scale demos protesting anti-Semitism.
Apparently rattled by the growing criticism, just days before the ad was published UK Jewish establishment groups called an unprecedented meeting of the Jewish community in London last Wednesday "to discuss" the increasingly intolerable situation.
It was an impressive show of unity and determination. More than a thousand people turned out and an overflow hall had to be arranged to accommodate everyone. People were clearly concerned, but there was also a remarkable sense of positive energy and no small measure of agitation – what are we going to do about it?
The proceedings began with a short but warmly-received address by Chief Rabbi Efraim Mirvis, who had changed his schedule at the last moment to deliver a message of encouragement and solidarity – chizuk – to the anxious throngs who had turned out from across the religious and political spectrum. To enthusiastic applause Rabbi Mirvis declared that he had no plans to cancel his upcoming trip to Israel (a staggering seventh since taking up the Chief Rabbinate just less than a year ago) despite the ongoing conflict, and expressed his hope to see other British Jews joining him there as a concrete way of standing by the Jewish state through difficult times.
Then it got really interesting.
Whereas the event had been billed as a conference to discuss how to deal with the wave of Jew-hatred in Europe that is now battering the shores of Great Britain, what actually occurred was something of a mixture between a public trial and an election campaign by embattled (though admittedly largely unelected) communal politicians.
In quick succession, an impressive array of leaders from the Jewish and pro-Israel establishment stood to answer a question that was on the entire community’s lips long before the current crisis: what do they actually do? How are the millions of pounds in their coffers being spent for the good of the British Jewish community?
The organizations represented on the panel were BICOM (Britain Israel Communications & Research Center), and its “grassroots” branch, We Believe in Israel; the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA); the Board of Deputies (BoD); the CST; and the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC).
But there was a conspicuous absence which was less than encouraging. Of all the “establishment” groups, the one which most visibly and consistently advocates for Israel, and whose activists most regularly find themselves on the frontlines of the very struggle under discussion – the Zionist Federation – had not been invited.
“Why?” one person asked the panel’s chair, BoD President and JLC Chairman Vivian Wineman. He declined to answer.
Each organization’s CEO or President then proceeded to deliver his or her pitch, to varying degrees of success. The CST, largely respected by British Jews for its stoic and non-political campaign to monitor and combat anti-Semitism was well-received, and – although many had never actually heard of them – an impassioned plea by We Believe in Israel’s (non-Jewish) head for the community to better pressure its MPs to show solidarity with the people of Israel was appreciated by the crowd. Similarly, the UJIA’s account of its success in sending 1,225 teens to Israel despite the war, and its various relief efforts to embattled communities in southern Israel, engendered an enthusiastic applause from those present.
Less so some of the others.
There were blank looks as the Board of Deputy’s new Chief Executive gave a summary of the "difficult political environment" within which it was working, and assured those assembled that the BoD was working behind the scenes to lobby ministers – such as Business Secretary Vince Cable - to backtrack on some of their more hostile stances towards Israel. You could almost hear the eyes rolling.
And there was a deafening indifference and sense of mild bafflement when the JLC’s CEO explained its "fight" against BDS, generically comprised of "meetings with top business and media leaders"
"So what actually is the JLC?" one person asked me afterwards. Indeed.
In typically British fashion, each speaker was politely (if not always enthusiastically) applauded, even as some quietly snorted their disapproval.
Then questions and statement from the audience were taken, and it immediately became obvious that the most dynamic and effective activists were not sitting the stage with multimillion-pound budgets, but positioned "beneath" them – with no funds whatsoever but plenty of chutzpah.
Anat Koren, the leader of a newly formed activist group comprised of London’s growing Israeli community – the Israeli Forum Task Force – detailed the creative efforts it had led to present Israel’s case to the public, including a rocket siren flash mob in central London, with no help from the community leadership.
Then, one of the heads of the newly-established Campaign Against Anti-Semitism UK stood up to explain how his group was tracking Twitter and Facebook users posting anti-Semitic comments and incitement – and exposing them to their employers and to legal scrutiny. All this without receiving a single penny from the well-funded mainstream organizations.
One of the stars of the show was a young organizer of the recent creative protest by pro-Israel activists, who “infiltrated” the constituency of notorious anti-Israel MP George Galloway and courageously thumbed their noses at his declaration that his city was “Israeli-free”.
Smirks abounded when she said she had "no idea" who the people on the stage were – only that when she had reached out to the Board of Deputies for help she had been rebuffed. "Are you sure you had the right number?" was Wineman’s painfully embarrassing response.
Speaking to attendees before the meeting, it was clear expectations were low.
But what was also clear, both before and after the meeting, was that such low expectations would no longer be tolerated by a British Jewish community feeling increasingly vulnerable and unrepresented.
As the anonymous sponsor of the uncharacteristically angry Jewish Chronicle ad put it: "We are a strong and proud community and we want to hear our leaders shout loudly on our behalf."