Can the growing influence of a violent minority be stemmed via engagement?
Can the growing influence of a violent minority be stemmed via engagement?Reuters

As a British-born Jew born it is a source of endless intrigue for me to hear the impressions my brethren from elsewhere in the world have of British Jewry. American and Israeli Jews in particular commonly envision a community under siege, shrinking, living in fear, counting down the months and years to its demise - essentially an English-speaking version of French Jewry.

"There is no future for Jews in the UK," I am confidently informed on a regular basis, often by people who have never even stepped foot in the country.

It is of course true that British Jews face a range of challenges today; from rising anti-Semitism to assimilation and questions of Jewish identity and more. It is also true that since last summer's surge in levels of anti-Semitism throughout Europe (which have since returned more or less to "normal" levels, whatever that means) many British Jews have been questioning their place in the UK as never before. The fear that Islamist terrorism could strike British Jews as it has repeatedly struck their French brethren is a real one.

But it is also true - as anyone familiar with the community can attest to - that far from being a dying, fearful community, UK Jewry (much like the British Isles) is an island unto itself when it comes to events on the European continent. Apart from being the second-largest Jewish community in Europe (numbering some quarter of a million, most of whom live in England), Britain's Jewish community is strong, vibrant, diverse, and still thriving, if somewhat shaken both by the events of last summer and a series of deadly anti-Semitic terrorist attacks elsewhere in Europe over the past year in particular.

Since my aliyah just two years ago things have changed considerably. Apart from the trauma of summer 2014, when Israel's war with Gazan terrorists sparked a frightening surge in anti-Semitic attacks and arguably marked a watershed moment for British Jewry, British Jews have appointed a new Chief Rabbi, elected a new lay-leadership and spawned a host of new grassroots organizations which sprouted out of a feeling of frustration at the establishment's perceived failings in dealing with recent crises.

So on my latest trip back to the old country from the old-new country, I sat down with some of the key movers-and-shakers in the British Jewish community to hear what future they envision for the world's fifth-largest Jewish community.

My first interview was with the recently-elected President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD), the organization which has represented British Jews and Jewish rights since 1760.

Jonathan Arkush, a lawyer by trade, won a shock victory in last May's leadership elections, which came on the heels of a backlash by British Jews towards communal organizations many accused of weakness in the face of last summer's explosion of anti-Semitism. Arkush acknowledges his previous role as head of the Board's "Defense Division" against anti-Semitism played a significant part in securing his election, underlining the way in which concerns over anti-Semitism have rocketed to the top of British Jews' priorities. 

He is also known as a man unafraid to speak his mind - another asset in the eyes of a community growing increasingly frustrated with the "softly-softly" lobbying favored by his predecessors.

Jonathan Arkush
Jonathan ArkushCredit: Board of Deputies

Despite the challenges, Arkush is also an optimist. At the start of the interview he made a point of explicitly dismissing "this absurd perception some people have that we are living in Berlin 1933, and that we should all be packing up," noting that British Jewry - unlike most other European, and even American Jewish communities - is in fact slowly growing.

Even more strikingly, it's clear he's a man with a plan; during our conversation he outlined an ambitious vision for how British Jews can confront anti-Semitism and extremism head-on, and continue to thrive in the face of a unique set of challenges.

Between 'whispering' and 'shouting'

While warning against "complacency" in dealing with anti-Semitism, Arkush also cautioned that "overreacting" could be harmful as well, insisting that attacks against his predecessors for not doing enough were to some extent "unfair," and urging community members to bear in mind the limitations to what any communal leadership can actually achieve.

"It was ugly, because we saw anti-Semitism on our streets, and it gave our community a shock," he said of last summer's events, when anti-Israel demonstrations regularly spilled over into overt displays of anti-Semitic incitement, and even violent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions.

Deadly terrorist attacks elsewhere in Europe just months after - in Paris and Copenhagen - understandably "sent anxiety levels through the roof," he added, as British Jews wondered if they could be next. British intelligence agencies have been warning the Jewish community to be on high alert for several years now, and say an attack in the UK (though not necessarily its Jewish community) may simply be a matter of time.

Yet Arkush lamented the way in which communal leaders - including from the BoD - were "hissed and booed" at an unprecedented emergency meeting held in the midst of last summer's crisis, labeling their treatment "grossly unfair."

"The community were so upset that they vented their frustration not on the anti-Semites, but on community leaders for not being able to stop anti-Semitism!

"With all the goodwill in the world, with every resource we have in our community, can we stop anti-Semites voicing their views within the law? Of course not!"

He was quick to add, however, that communal organizations do have an obligation to fight hate crimes and incitement head-on, and to take the lead in both grassroots efforts and behind-the-scenes lobbying.

Did he share the popular perception that his predecessors were too keen on the "softly-softly" approach? Arkush is diplomatic: "I don't believe in whispering, but I don't believe in shouting either - I do believe in speaking up loudly and clearly for Jewish concerns."

He called for a sense of perspective, noting that by-and-large authorities were taking the threat of anti-Semitism seriously, in great part due to the Board's "behind the scenes" work, particularly its regular briefings to senior government ministers.

But he vowed to "speak out" more vocally against anti-Jewish prejudice in public.

And he also emphasized the progress made in the struggle against anti-Semitism over the past decades, viewing as particularly positive the fact that Britain's far-right is today "politically irrelevant" - unlike its ideological cousins elsewhere in Europe - as the recent failed attempts by neo-Nazis to intimidate the Jewish community proved. 

But he also admitted the growing threat from a contemporary "odd alliance" between the far-left and Muslim extremists, which has by now far outstripped the threat to the Jewish community from the extreme-right.

He accused the far-left of "using Israel as their whipping boy" to stay relevant in the post-Cold War era, and in doing so empowering today's religious fascists standing at the forefront of anti-Semitism in Europe.

"I don't think they have a genuine interests in the Palestinians - they certainly don't have an interest in real human rights abuses elsewhere in the world. So I think you can see Israel is more of a pretext to attack what they really despise, which is western liberal values," he says of the European hard-left.

"Last summer we saw how they have come together in a very odd alliance with extremist Muslims," who are themselves gaining ground among young British Muslims in particular.

The government is obligated to take the lead in the fight against that rising extremism, particularly since it is part of the wider jihadist threat to the UK. In particular, cracking down on online incitement should be a key focus of the government and law enforcement agencies, he said.

But British Jews can and should play a key part in that struggle as well, as they have done against neo-Nazism and other forms of fascism in the past, Arkush insists. However, in doing so they would need to leave their comfort zone to simultaneously confront the anti-Semites directly, while engaging with Muslim moderates.

That struggle begins by "directly confronting" manifestations of anti-Semitism. For example, he says that by highlighting incidents of anti-Semitism at anti-Israel rallies and directly challenging organizers, even the most extreme anti-Israel groups were shamed into reining-in the hate.

"Within a very short time of demonstrators holding up placards saying 'Hitler was right,' the organizers stamped on the phenomenon because they realized the damage it was causing."

The same was true of major supermarket chains, which were the target of militant BDS-supporters who ransacked Kosher food sections in a series of alarmingly violent anti-Semitic attacks.

The Board "spoke out strongly" against the incidents and complained directly to the companies involved as well as to government officials, who took measures to prevent such incidents from occurring in future.

Similarly, the Board approached the five British local councils who took the controversial and divisive decision to fly Palestinian flags during the Gaza conflict. "They acknowledged they learned form their experience and if they had the chance they would not do it again," Arkush said of the BoD's lobbying efforts.

"I think they understood it was so blatantly skewed and one-sided... it badly effected community cohesion. Jews living in those constituencies were left feeling vulnerable, thinking 'Hey, what are they saying about us, about Israel?'"

Jewish-Muslim engagement: A solution to the jihadist threat?

Arkush emphasized that while anti-Semitism in Britain is emanating largely from extremists within the Muslim community, most British Muslims are "reasonable, law-abiding and decent people, who if they have any feelings at all about the Middle East aren't very extreme about it." 

What's more, he notes that part of the reason the UK has not seen anything close to the level of anti-Semitism in France is the diversity of its Muslim community. Whereas France's Muslim community is largely made up of Arabs of north African origin, the UK's Muslims largely hail from outside of the Middle East, and as such have far less attachment to the Arab-Israeli conflict in general. They are also religious diverse; from pacifistic Ahmadis, Ishamailis and Sufis, to mainstream Shias and Sunnis, to more hardline and religiously-conservative members of those denominations.

But he warned that the creeping influence of Islamist ideologies - with internationalization of conflicts in the Middle East at their core - was gaining steam, with a growing minority being influenced by extremist Muslim TV channels and, even more crucially, on social media.

In fact, studies conducted last summer showed that the majority of the incitement and anti-Semitism online - including a viral "#HitlerWasRight" hashtag - originated in East Asia and to a lesser extent the Middle East, as opposed to British Muslims themselves.

Is more engagement the answer?
Is more engagement the answer?Credit: Reuters

Those radicalizing influences are feeding off of existing prejudices within the Muslim community regarding Jews, however, which are widespread despite most having never actually come into contact with a Jew in their life. Part of the struggle against Islamist anti-Semitism, then, must be to dispel such prejudices by engaging with ordinary Muslims, Arukush posits.

And it is British Jews who must take the lead in this effort, he says, due to their unique position. The UK stands among all European countries with major Jewish communities as the only country whose Jews were not subjected to the trauma of mass-deportation and execution during the Holocaust. This has instilled British Jewry with the confidence that comes with "long-term roots" in their diaspora country - a confidence they can harness to break barriers without compromising on their own values, Arkush says.

"I have made it a key priority of mine to engage much more strongly with British Muslims, because moderate as many of them are, many of them also live in Muslim councils and cities where they've never met a Jew in their life - but quite a lot of them have some very strange ideas about us."

He says he plans to organize public events in Muslim areas, challenging ordinary British Muslims to "come and talk to me. I'm prepared to stand before you as a Jew, as a Zionist - a proud Zionist - and let's have a debate, lets talk the hard talk.

"Maybe we won't agree about everything - we certainly won't agree about the Middle East - but let's agree to disagree. After all, we live in Britain - what is the point of importing a conflict 2,500 miles away? Why don't we try to export some peaceful sentiments instead?"

Perhaps even more crucially is the fact that on local issues, British Jews and Muslims share many of the same causes and concerns.

"We have a common agenda regarding shechita and halal, and circumcision - both of which are under concerted attack - and defending faith schools from the aggressive secularism that is there all around us in British society," Arkush pointed out, although he cautioned that more oversight was needed to ensure extremism wasn't being taught in Muslim schools. 

"That agenda is far more directly relevant to us than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of living in Britain," he emphasized.

Pointing to a recent speech by Prime Minister David Cameron - in which the Britian PM outlined his strategy for tackling Islamism - Arkush said healing Jewish-Muslim community relations in that way could also go a long way to solving some of the challenges posed by Islamic extremism to British society as a whole.

He praised Prime Minister David Cameron for highlighting the relationship between Islamist anti-Semitism and the wider jihadist threat to the west. "He is one of the few western leaders who gets it when it comes to address extremism and jihadism among a minority of Muslims."

"This is not just a Jewish issue, it's a British issue, it's about the future of Britain," Arkush said. "At the moment 5% of the country, three million people, are Muslims. In a decade that will double.

"If a significant percentage of those Muslims are not set on integration then what kind of country will we be handing to our children in 20 years' time?"

Engagement has its pitfalls, of course. The Board came under fire last summer when it signed a joint declaration with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) calling for an end to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism. But many within the Jewish community, along with several counter-extremism campaigners, accused the Board of legitimizing a group which is itself extremist and anti-Semitic.

Despite its attempts to model itself as a "mainstream" or "moderate" group that is representative of British Muslims, the British government cut ties to the MCB in 2009 after its links to extremism became apparent. It has controversially opposed Holocaust Memorial Day, and several high profile members and former members of the MCB have links to the Brotherhood, Hamas and other extremist groups. In 2009 the MCB's then-Deputy Secretary-General, Daud Abdullah, notoriously signed the Istanbul Declaration, which called for violence against supporters of Israel as well as British soldiers.

But Arkush defended the letter, an initiative he was key in promoting. Admitting that there are "elements in MCB which have links to extremism," he insisted it was a calculated risk which bore tangible results and took the wind out of the extremists' sails. "Every single audience I've spoken at since has accepted my argument that as soon as that statement was signed we immediately marginalized the extremists."

"The next time a Muslim would have gone into a supermarket to vandalize the Kosher section for example they would have been condemned by their own constituency," he added, claiming that following the letter there were no further attacks of that sort.

Still, there will be many who remain skeptical of engaging with "soft" Islamist groups like the MCB to combat more hardcore jihadist extremists. In his speech, David Cameron himself warned that "groups and organizations which do not advocate violence, but do promote parts of the extremist narrative" are part of the problem. 

"If you say violence in London isn't justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter - then you too are part of the problem," Cameron stated.

Learning to live as a diaspora community

Again, Arkush calls for "perspective." His strategy is a long-game, he cautions, and offers an intriguing analysis of the role Jews can play in a historic process currently taking place within the Muslim world.

"We've had 2,000 years' experience of living as a minority - Muslims have had almost none," he said. "They need to undergo and build a set of values that adjusts to that status. We're at a very early stage in that process.

"I am not excusing any of the extremism or anti-Semitism at all, but I am simply pointing out a cultural and social reality that they are new to this game."

Arkush believes that via engagement, British Jews - who overcame their status as impoverished immigrants to thrive as a community - can impart their hard-learned lessons to their Muslim fellow citizens, and in doing so play an invaluable role in the wider fight against Islamic extremism.

"I believe that by force of reasonable argument we can show them that there's a better way than feeling like aliens in their own countries."