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Standing against anti-Semitism in the UK

As Lord Sacks has said, a society that cannot tolerate difference loses its humanity.

October 28, 2014 22:34
4 minute read.
Tower Bridge and the River Thame, London

Tower Bridge and the River Thames, London. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Last Sunday, in true northern fashion, the sun came out, it rained, and the sun came out again. Of course, the crowd of more than 2,000, stretching the length of Cathedral Gardens right up to the entrance to the National Football Museum, didn’t care about the weather.

Because on a mild Sunday afternoon, instead of taking down their succahs, they came to town in numbers to chant, sing, cheer and demonstrate their Jewish pride. They came from Manchester, Liverpool, from communities across the north and even Glasgow. Whether young or not so young, religious or secular, well dressed or casual, they were united in their enthusiasm and identity.

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But it was not just Jews who came. There were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, a delegation from the Kurdish community, and people of no religion at all who just wanted to show that they cared. One of them was a student from Liverpool who walked with me to the station. He had never heard of Jews until he was a teenager. Now, studying History at Manchester University, he told me he was so fascinated with the Jewish story that he wanted to convert.

For two hours as speaker after speaker condemned anti-Semitism, the crowd’s enthusiasm never flagged. If anything, they were energized when reminded of the boycotters who failed to close down Manchester’s Kedem store, the racist placards and abuse shown by a section of the Gaza demonstrators in the summer and the attacks on Israel for defending itself from rockets. They needed no reminding about last week’s House of Commons debate on recognizing a state of Palestine, and loudly showed their approval when I called it a depressing and shameful spectacle that only served to demonstrate the shocking ignorance of too many of our elected members of Parliament.

What led us to last Sunday? In July and August Israel was at war for 50 days. It was a war started by Hamas, which fired 4,000 rockets at Israel. But when Israel defended itself by acting against the launching sites, the world reacted with condemnation.

In its 66 years of existence Israel’s Arab neighbors have not allowed it a single day of peace or even recognition. They began war after war, and ever since 1967 whenever Israel defended itself the world reacted with condemnation. Natan Sharansky was right to point to three indicators of anti-Semitism when it comes to criticism of Israel: demonization – treating Israel as somehow uniquely evil; Two, delegitimization – denying Israel the right to exist; Three, double standards – reacting towards Israel in a way you wouldn’t react toward any other country. We have sadly seen far too much of “the three Ds” in recent weeks.

How then do we react against anti-Semitism, the world’s longest hatred? First and foremost, we must be proud of our Jewishness and never afraid to show it.

We must turn up the volume of Jewish life. We must defend ourselves against attacks from wherever they may come – and that includes robustly defending attacks on shechita and brit mila. We must promote the extraordinary achievements of the State of Israel and rebut the slurs.

In a poignant and memorable moment, Shoah survivor Henry Ferster reminded his audience that he knew all too well the evils of anti-Semitism. Baring his arm and declaring, “I am not a number, I am a human being,” he drew the loudest cheers of all.

Talking to many in the crowd it was clear to me that Manchester’s community was proud and self-confident. While few had directly experienced anti-Semitism, they felt its pervasive presence during Operation Protective Edge, when the media lingered on death and destruction in Gaza and emotive demonstrators filled the streets. The rally was their opportunity to register their concern, and they were determined to use it. Almost everyone wore the specially produced stickers proclaiming they were Proud to be Jewish, and they meant it.

And in the end, they took to heart the message that the way to combat our enemies was to turn up the volume of Jewish life and never be ashamed of who we are. We will defend ourselves against attacks from wherever they may come, including against Jewish rights and our Jewish way of life. We will robustly defend the world’s only Jewish nation-state against the slurs. When we defend ourselves we will do so calmly, rationally and based on the facts.

The Manchester community, working with the local council and police, has successfully mobilized in support of the Kedem store. Representative bodies and grassroots groups have shown that when they work together, they can achieve much. We can all learn from them.

We must win allies, because we Jews cannot fight anti-Semitism alone. And that is why we greatly appreciated the presence of our friends at the rally, including Jim Murphy MP, Christians for Israel, the Kurdish community, Rev. Mike Fryer and all who showed their support. The address by Chancellor George Osborne that was read out was greatly appreciated, too, and showed that the government retains a zero tolerance attitude to any form of anti-Semitism.

When it was all over, the crowd simply refused to go home. They danced and sang to the music and simply enjoyed the coming together. It was a genuinely uplifting moment. The Manchester and northern communities set an example to us all.

The Board, on behalf of the 300,000-strong UK Jewish community, shall continue to remind government, opposition and everyone in the public space that prejudice may start against the Jews but it never ends with the Jews. As Lord Sacks has said, a society that cannot tolerate difference loses its humanity.

The author is vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

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