Jews in Britain See Prejudice against Them on Rise

Arson attacks on synagogues escalate fears

By Sarah Liebowitz, Globe Correspondent

LONDON -- Recent arson attacks against two north London synagogues have fueled already heightened concerns among British Jews about what they perceive to be an escalating climate of anti-Semitism. More than 100 synagogues have been desecrated in Britain since 2000.

On June 17, perpetrators broke windows and threw burning material into the Orthodox United Synagogue in South Tottenham, near the predominantly Orthodox Jewish community of Stamford Hill, destroying prayer books smuggled out of Germany and Poland prior to World War II.

The next day, a fire at Aish HaTorah, a Jewish educational center in the north London suburb of Hendon, inflicted an estimated $450,000 of damage. Two handwritten Torah scrolls were torn up and used as kindling for the fire.

Investigations into the attacks are underway. Although both fires are being treated as suspicious racial incidents, London's Metropolitan Police insist that the two attacks are not linked.

"It is difficult to ascribe any one cause to this distressing phenomenon," commented Matt Baggott, head of race and diversity issues for the Association of Chief Police Officers, on a report from the Community Security Trust, which represents Britain's Jewish community on matters of anti-Semitism and security, on anti-Semitic incidents in 2003.

"Although the international scene no doubt plays its part, race and faith-hate behavior can have personal as well as political origins," Baggott said.

Britain is home to an estimated 300,000 Jews, two-thirds of whom reside in greater London, with the highest concentration living in the northwest of the city.

Compared with European countries such as France, where several synagogues were burned or firebombed in 2002 and 2003, Britain is not known for anti-Semitism.

But Michael Whine, spokesman for the Community Security Trust, said "we've seen since 2000 an annual increase in anti-Semitism, and we've seen an increase in violence." According to the Community Security Trust, 100 out of 350 anti-Semitic incidents in 2002 were related to Israel or the Middle East.

"Clearly incidents rise and fall when there's tension in the Middle East," added Whine. A report commissioned by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, showed a dramatic upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in April 2002, coinciding with the move of Israeli troops into cities in the West Bank.

According to the Community Security Trust, incidents of anti-Semitism in Britain increased by one-third from 2002 to 2003. In 1996, there were 31 incidents of anti-Semitic property damage and desecration; by 2003, that figure rose to 72.

The Jewish community in Britain was particularly shaken by a desecration in April 2002, when assailants at a synagogue in London's Finsbury Park, a neighborhood with a large Muslim population, painted swastikas over the lecturn and smeared excrement on the floor.

Two months later, an attack on a South Wales synagogue destroyed an 18th century scroll from Spain.

Jewish cemeteries also bear the weight of anti-Semitic vandalism. Nearly 400 Jewish graves were desecrated in Newham, London, in May 2003. In July 2003, vandals covered graves in a Jewish section of Southampton with swastikas.

Beyond physical acts of anti-Semitism, British Jews are concerned about what Whine calls "intellectual anti-Semitism, which often masquerades as anti-Zionism."

In two cases, politicians' comments have raised alarm. In January, Jenny Tonge, a member of Parliament from the Liberal Democratic Party, said of Palestinian suicide bombers, "I think if I had to live in that situation, and I say this advisedly, I might just consider becoming one myself."

In May 2003, Tam Dalyell, a veteran Labor Party member of Parliament, told Vanity Fair magazine that he feared Prime Minister Tony Blair was "being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers." When criticized for his remark, Dalyell claimed he was referring to the administrationof President Bush, rather than to Blair's advisers.

Before leaving his post this spring, Israel's ambassador to Britain, Zvi Shtauber, remarked during an interview with the Observer newspaper, "If there is a concern, it is a growing anti-Semitism, covered in a [veneer] of being anti-Israel, that is coming from the left."

Jewish leaders in other European countries have expressed concern about the new connection they see between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism. In a poll of Europeans done last fall for the European Union, a majority of respondents, 59 percent, said they viewed Israel as a threat to world peace.

In France, home to Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim populations, the Le Monde newspaper wrote in a November editorial that the "disapproval and condemnation of Israel's policy in the Palestinian territories have clearly lowered the barrier -- already unclear to some -- between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism."

Whine says anti-Semitism won't go away until the government recognizes that it "comes from new and different directions; increasingly it comes from Islamists, Arabs, the far left." Anti-Semitism, says Whine, "is like a virus that mutates."