Jewish leaders wary of accelerating cycle of fear in Britain

Home secretary Theresa May’s speech amplified sense of threat, says Rabbi Miriam Berger

The guard opens the gate to the grounds of the Finchley Reform Synagogue on Fallow Lane and greets Rabbi Miriam Berger and her three-year-old son.

The guard is a permanent presence, typical of the kind of security that has long become the norm at Jewish institutions – though since the Paris attacks armed police patrols can be seen occasionally in the Barnet borough.

“We spend a huge part of the synagogue’s budget on security. That’s ludicrous. We do what every Jewish organisation does. Nobody is going to be the one to say, ‘No, we shouldn’t do that’. I would love to be the rabbi who says I don’t want to spend money like that,” Berger says.

Last week, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism reported that Britain’s 260,000 Jews – 0.5 per cent of the population – are feeling “increasingly threatened” in the wake of the Paris supermarket attack, and a general rise in anti-Semitic feeling in Britain.


“Britain is at a tipping point: unless anti-Semitism is met with zero tolerance, it will continue to grow and British Jews may increasingly question their place in their own country,” it warned.

Fearful of remaining

The warning caused home secretary

Theresa May

to say: “I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom would say they were fearful of remaining here in the United Kingdom.”

However, the reality on the ground in north London is more complicated, and far more nuanced. The local police in Finchley have been in touch with the synagogue; so, too, has local Conservative, Mike Freer.

“It is amazing that they are taking things so seriously but it also perpetuates the cycle of fear,” says Berger, after her son skips into the kindergarten downstairs.

“It’s quite admirable and very kind but it all feeds the perception that the police must know something that we don’t.”

The home secretary’s speech “amplified the sense of threat”, she says.

“I do not think that that is where we are at. But everyone is looking over their shoulder and responding to the messages that they are getting from within the Jewish community.”

Results from polling show that nearly half of all British Jews believe they may not have a long-term future in Europe. However, Berger’s superior in Movement for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, warns of the dangers of people “crying wolf”.

Janner-Klausner says the survey was “completely unscientific”, that it asked only negatively toned questions and “pressed all of people’s fear buttons”.

“Yes, people are anxious,” she said, “but warnings like this do not reflect the reality on the ground.”

Meetings with the home secretary and other senior politicians are always welcome, but heightened fears now are premature, she goes on. “But what happens if you have already done that and then something happens, God forbid?”

Last year, the Jewish Policy Research Institute reported that levels of anti-Semitism in the UK were significantly lower than in other western European countries, and that Jews in Britain feel noticeably less anxious than those elsewhere in Europe.

However, Orthodox Jews are “measurably more anxious about, and susceptible to anti-Semitic incidents, than non-Orthodox Jews”, with over half of all Orthodox Jews worrying that they will become a victim, the institute reported.

It says the claim that 45 per cent of all British adults hold anti-Semitic views “does not stand up to scrutiny and that the claim that over half of all of British Jews believe they have no future in Europe drew on research “that is methodologically flawed”.

Attacks on Israel

The situation has been complicated by last year’s attacks on Israel, and the subsequent protests over Israel’s retaliation that left more than 2,000 people dead. Such anti-Israel declarations are automatically interpreted in some Jewish quarters as anti-Semitism.

“Some people went to pro-Israel rallies about Gaza. There were incidents but I don’t think that that is anti-Semitism. People put themselves into a situation where they were making an argument. People will respond,” says Berger.

Back in Finchley, a Torah scroll is displayed in a cabinet. Two hundred years old, it came from Uhrineves, a small farming town 15 miles north of Prague. In September 1942, its Jews were taken to the Terezin ghetto, and later to Auschwitz and Treblinka. Just 14 survived.

“I think there have been some very ill-timed phrases from within the Jewish community . The claim that this is about 1930s Europe, for example. It isn’t. That is not to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist.

In the aftermath of the brutal killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby 18 months ago in Woolwich, the synagogue hosted the Somali Bravanese Al-Rahma Islamic Centre after its mosque had been torched.

“It must be tough for the Muslim community, to see all Muslims lumped together when something bad happens,” says Berger. “This is something that we do know about from the 1930s, the burning of synagogues,” she said.