By Lianne Kolirin
Calls for a million people to join a pro-Palestinian march on Remembrance Day are sending chills through Britain’s Jewish community, which has spent the past month facing unprecedented antisemitism.
Organisers of the Million March for Palestine have called on supporters to “make this the biggest march in history”, as they lay on coaches for demonstrators from around the country.
The march will be the fifth of its kind to take place in the capital, held every Saturday since the Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7.
Writing in The Times this weekend, the Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis warned of the “hateful extremism” at these protests. “At the very moment when it should be clearer than ever what is meant by Hamas’s ‘resistance’, ‘jihad’, ‘uprising’, or ‘intifada’, more and more people are now openly calling for these things in cities across Britain and the world,” he said. “This is hateful extremism. We must have the moral courage to call it by its name and to face it down.”
He called for greater moral clarity in the public response to the war in Israel and Gaza, saying the lines were blurred. “Advocating for the welfare of innocent Palestinians must go hand in hand with a clear-eyed condemnation of the barbarity of Hamas,” he said.
The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity protecting British Jews, has recorded at least 1,019 antisemitic incidents since October 7 — a 537 per cent increase on the same period last year. The incidents include assaults, desecration of Jewish property, online abuse and mass production of antisemitic literature.
On Sunday morning Parliament Square was covered in Union Jacks, the blue-and-white Star of David and posters of the 242 people being held hostage in Gaza.
Organisers spoke of 3,000 turning out for the event, a number that while impressive is dwarfed by the huge crowds turning up to condemn Israel and chants of a free Palestine “from the river to the sea”, widely construed by the Jewish community as a call for genocide.
Many in the community have avoided central London in recent weeks out of fear, intimidation and frustration at the authorities’ reluctance to act.
Last week the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) sent an open letter to the Metropolitan Police, signed by 15 King’s Counsel lawyers, requesting an urgent review of the approach to public disorder and terrorism offences.
A spokesman for the campaign told the Religion Media Centre: “Every Saturday, central London is becoming a hostile, no-go zone for Jews. It is astounding at how quickly this has become the new ‘norm’.”
Demanding action from the authorities, he continued: “It remains to be seen how the British public will react to yet another hate-filled march through London during the solemn armistice weekend, when we remember those who fought for Britain and western values for our freedoms and against antisemitic hatred.”
Events in Israel and the subsequent ripple effects around the world have led to a marked rise in synagogue attendances here in Britain.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue told the RMC: “British Jews are in a state of turmoil that has not been experienced for several decades: shocked at the surprise Hamas attack, appalled by the savagery that accompanied it, horrified at the Israeli deaths, equally upset by the Palestinian civilian deaths, fearful of more bloodshed in the immediate future and in a state of despair as to whether there will ever be peace in the region.”
He said that “many have been taken aback by the level of hostility” towards them, adding: “We have had more attendances at services as a result of existing members wanting to express solidarity with Israel and to feel the warmth of communal camaraderie.
“There have also been a significant number of Jewish people in the area who previously had no contact with the synagogue who have now come forward to join it.”
The spike in antisemitism has led Jewish schools to advise pupils to remove religious symbols and identifying elements of their uniform. Some within the community feel so worried that they have even removed their mezuzah — a religious parchment enclosed in an oblong case — from their front doors. Others, however, refuse to be cowed.
Writer and television producer Ben Paul, 53, is heavily involved in fighting antisemitism online, while also leading the parent-teacher association at his children’s Jewish school.
“Our security has been beefed up and the kids have to do safety practices in case of attacks. We try to assuage fears, to say we are working with police and the Community Security Trust,” he said.
“It’s a f***ing kids’ school,” he sighed, barely masking his anger and frustration. “My four-year-old has joined and he’s being taught how to hide in case of attacks. He’s a child — it brings me to tears just to talk about it.”
Mr Paul is married to an Israeli, whose cousin is among the hostages in Gaza, and was one of three women featured in a gut-wrenching video put out by Hamas last week. He is one of a team of volunteers plastering posters of the kidnapped around the capital.
“This is supposed to be a fairly progressive liberal community,” he said of his home in Muswell Hill, north London. “I’ve been putting up kidnapped posters on the bus stops and relatively safe spaces around Muswell Hill where I live. They are ripped down every time and ‘free Palestine’ was written on one of them. It makes you aware of who your neighbours are.”
Part of the issue, as he sees it, relates back to the British leftwingers’ issue with antisemitism. “You see the make-up on these Free Palestine rallies and it’s Muslim and it’s white progressives. I can’t comment on the Muslim aspect of it — they have a horse in the race, but the white progressive community that I live in does not have a horse in the race and they make life uncomfortable,” he said.
JW3, the Jewish community centre in north London, describes itself as the “postcode for Jewish life”. Its chief executive, Raymond Simonson, said it had the second most expensive security bill among community organisations, after the Israeli embassy.
“That amount has significantly increased since 7 October but our whole point is to remain open,” he said, adding that the centre and its workforce was open to everyone.
“Some of the security is what people can see and some, like the technology, they can’t. We couldn’t open without it,” he said. “We also have the local police who have been amazing.”
Mr Simonson, who describes himself as a “turn-up-the-volume kind of Jew”, added: “At the same time, I have always said if I have to take off my Magen David [the Star of David] in order to live here, I won’t live here.
“If I get to the point where the only way I can live in London is by hiding my Jewishness or even dialling it down, then I won’t live here. But I believe this is still inherently a safe and tolerant place to be Jewish.
“I think the people who are full of hate and spite and anti-Jewish racism are, without question, a minority — a very loud minority. They don’t hesitate to dial their volume up and of course social media amplifies that.”
Mr Simonson described how the issue is playing out within his own family. His 12-year-old daughter has expressed concerns about wearing her Star of David at her non-Jewish school, while his 79-year-old mother got caught up in an anti-Israel protest.
“My mother was born in Nazi-occupied France, so many of her immediate family were murdered in Auschwitz,” he said. She was travelling home on the Tube from some voluntary work in central London on a Saturday afternoon when she was confronted by the hateful rhetoric.
“It was packed with people waving Palestinian flags which I don’t have a problem with. But then all of a sudden there were people with signs with the Star of David crossed out and with swastikas all over it.
“Equating Jews with Nazis is as offensive a statement as you can get for Jews … standing right in front of a Holocaust survivor,” he said. “The last photo we have of her own grandmother is wearing the yellow star before she was taken to Auschwitz. When she got off the Tube she called us and said how frightened she was by this incident.
“She went home and she could have stayed in for the rest of the weekend. But she’s amazing — she got up the next day and put on her Magen David and got the bus to JW3 where she volunteered. I was so proud of her. In her own way, it was a little act of defiance.”
Awful as the situation is, Mr Simonson holds on to some hope. “We don’t want people to use this as an opportunity to drive a wedge between us,” he said of his Muslim friends and colleagues. “We mourn and grieve the loss of our families but our hearts are breaking for the loss of Palestinian civilian lives.
“The vast majority of British Jews, whether they say it publicly or not, are also depressed and heartbroken at the loss of innocent Palestinian lives.” He added: “There are lots of conversations going on behind the scenes. It’s very difficult, but there are some amazing things going on.”
Somebody working on such initiatives is Laura Marks, who this year was appointed a CBE for services to inter-faith relations, Holocaust and genocide commemoration and the empowerment of women.
Ms Marks, the founder of Mitzvah Day and co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish women’s network Nisa-Nashim, admitted that relations between the two communities had been affected, but that interaction was now more important than ever. The emotions around Israel Palestine run very very deep,” she said.
“So, holding together Jewish-Muslim relations is very difficult at the moment but there are some glimmers of hope.”
Women are key, she believes, as they are natural “peacemakers”. She said: “I look at what’s going on and it breaks my heart and it should break all our hearts. Just because there are Israeli children dying, doesn’t mean I can’t care about the Palestinian children dying. My heart is big enough. Because I weep for one, it doesn’t mean to say I can’t weep for the other.”
Jews and Muslims are coming together under both organisations that Ms Marks has set up, with a range of events running throughout this month.
“How much do any of us want the hate going on to be imported to our streets? I think that’s something we can all agree on. The massive rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia is to none of our advantages.
“It tears us all apart and means our kids are growing up in an environment which feels unsafe. We have to say that we can’t control what’s going on there but we have to control what’s going on here.”