In London, Jews hiding in plain sight

Students are taking off their yarmulkes and families are taking down their mezuzahs as the war in Gaza intensifies and antisemitism soars

LONDON — In the nearly four weeks since Hamas attacked Israel, Amy’s teenage son has been going to school in the loosest version of his school uniform. It is not just his yarmulke that he no longer wears, but his sweater, blazer and anything connecting him to the Jewish secondary school where he is a pupil. 

Amy’s younger children, meanwhile, now barely bat an eyelid at the increased security and occasional police presence outside their primary school. Games of “sleeping lions” — where pupils stay perfectly still under their desks while hiding from “burglars” — are now a regular occurrence. 

“Personally, I’ve never felt so scared,” said Amy, who asked not to give her full name to protect her children’s privacy.

The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity protecting British Jews, has recorded at least 805 antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7 — a 689% increase from the same period last year. 

The incidents include assaults, desecration of Jewish property, online abuse and mass production of antisemitic literature. 

Liverpool Street Station, a key transport hub — and where Jewish children escaping Nazi Germany arrived on the Kindertransport in the late 1930s —  was brought to a standstill at rush hour on Tuesday night as hundreds of protestors staged a sit-in, waving Palestinian flags and chanting, “From the river to the sea” while police looked on.

The protest came days after an estimated 100,000 people descended on London for the third consecutive weekend of pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Once again, they came waving flags and brandishing hate-filled banners supporting Hamas, which have sent shockwaves through the city’s Jewish community. 

Many, including Amy, feel the authorities have been slow to act. 

“The amount of people at that march made me feel sick,” she said. “How can it be allowed for people to stand there and chant about killing all Jews and nothing be done?” 

“I’m scared for our kids and have lost all faith in humanity.”

Polling carried out by the UK-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research underscores why the crisis in Israel impacts so closely on this community. More than 7 out of 10 British Jews have family in Israel, while 90% have visited there at least once. 

Its research also revealed that 12% of adults across Britain “harbor deep ideological hatred towards Israel,” while 56% “hold at least one anti-Israel idea” that many Jews would perceive as antisemitic.

Rabbi David Meyer, CEO of Partnerships for Jewish Schools (PaJes), has been working closely with the government to guarantee the security of Jewish students.

“It’s a very sorry situation when advice is given to children to hide any signs of their Jewish identity,” he said. 

Schools, like all Jewish institutions, are at increased risk of attack, but students often also feel unsafe on public transportation, as highlighted by the recent case of a subway operator suspended for leading a chant of ”free Palestine” onboard.

PaJes is working with others in the community and beyond  — as well as with parents — to both guarantee the security of children and support their mental health. 

“Their well-being is a very big issue,” he said, adding that parents as well as children should be aware of the impact of social media. 

“We are living in a safe society where the vast majority of people are supportive of the Jewish community,” Meyer said. “It is incumbent on us to be cautious and understanding of the dangers present at this time, but at the same time it’s really important for us not to create an unreasonable sense of fear or discomfort.”

The husband of US Vice President Kamala Harris, Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff (left) and Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the United States to the United Kingdom, Matthew Palmer (center right), meeting members of the UK Jewish community at Wychwood House in London. Wednesday November 1, 2023.

But the reality is that in 2023, London has become increasingly inhospitable to Jews. Leading academics are calling for “intifada until victory,” reporters on the BBC refuse to refer to Hamas as a terrorist organization, anti-Israel hate is common at soccer matches and kosher restaurants  have been vandalized.

So it’s hardly surprising that many parents of schoolchildren feel vulnerable. Jamie, a father of two who does not want to give his full name, lives near his children’s school, where he says there has been an atmosphere of distress and anxiety since the Hamas attacks. 

And parents’ concerns are not just about the Jewish school being subject to reprisals. 

“I’ve taken our mezuzah down,” said Jamie. “We get a lot of deliveries and you just don’t know who’s dropping off a package or delivering a takeout.”

There have been many occasions this year when Sharon Shochat proudly surrounded herself with Israeli flags in central London.  

An Israeli citizen who has lived in London for almost two decades, Shochat organized London’s pro-democracy protests — in solidarity with those in Israel — against the Israeli government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary. 

She no longer feels so confident in her public Jewish expression, however. “My son received very clear instructions from me not to speak Hebrew out in public,” she said. 

Shochat’s stance as a volunteer organizer shifted dramatically after Oct. 7.

“The whole movement around the world pivoted overnight,” she said. Now, Shochat is busy mobilizing supporters for a different cause. 

Today, she is the U.K. voice for the Hostages and Missing Families Forum. She has been instrumental in staging vigils, ensuring press coverage and keeping the stories of the distraught families in the media. 

“The transition was very natural,” she said. If before we were defending Israeli democracy, we’re now defending Israel. The efforts are more humanitarian in nature, but we are still holding the Israeli government responsible for this tremendous failure in security and support for civilians.”

Shochat and others have also helped hundreds of Israelis — with everything from accommodation to childcare — who have fled the conflict for Britain. 

Just steps away from where an empty Shabbat table was set up in north London for the hostages last week, there are remnants of the posters of the missing hostages, callously ripped down. 

Sadly, that response is not wholly unexpected. 

“I think there’s a heightened sense of vulnerability in the community,” said Shochat. “The first 48 hours, I think, everyone was in shock in the community but also globally.” 

“When Israel responded and there were casualties on the Palestinian side, that is when we usually see a rise in pro-Palestinian activism in Europe and the U.K., and that’s when the sense of unsafety started.” 

Shochat said the pro-Palestinian demonstrations “sent waves of concern and more shock because there was no condemnation, not just by Palestinians but also by their supporters. Worse than that, we saw glorification of Hamas’ actions and a call for the eradication of Israel with slogans like ‘from the river to the sea.’”

One group that has been particularly bearing the brunt is students. In an interview with Times Radio, Edward Isaacs, president of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), revealed that he and several others have received death threats. 

“We are seeing Jewish students who are deeply anxious about loved ones who have been taken hostage by Hamas. And this is all happening in the wider context of many of their peers being part of student societies and glorifying and celebrating the actions of Hamas,” he said.

While Isaacs applauded the government for backing the Jewish community, he said much needed to be done on campus and called on universities to show “zero tolerance.” 

The vulnerability is not new. Just a few years ago, the community felt deeply threatened when the opposition Labour party was led by Jeremy Corbyn. 

“I thought it couldn’t get any worse,” said Stephen Silverman, director of investigations and enforcement at the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA).

“But what we’re seeing now is off the scale. I have never known such a sense of fear and isolation within the Jewish community. There’s such a sense of abandonment by institutions — news organizations, policing, doctors, the legal profession — it’s affected the way Jews interact with the rest of society.”

Silverman added: “We have seen everything from complete callous disregard for what actually happened to outright hatred.

“This isn’t just happening in the U.K. — it’s happening in Europe and the U.S. and elsewhere. It’s all connected. It feels like part of the same thing and nobody feels that it couldn’t happen here.”

The advent of the internet, and specifically social media, has been key, said Silverman. 

“That radicalization on social media has been going on for as long as social media has been in people’s lives. Now it’s pouring petrol on the fire,” he said. 

Emma Sosnow, who returned to London after more than 20 years living in India, knows all about that.

It was while in India that Sosnow became a regular on the psychedelic trance scene. As such, she felt closely connected to the horrifying Nova music festival massacre in southern Israel. Some of those killed at the festival were her friends.

Sosnow has been regularly posting about the terror attack, as well as commenting on other people’s updates — until a non-Jewish friend began to message her privately about her posts. 

Sosnow said it led to a conflict after she realized her friend was “imagining that actually I was responsible for what was going on in Israel and I was responsible for what the Israeli army was doing in Gaza… and the whole thing just became crystal clear: This is what antisemitism is.”

Sosnow said she tried to explain how she was feeling to her friend, who had lost her mother. She said: “It’s like you’re sitting in the room, your mother’s died, and someone’s run into the room and said, ‘Why are you crying for your mum? There’s a woman who’s just died down the road.’ And you’re [saying], ‘Sorry, how can I possibly be caring about that woman right now? I would on any other day, but right now I’m sitting in my grief.’”

Michelle Rosenberg, community editor of the Jewish News, has been working with her colleagues around the clock to cover the crisis.

“There has never been a more important time to be doing this,” she said. “It’s a profound responsibility.”

She added: “There was life before October 7 and life after — everything else seems so utterly frivolous and I don’t think things will ever be the same. What’s out there is so ugly and so violent. It’s a Pandora’s box and nobody knows how we’re going to close it.”

But for all the tragedy and sadness, Rosenberg highlights the slimmest of silver linings.

“Amid all the stress and horror, we have also been inundated by uplifting and heartwarming stories of unbelievable community support and togetherness. The Jewish communities have rallied together like nothing any of us has ever seen.” 

She added: “The vigils that I’ve been to have been phenomenal. I think the mood here is that people have never been so proud or so scared to be Jewish at the same time.”

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