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Antisemitism “on an unprecedented scale”, say British Jews

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(JTA) The ceasefire declared by Israel and Hamas after 11 days of fighting seems to be holding, but the after effects on Jews in Europe – especially in Britain – are still being felt.

As in previous rounds of Israeli military conflicts involving Palestinians over the past 20 years, antisemitic violence and intimidation have surged in Europe, where tens of thousands of protesters have marched and rallied at events that expressed rage toward Israel. Some have used the moment as a pretext to target Jewish people.

In the United Kingdom (UK), 116 antisemitic incidents have been reported since 9 May, the day Hamas started launching rockets into Israeli cities, compared with only 11 cases in the previous two weeks. In one incident on 16 May, a rabbi was beaten by two young men who hurled antisemitic slurs during the attack. The rabbi, Rafi Goodwin, sustained moderate injuries that required hospitalisation. Police arrested the alleged assailants, who also are accused of stealing Goodwin’s phone.

On Friday, after the ceasefire, a man broke into the car of an Orthodox Jewish man in a heavily Jewish part of London and assaulted him. The suspect was detained by passersby until police took him into custody, the Jewish News of London reported.

For British Jews, the spike has been terrifying. Some are feeling unsafe and wondering if they will stay in the UK. And it’s dashing the idea that Jews in the UK, where most Muslims are not from the Middle East, could avoid the level of antisemitic violence observed elsewhere in Europe.

“It’s the mobilisation, the impunity, the scale, the sheer misogyny, and the violence that’s so shocking this time around,” said Linzi Pinto, a Jewish mother of two from northern London. “It’s the worst it’s been. It’s terrifying, and we’re definitely questioning our future here. We’re fortunate to be able to leave.”

Like many other British Jews, Pinto was especially shocked by a convoy of at least 10 cars flying Palestinian flags and blasting music in Arabic that on 16 May, drove 200 miles (321km) from the northern city of Bradford to the heart of Jewish London, the Golders Green neighbourhood. One convoy rider shouted antisemitic insults and incitements to violence there, including “f— the Jews, rape their daughters”. Police have arrested four people in connection with the incident.

Earlier in the day, Goodwin was assaulted outside his synagogue in Chigwell, north of London, in what police eventually said was an antisemitic incident.

Pinto said her family recently purchased real estate in the United States and the antisemitic events – notably over the past two weeks – increasingly are making them contemplate a move across the Atlantic.

Victoria Prever of London recalled in a column for the Jewish Chronicle that on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, her two children had prepared cover stories in case they were asked on the street why they weren’t in school so as not to reveal that they attend a Jewish one that was closed for the holiday.

“My heart broke. What has happened that at primary school age, she is working out how to hide her Jewishness from strangers?” Prever, the Chronicle’s food editor, wrote of her 10-year-old daughter in the column. “Should we be more discreet? Would we be better off more integrated – in non-denominational schools?”

The convoy and related events have triggered dormant fears among British Jews.

“My grandparents were Holocaust survivors. I’m usually long asleep by now, but my stomach is in knots,” Becky Aizen, a historian and author who was born in Australia and has been living in London for many years, wrote on Twitter on 17 May. “This IS different. My DNA isn’t equipped.”

Many have echoed that feeling – that the intensity of antisemitic abuse in the UK is higher than in previous situations involving Israel.

“Antisemitism in the UK, sadly, always spikes when there is conflict in the Middle East, but this feels worse than ever,” wrote Luciana Berger, a former prominent Jewish Labour legislator who now works in public relations.

“This time it feels different. It feels more intense and far scarier,” Simon Cohen, a 36-year-old Jewish lawyer from London, wrote in a reply to Berger’s tweet.

The increase in antisemitic violence in London hasn’t changed the daily routine of Joseph Cohen, an Orthodox Jewish Israel activist whose focus is advocacy in especially hostile environments.

“I think especially in these times we have to be visible, we have to be present, and I will still walk around London with my tzitzit out, a big kippah, and a jumper labelled ‘Zionist’,” said Cohen, 37, who engages with Muslims at anti-Israel events for videos he posts on the website of his Israel Advocacy Movement charity.

But even Cohen acknowledges that he is “more fearful than ever before” because of the intensity of the current wave of anti-Israel and antisemitic animus that began with the fighting on 9 May.

“I’m dressing exactly the same way as I always have been, I’m going to the same places,” Cohen told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But I’m looking over my shoulder much more than I ordinarily would have. And I’m much more aware of who I’m talking to and basically where I am.”

Britain isn’t alone. Elsewhere, in places such as Vienna, Brussels, and Amsterdam, recent anti-Israel events have featured chants urging Jews to remember Khaybar, the site of a seventh-century massacre of Jews in Saudi Arabia, because “the army of Muhammad is returning” to kill them, as the chant goes.

Jonathan Arkush, a previous head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, isn’t convinced that the current spike in antisemitic incidents is unprecedented.

“I think the people are feeling the heat of the moment and are having an emotional reaction,” said Arkush, a lawyer and father of three who said he feels safe walking around London while wearing a kippah.

Broadly speaking, Arkush said, the UK’s antisemitism is mitigated by the fact that unlike in continental Europe, most British Muslims come from southern Asia and aren’t Arabs with roots in the Middle East.

“Antisemitism is still more prevalent among British Muslims than the general population,” he said, “but Israel occupies a far less central place in their worldview compared to Muslims in France.”

That may be changing with social media.

“When young British Muslims are surrounded by hate speech about Israel on their timeline, that may be eroding the buffer I’ve just described,” Arkush said.

In a 10 May panel discussion hosted by the 5pillars Muslim website, a British-Muslim imam from Birmingham called for “an announcement for jihad by Muslim majority states”. The imam, Asrar Rashid, also said Pakistan should fire missiles at Israel just as Iraq had in the 1990s, when “every Jew was running into his shelter, those with the European passport would be running back to Europe” as the “Jews are a cowardly nation”.

This sort of agitation by imams and some Muslim community leaders has existed for decades in the UK, a nation of 66 million, including three million Muslims and about 295 000 Jews. But it’s experiencing a resurgence following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, an anti-Israel politician who once called Hamas and Hezbollah his “friends”, to the head of the Labour Party.

Corbyn was replaced last year by a centrist, Keir Starmer, amid a highly covered scandal over the proliferation of antisemitism in Labour’s ranks under Corbyn, as well as his alleged failure and reluctance to deal with it. Both current and former chief rabbis of the UK have accused Corbyn of being antisemitic, an allegation he has denied.

“First, the Corbyn years have been traumatising to Jews, who still don’t trust Labour and for good reason,” Arkush said, alleging that Starmer hasn’t done enough to reform the party. “So they’re scarred.”

The Corbyn clique, Arkush said, “has placed Israel at the centre of the far-left movement, who are now rushing to use conflicts involving Israel politically.”

The agitation shows what “sentiments exist within a section of British Muslims and in our society,” he said. “But it will die down once hostilities end – until the next time.”

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Stories from hell: SA Jews remember 9/11

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September 11 2001 was 20 years ago and seemingly a million miles away, but for some South African Jews who were eye witness to the events, it remains close to home.

“I still have nightmares,” says Jonathan “Jonty” Kantor, who was meant to meet a friend at the World Trade Center (WTC) that day. He slept late, and woke to news of the attack, which profoundly changed his life.

“We didn’t know what was going on, and we honestly thought the world was coming to an end,” he says, a sentiment echoed by other South African Jews who were there. With all communication cut off, those who witnessed the chaos and horror had reason to believe it.

Kantor now lives in Johannesburg, but he was a student at Yeshiva Somayach Monsey at the time. He remembers that when he woke up, “everything was so quiet. Then I saw other students in a panic. They believed we were all about to die. They told me that planes had hit the WTC. I had always wanted to go there, and had arranged to meet a friend there that morning, but we both thankfully survived.”

He was also teaching a class whose students all had parents working at the WTC. By some miracle, all the parents survived. He also remembers that there were two brisses that day, which delayed people from going to work.

In the weeks that followed, “it was the same heaviness in the whole city that you see in a dead body. The only light was seeing Hatzolah rushing in to help. And you couldn’t walk more than a block without people hugging you.” This was in complete contrast to the city he had arrived in at the end of 2000, where he found people to be incredibly unfriendly.

Soon afterwards, he decided to return to South Africa. “I realised that nothing was more important than being with the people I love. 9/11 taught me that we shouldn’t take for granted the life we have. We complain about the small things, but they’re actually not important. Here in South Africa, we have a really good life, even with the difficulties. If we focused more on the positives, we could be happier.”

Port Elizabeth-born Grant Gochin, who now lives in Los Angeles, was supposed to be on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into Tower Two. “Our friends Dan, Ron, and their three-year-old son David had been on vacation in Rhode Island. We were in Manhattan. We were supposed to meet up and fly home together. My son, Bryce, was only about five months old. He was as cranky as hell. I was so frustrated that I said to [my husband], Russell, ‘Let’s just go home.’”

“We came home on the Monday. On the Tuesday morning we had the television on. The first plane hit, and I thought it had been an accident. Then United 175 hit, and I asked Russell, ‘Wasn’t that the flight we were supposed to be on?’ We realised that Dan, Ron, and David were dead.”

American born and bred Stacie Hasson now lives in Cape Town, and has some unsettling links to 9/11. Her close friend lived next door to lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, who lived and trained in South Florida in the months before the attack. “We would spend so much time at my friend’s house, and Atta would be around. He was always wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses,” she says.

Not only that, but she also lost a friend in the attack. “I remember exactly where I was at just 21 years old, learning that my childhood neighbour, Michelle Goldstein, lost her life in Tower Two shortly after calling her mother to say she was okay after Tower One was hit. She got married six months to the day before it happened. Finding Michelle’s name at the memorial was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for.”

“I saw people jumping out of the towers,” says Elise Barron Jankelowitz, who was visiting New York with her brother after attending her other brother’s wedding in Chicago. They were going to stay at a friend, but landed up staying at the Marriott Hotel that linked the Twin Towers.

“We arrived the night before, and woke up to a blast. The hotel’s alarm was going off. Our windows were starting to crack, and we saw smoke and debris.” At first they were told to stay in their rooms. If they had, they wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

“Eventually, they told us to get out. We got dressed, grabbed passports and travellers cheques, and started walking down the stairs from the 15th floor,” she says. “The lifts weren’t working. We heard people shout, ‘A body hit my [hotel] window!’ Lots of people were in pyjamas. As we were ushered out, policemen said, ‘Cover your head and run.’ As we were crossing the road, we heard this insane noise of a jet engine, and then the second plane hit.”

That was when they saw people jump. It was also when her brother told her “these buildings are coming down – we need to get away”. He also said they should stay near water in case they needed to jump in.

That was when the first building fell. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A man appeared and it looked like his eyes were bleeding. He was covered in ash. I gave him a bottle of water, and as he washed his face, he said, ‘I’ve just come from hell.’”

They were waiting by the Staten Island Ferry when the second tower fell. “We hid under a truck. Everyone thought bombs might fall, or another plane might hit.” Eventually, they made their way to Staten Island where they bought essentials and got hold of family. They lost everything they left in the hotel, but were grateful to be alive. “As we flew out of New York six days later, there were fighter jets on either side of us. I’m so grateful my brother thought so smartly. We went back a year later to retrace our steps.”

Rabbi Levi Avtzon, now rabbi of Linksfield Shul, was a 17-year-old yeshiva student when he saw the second plane hit. “In the corner of the large study hall, which was on the fourth floor of a large building in Brooklyn, there was a fire escape. If you stood there, you had a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline.” He heard that smoke was coming out of the towers, so he and others went to look. Some drifted away, but he stayed. “A plane suddenly showed up. I was sure it was from the fire department coming to spray water. A split second later, the top half of the south tower blew up. It looked like a 50-story fire – like a bubble of fire.”

Later, visiting Ground Zero, “I remember the stench. It was all-encompassing. The whole experience made me feel unsafe. I would stand at the same fire escape and check that the Empire State Building was still there. Twenty years later, I still struggle to make sense of the events of the day.”

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Abraham Accords, one year on

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This week a year ago, Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo switched on his television set and like the rest of the world, heard the surprise announcement that Bahrain, a tiny country of 33 islands situated between the Qatari peninsula and the north eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, was making peace with Israel.

Nonoo was stunned. As head of the Bahraini Jewish community that comprises only 36 Jews, he had no idea what had been happening behind closed doors.

“For me it came out of the blue,” he says while we walk through the local souk (marketplace) where his grandfather sold spices after arriving from Iraq in the early 1900s. The tiny shops on the cobbled streets all advertise the same clothing, spices, and antiques, regardless of what the pushy merchants claim as we walk past.

“We knew the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was signing peace with Israel and that was a huge step forward,” smiles Nonoo.

“We were thinking, ‘Oh G-d, is it going to be us next?’ But we didn’t know. And then, of course, after it was announced, all the newspapers wanted to know more details and I went to the foreign minister and said to him, ‘Listen, they’re all asking us to give information. So what do you want us to do?’ He said, ‘Well, just tell them whatever you want.’”

Just two days after the announcement, a signing ceremony was held at the White House.

Israel, the United States (US), the UAE, and Bahrain signed the historic Abraham Accords in which the latter two recognised, for the first time, the state of Israel and set about normalising diplomatic relations with her.

Later, two other Arab nations, Sudan and Morocco, followed suit and joined the Accords, raising the number of Arab states with formal diplomatic ties to Israel from two to six.

The Abraham Accords weren’t just a diplomatic victory. They opened up  collaboration on tourism, trade, technology, and more. But because they were a foreign policy win for former American president, Donald Trump, his successor, Joe Biden, didn’t exactly call attention to this year’s anniversary. In fact, the current US administration’s spokesperson has never used the term “Abraham Accords”.

Trump predicted at this time last year that about five more Gulf countries would sign similar normalisation agreements with Israel in the ensuing months. Although this hasn’t happened – nor is it expected to any time soon – the good news is that experts agree the inked deals, at least, are here to stay.

“For more than 70 years we have been in a state of no war, no peace, stagnation,” says Dr Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the chairperson of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence in Bahrain. We meet in his air-conditioned office where he regales me with stories about his first visit to Israel at the end of last year.

“This is a historic moment for us. My generation has wasted time with hatred, wars, and violence, as everyone knows. People in Bahrain have changed in recent years. If you mentioned Israelis 20 years ago, it would evoke war, violence, and hatred. Today it’s different.”

Al Khalifa insists most Bahrainis support the deal in spite of the Palestinians claiming to feel betrayed.

“We really have to end it. There’s no way that we can continue living in a state where we aren’t really in a war with Israel and we aren’t at peace. It should have been done years ago, especially as we in Bahrain have no enmity with Judaism as a religion. For us, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are one,” says Al Khalifa.

Bahrain’s Jewish community is one of the smallest in the world although its origins date back more than a century. Arabic sources record Jews living in the area at the time of the Islamic conquest in 630 CE.

Nonoo, sporting a black yarmulke, meets me at the souk at midday. It’s the worst time to visit as the temperature has climbed to 45 degrees Celsius and most prospective shoppers have gone home to return later in the evening. But as soon as they notice Nonoo, there’s a lot of “Salaam alaikum” and back-slapping.

“This is where commerce started in Bahrain,” he tells me, pausing to sip some dark Arabic coffee. “All these little shops sold mostly materials and Jews were very good at that. Many of the first Jews who came here, came from Iraq looking for opportunities. They had an edge because they were able to transact with suppliers from across Europe. They would take container loads of goods and sell them and pay the suppliers back later. There was so much Jewish participation in the market that on Saturdays, everything closed here for Shabbat. Even the local Bahrainis, the Muslims and Christians, used to close.”

Since the 2000s, Bahrain has had quiet relations with Israel and especially the local pro-Israel community didn’t need a lot of convincing to buy into the Accords. But several Bahrainis I talk to, off record, and who ask not to be named, say they are still suspicious of Israel and any peace agreement.

“You can’t expect us to change our views overnight,” one university student proclaims. “There’s still the occupation and Israel continues to build settlements on Palestinian land!”

But while there might be anti-Israel sentiment in some quarters, albeit the minority, Nonoo insists that antisemitism has never been a problem in the country. It’s a view echoed by everyone I meet. And Nonoo’s grandfather?

“If he was alive today, he wouldn’t believe that something like the Abraham Accords could happen. It’s absolutely amazing,” his grandson declares!

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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Mangoes and the Queen Mum: new book documents Jews of Kampala

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Janice Masur is keeping alive the memory of one of many Jewish communities that disappeared in the past century – the Jews of Uganda.

The history of Eastern European Jewry in Kampala had all but died out when Masur recently brought out a book believed to be the only one devoted to the Jewish community in the capital city of Uganda.

Titled Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator, the well-researched book begins with a historical overview of Jews in Africa, and goes on to tell Masur’s story of living in a little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala from 1949 to 1961.

Although this tiny and remote community had no rabbi or synagogue, its 23 families formed a cohesive group that celebrated all Jewish festivals together and upheld their Jewish identity. Sadly, while Kampala Jewry made every effort to survive, the community eventually withered under the hot African sun, leaving few traces of its existence.

However, Masur’s desire to bear witness to the place where she spent her childhood has resulted in its history being preserved in this compelling memoir, supported by interviews, photographs, and in-depth research.

The idea for the book originated in a modern East African history class she attended at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She began writing in 2005, travelling to interview octogenarians and nonagenarians who had arrived in Kampala earlier in their lives.

Masur herself was born in Eritrea, where her parents chose to move from Palestine in 1942, presumably for better job and financial opportunities. They settled in Uganda in 1949 after Masur’s father, Helmut, was hired to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork Company.

“I am a second-generation Jewish woman and have only one cousin who joined us in Kampala with his family,” Masur told the SA Jewish Report from her home in Vancouver, Canada. “We visited South Africa in 1961 when travelling by car from Uganda to Durban – and stayed in a Jewish hotel – to board a cargo ship which deposited us in New Zealand [where she attended university].”

Today, she is strongly rooted in her Jewish community in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband.

“I visited South Africa again in 2001, meeting a childhood friend in Cape Town,” Masur said. “I visited Namibia in 2010 – not really South Africa.”

In one of the anecdotes as a nine-year-old in Kampala, Masur writes in her book that “a rabbi was imported from South Africa for Yom Kippur” in 1953. He stayed with her family, and held the service in their house. Her parents told her to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would be unaware of her not fasting.

“Many years later, I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law wasn’t fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered,” she writes.

Masur shares another experience in her book, the significance of which she discovered only later in life. While living in a single-level house that had an avocado tree and a badminton court, she often saw her family’s “houseboy”, Odera, dancing and singing around the house.

“My mother spent a lot of time screaming at the houseboy in frustration at his supposed inability to follow instructions, which I later learned was a passive tactic of rebellion against British rule,” she writes.

From 1957 to 1960, she attended the government (semi-private) Highlands School in Eldoret, Kenya, and noticed that post-war antisemitism was endemic. “Unkind girls in Eldoret would sometimes bully me by telling me that I was a misfit because my nationality was Jewish, not British, although I was naturalised British and my religion was Jewish!” she writes.

On several occasions, Masur stood with her mother in the driveway outside the gates of Government House in Entebbe with a crowd of other people to watch the arrival or departure of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother.

In preparation for the visit of the latter in 1959, all the shops on the main street were scrubbed and painted, the road islands were dolled up, and flags and bunting feverishly bought. To meet the dress requirements, Masur’s mother and aunty had to borrow gloves and hats from friends. Soon, the duo laughed to see their picture shown on the front page of the Uganda Argus newspaper with the Queen Mum.

Masur hasn’t returned to Uganda since leaving Kampala for New Zealand as she thinks that “perhaps memories are best left to glitter in the distance”.

That said, her formative years in the country have left a lasting imprint. “To this day, I love mangoes, and growing up in Kampala has made me feel comfortable in the company of all ethnic groups,” Masur recently told the Canadian website Jewish Independent.

Today, Uganda has about 2 000 observant Jews known as the Abayudaya – the “people of Judah”. Having converted to Judaism in passive rebellion against British rule in 1921, the Abayudaya is a now-thriving, self-sufficient black Jewish community in Mbale, boasting synagogues, Jewish schools, a mikvah, and a cemetery.

However, there isn’t even a cemetery to mark the existence of Masur’s family and 22 others who managed to create an Eastern European Jewish community in Kampala. Masur hopes that her book will document and honour what she describes as “an imploded star vanished in the diasporic galaxy”.

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