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Britain’s Jews Hold Vigils Amid Rising Anxiety About Anti-Semitism

People walk past a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 29, 2018.
People walk past a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following Saturday's shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 29, 2018.

British Jews held vigils Monday to honor the 11 people killed last week in the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. As they gathered in London, Liverpool, Brighton and Oxford to mourn those killed in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, many said the massacre has added greater urgency to the question, "Where’s safe?"

“For many of us America has been seen as a sanctuary, the safest place for Jews. That is until Saturday,” says Julia Kaufman, a 34-year-old mother of two, who attended a vigil in northwest London. “Pittsburgh is a bleak reminder, nowhere’s really safe at the moment,” she added.

In recent weeks, she and her businessman husband have started to discuss whether they should emigrate, prompted to do so by their sense of a rising hostility toward Jews, and when it comes to Britain, from both the right and left of the political spectrum. They had considered the United States as a possible destination.

They are not the only British Jews thinking about emigrating.

A poll last year found that almost a third of Britain’s 290,000 Jews have considered leaving during the past two years due to growing anti-Semitism. More than a third admitted that out of fear, they conceal any public signs indicating they are Jewish.

And last week, it emerged that British Jews are applying for German citizenship in dramatic numbers, seeking a second European Union passport under a law designed to repatriate Jews whose families lost their German citizenship under the Nazis. The number of Britons seeking German citizenship rose from 43 in 2015 to 1,667 last year.

The jump is being partly blamed on Brexit, the increase in applications started after Britain’s 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. British Jews say securing another passport makes sense and not necessarily to make Germany home, but to retain freedom of movement and the opportunity to set up home easily elsewhere in Europe - anywhere safe, that is.

While much of the media focus following the Pittsburgh massacre has been on the threat to Jews from white supremacists, for British and European Jews, hostility and the threat of persecution and prejudice is more complex. They say the threat to Jewish life comes from multiple sources, and not only from the nativist far-right, but also from the radical left, whose anti-Zionism spills, they argue, into anti-Semitism and whose opposition to globalization and disdain of bankers can echo the memes of diehard opponents on the right.

Anshel Pfeffer, a British journalist and columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper lamented Tuesday, “When Jews were being killed in Europe, we spoke of the threat coming from Islamist terrorism. Following the manifestations of Judeophobic sentiments in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain and movements such as Black Lives Matter in the United States, we began talking of anti-Semitism within the radical left."

In Britain, as of yet, there has been no lethal violence, unlike neighboring France, where in 2015 an Islamist militant targeted a kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews and an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor was stabbed to death in her home in March.

But there has been a disturbing uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, according to the Community Security Trust, a charity that provides security advice and training for Jewish communal organizations, schools and synagogues. It recorded 727 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2018, the second-highest total in a first-half of a year since 1984. Fifty-nine incidents involved violence.

British Jews have been alarmed by anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the country’s main opposition party and once considered the natural political home for British Jews. Anti-Semitism accusations about the party have mounted since 2015 when Corbyn, a radical left luminary and Israel critic, won a surprise leadership contest largely to backing from a well-organized Trotskyite youth-based group known as Momentum.

Since 2015 Jewish Labour lawmakers have been targets for racial slurs on social media sites by vitriolic Corbyn supporters. Corbyn backers say their critics conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. But their critics say the radical left opposition to Israel and support for the Palestinian cause bleeds all too easily into anti-Semitism.

Britain's Board of Deputies, an elected representative body of Britain's Jewish community, has denounced “Jeremy Corbyn's failure to take strong action against” anti-Semitism.

Earlier this year, the outgoing Board of Deputies president, Jonathan Arkush, accused the Labour leader of holding “anti-Semitic views,” which could drive Jewish people to leave Britain, if he ever becomes prime minister.

Last month, a poll of British Jews found that nearly 40 per cent would “seriously consider emigrating,” if Corbyn became prime minister. Those between 35 to 54 years old were the most concerned about the prospect of a Labour government with more than half saying they would give emigration serious consideration.