Jewish communities in Great Britain are on a "heightened sense of alert" following 51 anti-Semitic incidents in April: the second highest monthly total in history, British lawmaker Gareth Thomas told the House of Commons.
He noted that the incidents included the April 27 desecration of a synagogue in Finsbury Park, north of London, by vandals who threw prayer shawls and yarmulkes to the ground and splashed green paint on them and the ark.
Still, Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, said the incidence of anti-Semitism "is not yet at a level in Britain that gives us serious cause for concern." Rabbi Sacks, 54, was interviewed by phone from Philadelphia, where he was speaking to the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The Jewish Week: An estimated 55,000 people gathered at Trafalgar Square last month in support of peace in the Middle East and against Palestinian terrorist attacks. Were you surprised by the turnout?
Rabbi Sacks: We’ve never seen anything like that before. It shows the depth of concern that British Jews have for the negative light in which Israel is portrayed in some of the media. It’s bad in Europe, and Britain is also quite bad.
Why is that?
Britain is a country that always had a traditional sympathy for the underdog. During Israel’s early years, Israel was portrayed as David; now it has become Goliath. It was the images at the start of the violence in September 2000 [television images of children being killed and up against tanks] that had considerable impact.
Who were the vandals responsible for the attack on the synagogue in Finsbury Park?
We don’t know for sure. I visited the community [after the attack] with a government minister and the government was quick to express its concern. The congregation is largely made up of Holocaust survivors. The [incident] was particularly traumatic for the rabbi, Aaron Cohn, who was born in Berlin and whose father was a rabbi in Berlin. He still remembers his father’s synagogue being destroyed by fire the night after Kristallnacht. He told me that his father had always worn the tallit that was burned in the fire, despite its burn marks. The son had his tallit desecrated by the vandals with green paint and he said he would wear the tallit as a mark of pride just as his father wore his. There was a real determination not to be intimidated.
What was the response in the general community near the synagogue?
People from all over, including non-Jews, came to help and clean up the synagogue. … There is a mosque nearby. Its members did not help, but we did have a supportive statement from the British Muslim community.
Have there been arrests in Britain related to anti-Semitic incidents?
There have been some arrests of Muslim clerics. They have been charged with incitement to violence and their trials are still taking place.
Since the Holocaust there has been an intensive educational campaign in Europe dedicated to Holocaust education and interfaith dialogue. What do you do now in light of all these attacks?
I truly believed we had moved beyond this. … On April 29, together with Prince Charles, we launched a program called Respect. We have asked, and the leaders of every faith in Britain have agreed to ask their members, to do an act of personal kindness to someone who is not a member of their community. It will be a national campaign lasting two years. The BBC will be telling the stories of individual acts, and we think it will help to break down the barriers of fear and estrangement between different communities.
So far in Britain anti-Semitism has not reached a level that gives us grounds for fear. We feel very much at home in Britain, and that has not changed.