At the height of summer and Israel’s 2014 war with Hamas, George Galloway, the MP for Bradford West and one of the most prominent leftist politicians in Britain, stood in front of the Palestinian flag, to declare Bradford, the most Muslim city in Britain, an “Israel-free zone.”
“We don’t want any Israeli goods,” boomed Galloway, a professed admirer of Saddam Hussein who holds a “Palestinian passport” presented to him by the leader of Hamas. “We don’t want any Israeli services. We don’t want any Israeli academics coming to the university or the college. We don’t even want any Israeli tourists to come to Bradford if any of them had thought of doing so. We reject the illegal, barbarous, savage state that calls itself Israel. And you have to do the same.”
Much like the comedian Dieudonné in France, Galloway is the bogeyman of British Jewry. Galloway has imported the vitriolic rhetoric of Palestinian nationalism into British politics, claiming that “today, the Palestinian people in Gaza are the new Warsaw Ghetto, and those who are murdering them are the equivalent of those who murdered the Jews in Warsaw in 1943”—and has muttered that he was elected despite “all the efforts made by the British government, the Zionist movement and the newspapers and news media which are controlled by Zionism.”
While many in Bradford may dislike Galloway, it is clear that others find his rhetoric persuasive. I recently spent a day in the city’s central square asking people what they think of Israel and the Jews. Without fail, every white respondent I put the question to expressed indifference. “Galloway is stirring up tensions between different races to get the Muslim vote,” a middle-aged printing mechanic told me. Others agreed. “These white MPs are going after the Muslim vote by whipping them up with the Jews,” grumbled a twenty-something product designer. But some others, particularly younger Asian Muslims, took a more troubling view. An asylum seeker from Iraq told me he voted for Galloway because “he tells the truth about the Jews.” Passing a joint between them, two youths in hoods explained: “It’s all about 9/11 and Bush and how they did that to get at Iraq and Afghanistan and all that. People are angry with the Jews for terrorizing Muslims all over the world. That’s what we were told in the community.” Two law students, one heavily made-up in a hijab, were even more strident; “Those Jews, they are worse than Hitler those Jews, they are murdering and massacring children, the Jews, they deserve whatever they get.”
In the late 19th century Bradford was a success story for German Jewish immigrants. While the immigrant Jews of London lived in tenement slums in the East End, the Bradford community became mill owners, esteemed citizens, and one even a Lord Mayor. Today, the toxic politics of Bradford, a West Yorkshire city of half a million people where the hard-left British Israel-hatred of Galloway meets a disaffected, disenfranchised Muslim community in which anti-Semitism is a common currency, strike real fear into the hearts of British Jewry. Britain’s Muslim minority is now at least 4.5 percent of the population and growing fast—and is neither wealthy nor well-integrated. Around 40 percent of Britain’s Muslims live in the 10 percent of the most deprived areas of the country.
British Muslims are often swing voters between both Labor and the smaller Liberal Democrat party—and there is a fear in some corners of the Jewish community that unscrupulous demagogues will start copying Galloway by whipping up anti-Zionist (and anti-American, anti-establishment) fervor in these constituencies in order to get elected as Britain’s traditional two-party system crumbles. Labor and Conservative parties’ combined share of the vote dropped from 97 percent in 1951 to only 65 percent in the 2010 general election—opening up more space for sectarian politics and politicians. Muslims now make up more than 20 percent of the population in 26 overwhelmingly poor constituencies. The Muslim Council of Britain, a leading national organization, estimates the community can swing the vote in up to 40 constituencies across Britain.
So, how many more Bradfords will there be? One concern among British Jews is that their country will become more like France, with ethnic divides and regular anti-Semitic violence and killings. Across the English Channel, the Muslim population is at least 7.5 percent of the population, but the prison population is around 70 percent Muslim. If the incarceration figure is taken as a crude indicator of social and economic alienation, then recent figures in Britain are also cause for some concern: Here the Muslim proportion of the prison population is much closer to 15 percent, and over a quarter in London, but this figure is double what it was in 2004.
British Jews involved in political life are quick to point out that one cannot generalize about a diverse and complex religious group. Danny Stone is a senior political adviser and the director of the All-Party Political Group on Anti-Semitism, a U.K. parliament body that brings together MPs and leads research into the issue. “You can’t caricature the Muslim electorate,” said Stone, “or think there is any one rhetoric on Palestine that will appeal to them anymore than there is any one rhetoric on Israel that will appeal to British Jews. But we what we’ve noticed is that public figures are spilling into language that can inflame community tensions and grossly mislead the public. We’ve seen trends emerging: the trivialization of the Holocaust, seeing the Jews as a malign influence, or categorizing Jews as good or bad depending on their views on Israeli politics.”
“Do I think the Jews are safe in Bradford,” asks Stone, “The answer is: Yes. I think that Jews are safe in Bradford and anywhere else in the U.K. But I think that Jews are feeling isolated or threatened in Bradford. When politicians speak out, their words have impact.”
Galloway, who did not reply to an interview request and subsequently blocked me on Twitter, has shown himself adept at exploiting the tensions and dissatisfactions of some Muslims living in deprived areas. Once a champion of the hard left of the Labor Party, he found himself ostracized as Tony Blair led the party into the center ground. But Galloway took his revenge in 2005 in the impoverished constituency of Bethnal Green in heavily Muslim East London. He shocked the British establishment by mobilizing Muslim voters—some of whom were angry and alienated by corrupt local politics, racism, and the Iraq war—to elect him to parliament for the previously unheard of Respect Party.
Along the way, Galloway humiliated Oona King, a Labor Party starlet, in a campaign that aroused the first accusations of him fomenting anti-Semitism. King has a black father but said in 2005 that the fact that her mother was Jewish came up repeatedly in “disturbing ways” during Galloway’s campaign. She claimed to have been told repeatedly in Bethnal Green that Galloway’s supporters had urged them not to vote for her because she was Jewish. Asked if she had lost the election because of anti-Semitism she gave a one-word answer: “Definitely.”
“As a kid it was always ‘oi, you nigger’, ‘you wog’ and all the rest of it,” Oona King told the BBC at the time, “and now it was ‘yids’, ‘you Jewish bitch, get out of here,’ all of that sort of stuff.”
When at the next election in 2010 Labor fielded a Muslim candidate to fight him, Galloway switched to another East End constituency but failed. He then turned his eyes on Bradford—the most Muslim city in Britain, almost a quarter of the population—and shocked the political class with a second coming in another supposed Labor stronghold. Galloway’s genius was not to believe the claims from Britain’s political class that the country is successfully multicultural. Under the surface in Bradford, ethnically Pakistani clans have taken over the moribund local branches of neglected local parties. Both the Labor and the Conservative parties have accommodated these clan leaders, who offered them easy block votes.
David Goodhart is the chair of the center-left think-tank Demos and one of Britain’s leading experts on immigration. His research led him to conclude: “The two most segregated large minority groups—Kashmiri Pakistanis and Bangladeshis—are as successful and well organized politically as they are unsuccessful economically, and the manner in which they have ‘captured’ parts of local politics does raise some awkward questions. In parts of old industrial England, or East London, where they are concentrated they have come to dominate, or at least come to have significant impact on the Labor political machine—as trade unions have faded away they have emerged as the new bloc vote in some areas.”
These areas are where Galloway politics could take root. In Bradford political hold of the clans has exacerbated a culture of political neglect, cultural alienation, and urban decay in British local politics, as local political parties cater to clan interests. This was the system that Galloway targeted and successfully managed to overthrow through an appeal to the “Muslim street” that was not represented by the clans and that responded enthusiastically to lurid and hysterical anti-Zionist political messaging—perhaps the one cause almost all Bradford Muslims can rally around.
Galloway is not the only anti-Zionist MP in Bradford. David Ward, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, is also widely believed to be anti-Semitic by British Jews for his stridently anti-Israeli remarks, which often accuse the Israeli government of intentional mass murders and other supposed crimes, which British “Zionists” seek to cover up through their supposedly powerful institutions. On Holocaust Memorial Day this year, Ward said that Israel had committed “genocide” in Palestine, and he has mockingly attacked the oldest representative body of British Jews, the Board of Deputies, Tweeting—“What a shame there isn’t a powerful, well-funded Board of Deputies for #Roma.”
Ward is not only condemned by Jews. At a recent event in London, Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamic radical-turned-mainstream politician, was asked when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitism. “I happen to belong to a political party [the Liberal Democrats] which happens to have a member of parliament belonging to it called David Ward. And what he did when people were murdered in Paris for expressing themselves and others were murdered for being Jewish and no other reason he tweeted #JeSuisPalestine. Now we can reverse that and I hope that Muslims if it were reversed would realize just how hurtful such a sentiment at such a time can be,” said Nawaz. “Just imagine a member of parliament after the brutal murder of three visible Muslims in Chapel Hill had tweeted #JeSuisIsrael. You’d be horrified. It’s just appalling someone could tweet #JeSuisPalestine as if it’s an answer.”
Ward agreed to meet me in his office in Bradford, festooned with the yellow campaigning colors of his party. But he was nervous and jittery, recording the conversation and backing away from some of his statements without renouncing them completely. Cross-examining the distressed politician makes it clear to me that what Jews find anti-Semitic about this man is a question of rhetoric, not considered views. Under pressure he seemed to have relatively few of these: He admitted that he did not challenge the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East as he is “a firm believer in the United Nations” and accepts the 1947 partition resolution. Ward strongly denied that he is attacking Israel to appeal to the Muslim vote, claiming that when he walks around Bradford, those who come up to congratulate him on his anti-Zionist stance are “mostly from the Church groups.”
The MP for Bradford East said he rejected out of hand Galloway’s declaration of Bradford as an “Israel-free zone” and “absolutely” understands why European Jews wanted to make aliyah after the Holocaust and is merely opposed to the fact that the United Nations resolutions calling for a Palestinian state alongside Israel have not been honored.
But does he stand by his characterization of Israel’s actions as genocide? He could neither hold my eye nor respond to this question, insisting that he had been referring to the U.N. definition of genocide and attempting to move on. When I produced a print-out of the U.N. definition of genocide he seemed at some points to look a little scared and began talking about Israeli acts of ethnic cleansing in 1947. “That’s pretty serious stuff,” he said, “and amounts to the United Nations definition of genocide. I think the harm that’s been done to the people of Gaza comes under that definition as well.” Since Ward clearly believes acts of massacre or ethnic cleansing count as genocide, had he heard of the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, I asked. His face betrayed he had not. Asked whether the termination of Jewish life in Arab states are also genocide, he seemed confused, then lost, before admitting—“it sounds like it was.”
Just like Galloway, he is at pains to emphasize that he is not anti-Semitic. But equally it is clear that he has not considered, or is not willing to consider what drives the intensity of his Israel-hatred. When I pressed Ward on the fact that British Jews advise each other not to wear kippot in Bradford, he seemed surprised. With a Jewish community in the dozens—it seemed the MP had never bothered to consider this fact. Shouldn’t a member of parliament be better-informed and more aware of the potential impact of his rhetoric? “Never overlook the stupidity of people,” said Anthony Julius, author of Trials of the Diaspora and a leading thinker on anti-Semitism in Britain. “Stupidity is a necessary element in understanding political life. The willful refusal to engage with the complexity of political phenomena, in the face of the burgeoning, intrusive, complexity is a fact of contemporary life. It’s a kind of willful self-blinding.”
“With David Ward,” he explained, “it’s a case of I’ve got my prejudices, do not confuse me with the facts. I don’t think he cares what he said, providing it plays well with the constituency he wants to appeal to.”
Bradford is not much of a place to be a Jew. There are fewer than 300 Jews living in the city and only a handful observant. The city’s one Jewish politician is very quiet about his origins, Orthodox Jews are nervous to walk around in kippot, and even a Jewish funeral has been attacked by marauding Muslim anti-Zionist protesters. Even the candidates bidding to dislodge George Galloway now mimic his pro-Palestinian rhetoric, seeking to outdo each other in their condemnation of Israel. The only party that stands a chance of dislodging him is the Labour Party. I contacted every leading candidate bidding to represent them against George Galloway. Most had websites exhibiting photos of themselves at pro-Palestinian protests. Only two wrote back: One Labor hopeful responded rather bizarrely to my request for an interview on the subject of anti-Semitism with a video and transcript of herself speaking at a pro-Palestinian rally. Another, Naz Shah, a Palestine activist I contacted by Twitter direct message stopped responding when I explained Tablet magazine was a Jewish publication. Shah was finally selected to fight Galloway for Labour from an all-Muslim shortlist. The first candidate selected by Labour withdrew amid accusations Pakistani clan elders were unhappy.
Stepping inside Bradford’s town hall I met David Green, the head of Bradford City council and the city’s one prominent Jewish politician. But this local politician seemed ever so slightly defensive when I asked him my first question. Are you, as several Bradford residents have told me, in fact Jewish? “I am Jewish but it’s irrelevant. And I’ve never made it public because it’s irrelevant. I’m a Labour politician.”
Green was adamant that any Israeli and any Israeli investor was welcome in Bradford: Anything Galloway had said about the city being an “Israel-free zone” was only one man’s opinion. He was keen to point out that Bradford has many major Jewish investors including the Westfield Group, whose founder and non-executive chairman Frank Lowy fought in the Israeli war of independence. “Everybody knows that,” said Green, “because Galloway’s told them all.”
Nonetheless, Green is concerned that the rhetoric of both Galloway and Ward is harming Bradford. “I think some of the rhetoric is potentially dangerous. I think what’s happened is a combination of the rhetoric of some of the politicians and the images people have seen on TV about the war in Gaza. That combination has ramped the belief and the rhetoric up.”
“There is a temptation that I think these MPs have fallen into to ramp this up,” he added. “There is a real concern amongst the Muslim population of Bradford about what is happening in Israel-Palestine, and there’s no use pretending that is not the case. However what I don’t think is helpful is their declamatory language and the attacks not on the political actions of Israel but on it being a Jewish state. And that’s feeding a different psyche with issues around anti-Semitism.”
That evening, on erev Shabbat, I drove to Bradford’s last synagogue. The taxi wound through the city’s dilapidated inner core, following dark and dingy streets, past the towers of desolate mills, abandoned warehouses, and derelict foundries. The Moorish synagogue sits on a rubbish-strewn lane, without street lamps, under the hulking chimney of an abandoned factory. There was no service, because there was only one man there, Rudi Leavor, a retired dentist. Rudi is an elegant, stiff, and blue-eyed man with a slight German accent and wisps of white hair on the sides of his head. He was not born in Bradford but in Berlin, where he remembers watching the Nazis marching.
Rudi paints a nuanced but troubling picture of life as one of the last Jews of Bradford. He says it is not paranoid for Jews to be worried about being attacked, but that his life here has been defined more by Muslim friendship than by hate. Rudi has found his Muslim friends have been some of his strongest allies in keeping the synagogue alive. They helped him raise £5,000 ($7,680) for an emergency appeal when the synagogue roof was leaking and faced immediate closure. And he has invited a Muslim friend from the council who organizes school children’s visits to religious sites in Bradford to become a member of the synagogue committee. “They came to the financial rescue when we were in a real crisis. They have been our true friends.”
Rudi says he does not experience anti-Semitism in his daily life in Bradford. “It’s so slight it is hardly worth mentioning. But we now have a police presence that comes once a month when we have services.” The summer of the 2014 war in Gaza saw a number of unpleasant, if extremely minor, incidents. One group of visiting Jews coming to the synagogue wearing kippot were briefly trailed in a car with young Muslim men shouting—“You’re not welcome here.”
But there is one incident that lingers with Rudi. Invisible, he passes through his daily life without any harassment. But on one of the last occasions the Jews gathered visibly in the street outside the synagogue for a funeral something went terribly wrong. The hearse carrying the remains of the son of one the founding rabbis of the synagogue was trying to reach the synagogue, but both ends of the street were mysteriously blocked with traffic. Rudi says then Asian youths burst out and began shaking the hearse. Others saw them fly a Palestinian flag.
“It makes me sad to think we are the last ones,” Rudi said. “Very sad.”
Next, part three of A Polite Hatred will report from ultra-Orthodox Manchester, England.