At the corner of Waterpark Road and Broom Lane in Manchester, at the epicenter of the city’s Orthodox Jewish community, a patch of sidewalk has been covered by a tarpaulin. Beneath the tarpaulin is a swastika. Further down the same block is the Broughton Jewish Primary School, where each afternoon mothers arrive in their battered Volvos to pick up smiling children. Rabbis and studious young bochurs pass through in a constant stream, going to and from prayers, study and home. Everyone in this modern-day shtetl knows what the tarp is hiding. “It’s a reminder that they are there and that they know how to hurt us,” one mother said, before picking her children up from school.
While serious violence against Jews is extremely rare in Manchester, last year saw a 79 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the city. Swastikas appeared on pavement, walls and gravestones, abuse was hurled from cars, and cans and rocks were thrown at Jewish children. In January, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain Lord Jonathan Sacks revealed on the radio that a serious terror plot against Jewish synagogues and schools in Manchester had been foiled by the police.
The most recent surge in overt anti-Semitic incidents in Britain began last summer during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. In Manchester, the discord aroused by the war focused on the Kedem cosmetics store in the center of town. For almost the entire duration of the conflict the shop, which sells Israeli beauty products, was picketed by pro-Palestinian activists. The action was framed as a political protest, but many in the community felt the act of boycotting a Jewish shop to be anti-Semitic.
It wasn’t hard to find evidence of more overt feelings against Jews at the protests, either. Protesters outside the shop were heard chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Hamas.” One protester told a camera of his love for Hitler. “These are Zionists,” another said, “they don’t care about life, they care about making money.” The local Jewish community organized counter-protests. “They called us Nazis, killers,” said one woman who was involved. “It was a vehicle for those who hate us.”
When I visited Manchester, shortly after the Paris attacks, nerves in the community were still on edge and there was much discussion of people moving to Israel and also of increased security measures. At Broughton Jewish Primary School there were two guards on the door instead of the usual one. At other schools in the area there was talk of hiring post-army Israeli security guards: The feeling was that IDF-trained soldiers might stand a better chance of protecting them from masked gunmen who might show up to kill their children, the same way that Jewish children were being killed by Islamist gunmen in France. Some schools were also holding drills to prepare the children for the possibility of an attack. Synagogues such as Sunnybank in Bury and the Prestwich Hebrew Congregation were in discussions over spending large sums of money on building high-security fences to protect their congregants.
Security has always been a part of Jewish life in Britain. Synagogues here have had guards on the door since the threat of Palestinian terrorism in Europe became prevalent in the 1970s. The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity founded in 1994, is now a professional organization that involves 60 permanent employees and thousands of volunteers in its work. But there is currently a renewed sense that the community is drawing inward in response to outward hostility, and some are starting to erect higher barriers, physical and mental, between themselves and an outside world that bristles with ever more ominous and immediate threats. Volunteers who do synagogue security duty now receive special CST briefings in which they are told to “do what they can” to delay an attacker, buying those inside the shul time to lock the doors.
One rabbi I spoke to has invested in surveillance cameras to monitor the space outside his synagogue, which already has grills over all the windows. “The synagogues in London are all behind gates,” he said. “Increasingly the ones in Manchester are too, and these days the gates are all closed.”
Outside of London, Manchester’s is Britain’s largest Jewish community, numbering some 30,000. As other northern communities, in Sunderland, Bradford, and Liverpool, have diminished, Manchester has flourished as a low-key alternative to life in London and as the last major bastion of Judaism in northern Britain. The city also has a large concentration of ultra-Orthodox, a patchwork of Hasidim, and Haredim, as well as Modern Orthodox families crowded together in two square suburban miles north of the city center known as the “cholent pot,” encompassing the twin areas of Prestwich and Broughton Park, which are hemmed in tightly between the white working-class area of Lower Broughton and the large Muslim population of Cheetham Hill Road.
Even more than the London centers of Torah Judaism, north Manchester has the feel of a ghetto. The Jewish population is far more concentrated. Wandering through Broughton Park on a Saturday afternoon is an extraordinary, timeless experience as the entire population dons its Shabbos finery and walks to prayers. The array of streimels and gabardine coats in the more Hasidic streets is mesmerizing; one could be in Crown Heights, or Mea Shearim, or indeed in pre-Holocaust Lublin or Lvov. Not everyone inside the Orthodox community is ardently Zionist, but their visibility puts them first in line for the anti-Semitic backlash that now follows each major Israeli military action. They are more vulnerable, the first and most obvious target.
Yet they are also less shocked when it happens. Even when anti-Israel sentiment is at a low ebb there is still a thuggish element in Manchester that can make life uncomfortable for the visibly Orthodox; it is always there. But also many in this community are never fully present in the country where their actual home is. They inhabit a Jerusalem of the mind where persecution never goes away for long. “You’re sitting in front of a shelf that is lined with books from different eras,” said Rabbi Nir Nadav, when I visited his synagogue in Prestwich. “All of the people who wrote them suffered or were in exile. Starting with the Babylonian Talmud, they were in exile. Maimonides was exiled from Spain. Rav Yosef Karo was exiled as a child, his parents had to run away from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. Before that they had come to Spain because they were exiled from elsewhere in Europe. We have a history of persecution and running away from it.”
With one Prestwich resident I discussed the recent news that Danny Cohen, a powerful media executive at BBC television, said that he had never felt less comfortable as a Jew in Britain. Isn’t it surprising, I asked, that such a successful figure could feel uncomfortable in a country where a Jew hasn’t been martyred in modern history? “Well, perhaps he shouldn’t have felt so comfortable in the first place,” the resident answered.
Some in the community feel this discomfort more than others. “A lot of people are talking about moving to Israel,” said Rabbi Moshe Stamler. “But I didn’t feel it that much over the summer. I do most of my work in the community. Those who went into town a lot felt it more.”
While British Jews who have taken on British values, paid for British education, and worked to join the British elites are appalled by the idea that they might not be safe in this country, those who never saw assimilation as a goal find it much easier to accept that there will always be a gap between them and the world and that some will fill that gap with fear and loathing. Indeed there is an idea in Orthodox Judaism that holds that anti-Semitism is an immutable, fixed part of the world. That there will always be hatred from gentile to Jew. As Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said: “It is an accepted principle that Esau hates Jacob.”
“We lived in this blissful bubble,” said Nadav of his youth in the 1980s and ’90s, before ethno-religious conflict re-emerged as a major issue in the West. “As I’ve got older I’ve realized that we were a little delusional to think we can all live in peace with each other.” Nadav is a compelling figure, eloquent and with a worldliness gained from years working in technology earlier in life. He believes it is important we don’t exaggerate the scale or threat posed by anti-Semitism, but also that we don’t dismiss its very real presence. “The more I go around in the non-Jewish world the more I see it,” he told me. “Some people are very respectful, some people just irrationally have it in for us.”
Yet Jews are also enjoined by Moses not to hate Esau’s descendants, and there is a striking nuance in many frum Jews’ attitude toward Islam. Although the community evinces a very healthy fear of jihad and militant Islam, several people also mentioned to me their respect for Muslim piety, for their commitment to prayer and adherence to scripture. The two groups have much in common, and both receive abuse from xenophobic Brits. “We think there’s anti-Semitism? You know what, Muslims have been attacked too,” said Nadav, who makes a rare point of shopping for groceries on the heavily Muslim Cheetham Hill Road. He believes it is important that “we don’t become strangers.”
On the last night of my visit to Manchester a vigil was held in Albert Square, in the center of the city, to mark the 30 days since the slaughter of four Jews in a supermarket in Paris. The event was organized by the North West Friends of Israel, a group formed in response to the events of the summer. It is a good example of the community coalescence that has been a common response to recent unease.
On a bitterly cold evening, some 300 people gathered amid the honking taxis and evening shoppers to light candles and memorialize the victims. A cross-section of the community was present; rabbis, activists and ordinary people, some religious, some not. Placards were held up bearing the now familiar slogans: #JeSuisCharlie, #JeSuisJuif. People huddled together for warmth and solidarity as obituaries of the Paris victims were read and rousing speeches given, ending in a defiant “Am Yisrael Chai.” Ringing the service was layer upon layer of yellow-jacketed CST guards, yet still the atmosphere was tense and faces turned nervously when what sounded like abuse was shouted from a car.
Why had people come? “I’m here to show that we’re still visible as a community, we’re still here,” said David Bannister. But he also felt that the danger of anti-Semitism had been somewhat overblown in recent months. “There has been a lot of hype in the media, we have to be careful not to get carried away.” Others were less calm. “If it can happen there then it can happen here,” said Alan Merton. “If I could tell my grandchildren to leave this country then I would.”
Merton is correct that there is still a clear and frankly terrifying threat of a jihadi attack on a British Jewish target in the near future. But if past trends are anything to go by, the level of everyday anti-Semitism in Britain should drop as memories of the Gaza war fade. According to Dave Rich, a spokesman for the CST, in a “normal” year when there is no war in Israel anti-Semitism tends to be far lower. It also tends to be far less politicized, most commonly perpetrated by white Brits in areas where levels of street crime are already high.
“Most incidents are carried out by ordinary people who might be influenced by extremist discourse or social media,” Rich said. “There is not much central coordination. Our experience is that if things are quiet and there are no more of what we call trigger events, then next year the figures will drop and then again the year after that.” The danger Rich identifies is if too many trigger events keep happening year after year. “Then that baseline level never gets a chance to drop down to whatever it was. In the long term, it creeps up.”
Each conflict involving Israel now seems to provide a pretext or trigger for the practice of a dark and ancient hatred. As war follows war in a politically disintegrating part of the world, some feel that the baseline level of this hatred has gone up. “People are putting up walls,” said Nadav. “It’s completely natural. It’s a bad world, things are changing. We don’t know where things are going to end up, so let’s draw in a little bit. There are murmurings, it’s on the edge, it’s out there. Something’s not right.”
Next, from London, part four of A Polite Hatred will report on the Jewish dilemmas of the U.K.’s Labour Party.
Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.
Josh Glancy is a feature writer at The Sunday Times.