New York, Hampstead, a German pianist: The new faces of antisemitismmain
I have written an op-ed for the Daily Telegraph today on a weekend of anti-semitic outrages:
In New York, five Jews were stabbed at a rabbi’s house. In Germany, a Jewish pianist, Igor Levit, received a death threat. On a moonless Hampstead night, vandals committed 12 criminal acts of antisemitism. That cannot be allowed to pass.
I hope I never have to write another such piece.
The Hampstead attacks
What could be more innocuous than a phone box in Belsize Park? A glass cabin on a row of shops beside a bus stop where red buses putter up and down to Hampstead Heath. People dismount here to grab a movie, a meal or a bottle of milk. Or stop a minute to get out of the rain.
Early yesterday morning this phone box was daubed with a dripping red Star of David and the numerals ‘9/11’, a slogan which may possibly refer to the Islamist 2011 attack on New York’s Twin Towers, an outrage which conspiracy theorists blame somehow on the Jews.
Why pick on a phone box? Because it stands outside a kosher bar and restaurant called Tish, which a pal of mine has upgraded from a chain pizzeria to a sentimental reminiscence of a central European dining room between the Wars. Tish was targeted because it is Jewish.
Further up Haverstock Hill another kosher restaurant, Delicatessen, had the same slogan daubed in red on an adjacent window. In all, the vandal or vandals attacked 12 sites during the night around Hampstead and Belsize Park. It’s likely to be the work of more than one perpetrator, since someone had to hold the paint tin while others did the daubs.
And they knew what they were after. There was an attack on South Hampstead Synagogue, recently reopened after a total rebuild, a process that was conducted in close coordination with local groups and Camden Council. The aim is for the new synagogue to serve as a cultural amenity for the wider community, as well as being a place of worship and celebration for Jews. As such, it was anathema to antisemites.
News of the attack struck me like a punch to the face. This synagogue, built with love and sacrifice and sensitivity by Londoners rich and poor, had been singled out in the dark of night with the aim of making Jews feel bad. The Nazis had a word for it. ‘Unerwunscht’ they wrote on park benches and places of public recreation: Jews are unwanted. That was roughly the intent of yesterday’s attacks. We have not seen things like this in my lifetime.
My London-born father was, I know, alert to antisemitic slurs, but I, born after the War, assumed that Hitler’s Holocaust had made Jew-hatred forever inadmissible. That assumption held true until about five years ago when antisemitic tropes made an unexpected return to the political discourse of the nationalist right and the anti-Zionist left. Suddenly I heard the ‘unwanted’ echo. At seven in the morning of the Jewish New Year, as I walked with my wife through a Jewish part of London, two young men in a speeding car made rude gestures at us. What had we done to deserve that? Someone had spotted us as Jews.
Setting aside its early origins, antisemitism changed in the mid-19th century from religious hostility into cultural antagonism towards a rising middle-class that seemed, perhaps, too successful for its own good. Often, the new antisemites had never met a Jew. In my book Genius and Anxiety I relate how Charles Dickens, impressed by a Jewish woman who had bought his house, toned down Fagin in later editions of Oliver Twist to something considerably less vicious.
The Russian-born scientist Chaim Weizmann, whose acetone process helped Britain win the First World War, liked to say that the Jews are just like everyone else – ‘only more so.’ British Jews were perhaps a tad louder and more colourful.
Some people will always be affronted by difference – and Jews, let’s be clear, are different in their ancestry, their culture, their humour and even some of their music – but history has taught us that the most thriving nations on earth are those – like Britain and the United States – which harness diversity to a common purpose.
My fear is that this noble aim is being lost. In New York, five Jews were stabbed at a rabbi’s house. In Germany, a Jewish pianist, Igor Levit, received a death threat. On a moonless Hampstead night, vandals committed 12 criminal acts of antisemitism. That cannot be allowed to pass. Long-closed police stations need to be reopened. Patrols must be seen and heard. People and places have to be protected. It’s dark out there, not only for Jews. We need to see more light.
Norman Lebrecht’s book Genius and Anxiety is published by Oneworld, £20