Stephen Fry, Israel’s war on Gaza, and antisemitism in the UK today

Channel 4’s “Alternative Christmas Message” for 2023 was presented by Stephen Fry, and addressed the subject of the rise in antisemitic behaviour provoked by Israel’s ongoing slaughter of the people of Gaza. On the face of it, Fry might not seem the obvious choice to serve as a scourge of antisemitism, given his stated view that Jews (or at least religious Jews) have caused “more misery for mankind than any other group of people in the history of the planet”. But presumably the production company Fulwell 73 decided that Fry’s avuncular, tea-sipping persona would provide an effective vehicle for conveying their message.

That message was, to say the least, questionable. Fry informed Channel 4 viewers that the UK has become “a society that judges hatred of Jews to be the one acceptable form of racism”, and that we are now experiencing “the greatest rise in anti-Jewish racism since records began”. This is how he described the present situation:

“Since October 7 there have been fifty separate reported incidents of antisemitism every single day in London alone, an increase of 1,350% according to the Metropolitan Police. Shop windows smashed. Stars of David and swastikas daubed on walls of Jewish properties, synagogues and cemeteries. Jewish schools have been forced to close. There is real fear stalking the Jewish neighbourhoods of Britain. Jewish people here are becoming fearful of showing themselves. In Britain. In 2023.”

We were given the impression that the UK is on the verge of another Kristallnacht. Indeed, Fry did draw a parallel with the virulent antisemitism of that earlier period, declaring emotionally that he was grateful his Jewish grandparents are not alive today “to read newspaper stories that would have reminded them of the 1930s Europe that they left”. (Viewers might conclude from this that Fry’s grandparents fled to the UK during that decade in order to escape antisemitic persecution. In fact they reportedly emigrated from Slovakia in 1927 after his grandfather was recruited to work as an advisor at a sugar beet factory in Bury St Edmunds.)

Fry’s broadcast divided opinion. It was enthusiastically welcomed by the hardline rightwing Zionist outfit Campaign Against Antisemitism (“Beautiful. Brave. Needed. Thank you Stephen Fry”) and by Karen Pollock, who wholeheartedly endorsed Fry’s depiction of the situation facing Jews in the UK (“Antisemitism is now on a level not seen since the Holocaust”). But the programme was also subjected to some sharp criticism, notably by David Rosenberg who wrote a thoughtful, effective critique of Fry’s approach. What I want to do here, though, is focus on the unprecedented wave of antisemitism that Fry claimed has engulfed the UK.

Let us start with Fry’s assertion that Jewish schools have been “forced to close” due to antisemitism. He was referring to three schools in Barnet that shut down for one day, on Friday 13 October. The trigger for this decision appears to have been a call by Khaled Meshaal of Hamas for protests in support of the Palestinians on that day across “the Arab and Islamic world”, although it was unclear why that should affect Barnet. There was also concern about the preliminary effects of the Palestine solidarity demonstration scheduled for the next day in London (which like all such protests, turned out to be overwhelmingly peaceful). A shutdown was therefore judged necessary because of “the risk of violence on the streets”, as one school put it.

Predictably, the schools’ decision was backed by Campaign Against Antisemitism, who saw it as a reasonable and proportionate response. (“This is the impact that Hamas terrorists are having on British Jews.”) But the Community Security Trust, which provides security for Jewish schools and is not known for downplaying genuine antisemitic threats, took the view that the closure of the schools was an overreaction. It stated: “CST’s advice to Jewish schools remains that Jewish life should continue and schools should remain open as normal.” The schools evidently took CST’s advice, because there have been no further closures.

Numerous criticisms can be made of CST, but the organisation does usually exercise some restraint when it comes to spreading unnecessary alarm and panic within the Jewish community. Fry’s melodramatic claim that the schools had been “forced to close” aligned him with the irresponsible fearmongering that is a hallmark of CAA’s politics.

If Fry had wanted to inform viewers about the impact of antisemitism on Jewish schools there were some real cases he could have raised, as reported by CST. Bacon was thrown over the gate of a school in London with a note saying “Die U Jewish”. As a vehicle drove past another London school an occupant shouted “Fuck the Jews!” A school in Manchester was sent a letter reading “warning your school is being targeted, No one is safe, no one should support killers, Palestine forever”. Two schools in Stamford Hill were sprayed with red paint. But Fry preferred to ignore all this in favour of a nonsense story about Jewish schools being forced to close due to the threat of violence from Hamas and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

It looks as though Fry and Fulwell 73 were more concerned with painting an exaggerated picture of Britain in the grip of raging Jew-hatred than with educating viewers about the actual state of antisemitism today. Hence Fry’s overheated description conjuring up images of 1930s antisemitic violence: “Shop windows smashed. Stars of David and swastikas daubed on the walls of Jewish properties, synagogues and cemeteries.”

Is there any evidence for this? Between October and December the Community Security Trust published seventeen reports, which list numerous examples of antisemitic incidents. These include some shocking cases of racist abuse and assaults, and should be read by anyone inclined to dismiss the rise in antisemitism as just Zionist propaganda, but they give no support to Fry’s claim that there has been a spate of smashed windows and swastikas daubed on synagogues and cemeteries.

What about Fry’s statement that since 7 October there have been “fifty separate recorded incidents of antisemitism every single day in London alone, an increase of 1,350%”? It comes as no surprise to find that he (or more likely a Fulwell 73 employee who did the research) got the statistics muddled. The 1,350% figure was taken from a Metropolitan Police news release of 20 October. It related to the period from 1 October to 18 October, when the Met recorded 218 antisemitic offences, compared with 15 in the same period in 2022. It did not refer to a rise in antisemitic incidents to fifty a day.

The Met in fact distinguishes between reported antisemitic offences, which can result in criminal charges, and antisemitic incidents, which do not cross the line into illegality. Between 1 October and 1 November last year 554 antisemitic offences and 657 antisemitic incidents were reported. So the total of reported offences and incidents came to 1,211. Given that most antisemitic activity would have taken place after 7 October, the fifty-a-day figure does appear to be accurate, if you combine offences and incidents. Even allowing for the fact that the majority didn’t amount to criminal acts, this is still a disturbing statistic.

It should be noted, however, that the Met initially records an offence or incident as antisemitic based on the perception of the individual reporting it, whether this is the victim or some other witness. It is only after investigation that the police decide if an offence has a racially aggravated element or not. The question, then, is whether the recent offences and incidents have been reported accurately, given that Israel’s supporters have shown a marked propensity to see antisemitic activity everywhere and blame it on opponents of the genocide in Gaza.

For example, in November a house in West Hampstead was splashed with paint. Philip Rosenberg, a former Labour councillor for the area, immediately jumped in to condemn the vandalism as “pure antisemitism” and suggested that supporters of the Palestinian cause were responsible, even though there was no evidence for either assumption. Rosenberg was soon forced into a humiliating climbdown, which didn’t prevent his original inflammatory tweet receiving over half a million views.

Rosenberg has form here. In 2016 he denounced Ken Livingstone’s historically well-founded claim of Nazi support for Zionism as “giving pseudo-intellectual justification for anti-Semitism” and demanded that Ken should be “expelled from the party for good”. Two years later he accused fellow Labour Party members in Hampstead & Kilburn of targeting Jews, and refused to attend any further meetings. In 2019 he featured in the notorious Panorama documentary Is Labour Antisemitic? where he declared Labour had ceased to be an anti-racist party, although the worst example of antisemitism he could come up with was that one member had compared him to a Nazi in the local paper. Rosenberg is now a candidate in the forthcoming election of a successor to Marie van der Zyl as president of the Board of Deputies.

In the West Hampstead case a current Labour councillor named Sharon Hardwick intervened to calm the situation down, pointing to a statement from the local residents’ association that a nearby house had been similarly vandalised in September, before the war on Gaza began. The police subsequently announced that there was no antisemitic motive to the offence.

However, since the onset of the Gaza war, under pressure from the Tory government and the Zionist lobby, the Met has generally shown a worrying tendency to expand its definition of antisemitism to include activity that has no discernible antisemitic content and is just anti-Israel.

I’ve previously posted about the pro-Palestinian graffiti sprayed on the shutters of Labour MP Feryal Clark’s constituency office in Enfield in November. The painted slogans read “No Genocide in Our Name”, “Free Palestine”, “Free Kurdistan” and “Young Struggle”, the latter being the name of a Marxist-Leninist youth group from Turkey. The graffiti was obviously a response to Clark’s decision to follow Keir Starmer’s instructions and abstain on a Commons motion calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. There was no identifiable antisemitic motive to this action any more than than there was in the West Hampstead case. Yet the Met issued a press release describing it as a “racially aggravated crime”, warned that there is “no place for hate in London” and appealed for public support in hunting down the perpetrators.

Or take the case of Laura Davis, who was arrested while protesting in central London on 28 October because she was carrying a placard reading “Free Palestine!! Israel burn in hell”. She was then charged with racially aggravated harassment under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Davis pleaded guilty and was fined £100 plus a victim surcharge of £40 and £85 costs. In sentencing her the magistrate told Davis that the message on the placard “is not an appropriate thing to be waving; it’s violent language about another country and it is not allowed”. Really? If Davis had been waving a placard during a protest against the bombing of Kyiv with the slogan “Free Ukraine!! Russia burn in hell”, would there be the remotest possibility of her being charged with a racially aggravated crime?

Laura Davis is a trans woman who came to the UK to escape repression in Saudi Arabia, where she had been rejected by her own family, and she was granted asylum here a few months before her arrest. She evidently has a limited command of the English language — she spoke in court through an interpreter — and said she didn’t fully understand the meaning of the placard, which she picked up in the street. No doubt she would also have felt intimidated by being caught up in a legal system that was unfamiliar to her. Otherwise she might have opted for a jury trial and pleaded not guilty, with a good chance of being acquitted.

The Zionist lobby were greatly pleased by the successful prosecution of this vulnerable refugee. “Thank you @metpoliceuk & @CPSUK for your action and continued efforts to fight against hate crime”, the Community Security Trust tweeted. You can understand CST’s gratitude. The conviction of Laura Davis has obviously assisted the Zionist campaign to equate hostility towards the state of Israel with hatred of Jews, setting a dangerous precedent and opening the door to further such prosecutions in future.

So it turns out that far from living in “a society that judges hatred of Jews to be the one acceptable form of racism”, as Fry asserted, we now face a situation where a justifiable official crackdown on genuine antisemitism is spilling over into the repression of pro-Palestinian protesters who have done nothing antisemitic at all.

None of this is to deny that antisemitism has surged as a result of Israel’s war on Gaza. It always does when the IDF slaughters Palestinians. And the current horrors inflicted on Gazans — with more than 22,000 dead, mostly women and children — go far beyond anything previously seen. This has provoked understandable fury against the Israeli government. Unfortunately there are ignorant fools out there who hold Jewish people collectively responsible for the war crimes committed by a state claiming to act in their name, and then subject innocent victims to abuse, threats and assaults. It’s appalling, and completely indefensible. But the same thing happens to Muslims too when atrocities are carried by an organisation claiming to act in the name of Islam (particularly so when some of the most grotesque and disgusting atrocities have been invented for political reasons).

Both forms of bigotry have emerged in an intensified form following Hamas’s killing of hundreds of Israeli civilians on 7 October and the murderous devastation Israel launched against Gaza in retaliation for that attack. The Metropolitan Police news release from 3 November, which stated that the Met had received 554 reports of antisemitic offences and 657 reports of antisemitic incidents during the previous month, has already been cited. The Met also said they had received reports relating to 220 Islamophobic offences and 230 Islamophobic incidents over the same period.

But Fry’s alternative Christmas message adopted the familiar approach of emphasising the uniqueness of Jewish suffering rather than setting out the common ground between Jewish and other victims of racism. British Jews were portrayed in anguished terms as a community under siege, barely able to leave their homes, while all we heard about the problem of Islamophobia was one token reference. Muslims, it appears, don’t count.

First published on Medium in January 2024