Jake Wallis Simons

The targeting of Jewish teenagers on Oxford Street is a wake-up call

The targeting of Jewish teenagers on Oxford Street is a wake-up call
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When a friend shared a video of drama on Oxford Street on Monday night, I knew it would go viral. The clip showed a gang of men harassing a group of Jews on a bus, spitting, cursing, making obscene gestures, and even appearing to perform a Nazi salute.

This was a group of Jewish teenagers being taken by their rabbi to see the Chanukah lights at Trafalgar Square. They had stopped on Oxford Street and, in their exuberance, left the vehicle to do a Jewish dance on the pavement. That was when it happened.

Let’s start with the good news. I knew this story would attract attention because such naked demonstrations of hate are, thankfully, widely pilloried in modern Britain. We saw it when the Israeli ambassador was hounded at the LSE; we saw it when a lone aggressor walked around Stamford Hill hitting random Jews; we saw it when convoys of men abused London Jews during the Gaza conflict. On each occasion, the vast majority was appalled.

But it’s bad news from here on in. The reality that Jewish people live with every day will come as a surprise to many. Every synagogue in the country has long been patrolled by security officers, and the prominent ones are watched by police.

Every Jewish school is equipped with advanced security systems and guards, and there are at least two charities specifically dedicated to keeping the community safe.

Sadly, with good reason. The everyday threat that British Jews encounter spans the spectrum from antisemitic graffiti at one end to full-on terror attacks at the other.

I went to a Jewish school, and we had to evacuate several times a year as a result of bomb threats. The Jewish old age home to which our school adjoined was targeted once by a letter bomb. And I have vivid memories of teenage thugs climbing over the school gates to menace us, only to be frogmarched off by a teacher, who used to be a police officer.

As a child of primary school age, I would frequently be taunted in the street, to the extent that I developed the habit of slipping off my kippah when I passed certain pubs and street corners. On one occasion, at the age of about nine, I was seized by a local lad and held by the throat against a wall. Thankfully I managed to talk my way out of it.

One only needs to look across the Channel to deadly Islamist attacks on Jewish museums, schools and supermarkets for a nightmarish vision of the worst end of the spectrum.

Imagine living like this. Britain as a whole is a tolerant and welcoming country; probably diaspora Jews have never lived in a safer place. But our expectations are higher these days. As the general climate spirals into febrility when it comes to the smallest hint of unconscious race-based prejudice, there is one type of hatred that continues to fester unchecked.

Yet this week, it is Chanukah. So it is time to focus on hope. The reason the Jewish teenagers were travelling to Trafalgar Square was to watch the lighting of the menorah, which symbolises the triumph of light over darkness.

Overseas, we see the Abraham Accords transforming the Middle East, officially integrating Israel for the first time into the wider region. Closer to home, people from all walks of British life are rousing from their lethargy and starting to stand up for Jews.

The Prime Minister emphasised that light triumphs over darkness when he lit the menorah at Downing Street last week. Sir Keir Starmer expressed the same sentiments at a Chanukah event he attended. (Much more needs to be done, but for the first time in a long time, the Jewish community is starting to feel like neither of Britain’s main political parties deeply hate them.) In recent weeks, there have been warm visits from Israel's foreign secretary, president and prime minister; Britain has pledged to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish state against the common threat in Tehran.

But Chanukah also demonstrates that light only triumphs if you fight for it. The video on Oxford Street must be taken as a wake-up call. Britain’s decent majority needs to keep standing up vocally for the Jewish community, as an expression of our own values of liberalism, tolerance and freedom. It may take some time, but with enough unity, determination and resolve, light will triumph over darkness.