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Symbolbild England Brexit Boot mit Union Jack
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/E. S. Lesser

What Brexit means for Jews and Israelis in UK

Dana Regev
July 2, 2016

Following Britain's vote to leave the EU there has been a sharp rise in hate crimes in the UK. A series of racist incidents was directed mainly against Poles, but now Jews are worried that the attacks could hit them too.


Anti-Semitism is not new to Britain's Jewish community, which is estimated to be the fifth largest in the world, with rough calculations varying from 260,000 to 300,000 people.

But, with immigration playing a big role in fueling the "Leave" campaign in June's Brexit vote, many foreigners and minorities now fear that they might be targeted next - even if they were born in the UK or have lived there for many years.

In an opinion piece published in the center-right Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has promised to fight anti-Semitism with full force.

"As a British Muslim, I am no stranger to prejudice," Khan wrote. "I know what it's like to be discriminated against just because of your background or religion. That's why I promise to fight racism in all its forms and will make challenging the alarming rise in anti-Semitism in recent years a priority."

Taking a strong stance against hate crimes of all sorts, Khan wrote that "there are schools in London that need security simply because they are Jewish faith schools. There are places of worship that require protection simply because they are synagogues. This simply isn't good enough."

'Sense of concern'

Neither British Jews, some of whom favored the referendum, nor Israelis residing in the United Kingdom will be directly affected by the Brexit vote. However, some Jews in Britain say the results of the referendum could still affect them in the same way that Polish communities are now experiencing racist attacks and being told to leave despite the fact that the vote did not directly dictate deportations.

London Bürgermeister Sadiq Khan
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis (R) and London Mayor Sadiq Khan attend Holocaust Remembrance Day at Barnet Copthall StadiumImage: Getty Images/J. Taylor

"We don't have that big of a presence here," said Jonathan, a 32-year-old Israeli accountant who lives in Swansea, Wales. "But, from what I have discussed with the Israelis I know here and elsewhere, there's just a weird sense of concern."

"Not so much from anti-Semitic incidents, but just because we're foreign," he added. "There's a feeling that xenophobia has suddenly been legitimized by this vote." Jonathan said he himself had not experienced any hostility since the referendum - "but you do hear of incidents."

"I get this feeling that I'm lucky because I'm white," he said. "So you can only really tell I'm not from here when I start talking and you hear my foreign accent."

Jonathan said the people who voted in favor of the referendum are not as much of a problem for him as those who attempt to make the results fit their own political narrative: "I think the majority of 'Leave' voters aren't racists, but racists will have seen this vote as a confirmation that they are the majority."

Gloom, financial fallout

The successful "Leave" vote has made at least one Israeli family of three reconsider their choice to live in London. "I feel like there is a general sense of uncertainty," said the 31-year-old man, who works in marketing and asked not to be identified for privacy reasons. "My wife and I lived in many places around the world, but this time we decided to settle down for a bit, mainly because of our son. Now, we are not so sure anymore."

The family lives in a Jewish area of the capital, and their son goes to a Jewish kindergarten with other children of Israeli or Jewish parents.

"The security there is always high, especially due to fear of terrorism and ISIS, not necessarily a Brexit-related attack," he said, using a common acronym for the "Islamic State."

"But there is a lot of tension in the air," he said. "No one knows what will happen next."

The atmosphere has grown increasingly gloomy: "The feelings amongst Jews and Israelis in London were hard even before the Brexit, but the vote practically added fuel to the fire," he said. "People are in utter shock."

The major concern for his family, however, is financial. The couple recently purchased a small home is Spain and are paying for it in euros. "Now we obviously pay more, and I am worried about the economic consequences," he said.

Growing insecurity

According to police figures, there was a 57 percent increase in online hate crime reports in the days following the June 23 referendum compared with the equivalent period four weeks earlier.

"In recent days, we have seen far-right groups engaged in organized marches and demonstrations sowing division and fears in our communities," Karen Bradley, the minister in charge of preventing abuse, exploitation and crime, told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday.

"We have also seen far-right groups broadcasting extreme racist and ant-Semitic ideology online, along with the despicable hate speech posted online following the shocking death of our colleague Jo Cox," she said.

In his column, Khan wrote that "over the past five years, anti-Semitic offenses in the capital have increased by 153 percent, with 267 more offenses in 2015 compared to 2011. Sadly, for many people here in London, anti-Semitism is a very present problem."

Großbritannien fremdenfeindliche Übergriffe nach Brexit - Polnisches Zentrum Hammersmith
Graffiti is seen painted on the outside of the Polish Social and Cultural Association, in Hammersmith, LondonImage: Reuters

But Jonathan does not feel that the recent wave of physical violence and online hate has targeted Jews in particular. "I did hear from a friend who lives in Manchester, where there is a large community, that a lot of the local Jews who have lived in the UK their entire lives have voted Leave," he said, "so I think it is more about foreigners in general than Jews."

Still, he added, "it's a thin line: I think the general feeling is that Jews specifically aren't going to be targeted - this is mostly about Eastern Europeans and Muslims - but it gives a sense that in general foreigners aren't welcome here."

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