LONDON — Jews in the British capital are on “high alert” for attacks after a recent crackdown on Islamist extremists and because of a heightening of tensions owing to the likelihood of a war in Iraq.
The Community Security Trust, a wing of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the country’s central Jewish representative council, is reminding community leaders to remain vigilant in protecting their synagogues, schools and other institutions.
“We are at a high state of alert,” said Michael Whine, spokesman for the Community Security Trust.
Concern in the community has grown since a police hunt for suspected terrorists culminated in a raid on a prominent London mosque January 19. The sweep began earlier in the month, when police stormed an apartment found to contain the deadly poison ricin, which even in small amounts can be lethal to large numbers of people. The investigation then went nationwide, including a raid on an apartment in Manchester during which an officer was killed.
Police closed London’s Finsbury Park mosque after finding what they called suspicious items, including tear gas, a stun gun and a fake pistol, and also arrested the son of its leader, Sheikh Abu Hamza. Since the raid, the public expectation has been that Hamza — himself a vocal supporter of Al Qaeda — would be either imprisoned or deported.
Ever since leaders of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups started calling for attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions around the world, Whine said, the Community Security Trust has been in frequent contact with the British police and Scotland Yard. None of the evidence gathered so far, however, has given any indication of who the terrorists’ intended targets were, he said.
“There is no evidence of targeting at all, which means we’re just as likely a target as anyone else,” he said.
In fact, Whine said, Jewish institutions are soft targets compared to official British installations such as Scotland Yard or a branch of the government, which are protected by trained guards.
To help address those fears, the Community Security Trust has suggested that synagogues, schools and community centers install closed-circuit television surveillance systems and has helped raise money through the Board of Deputies for those institutions that can’t afford the cost. The security trust also trains volunteer guards, who are taught to look for and disrupt the planning activities that precede an attack, and has lobbied to get the police to include Jewish sites on their rounds.
“We are showing the other side that we have an overt security presence,” Whine said. “The British authorities have been very sensitive to these concerns and very active, even proactive, which is something that cannot be said for other European governments.”
That engagement, Whine argued, is a large part of why British Jews have not suffered the kinds of attacks seen recently in France and Belgium. But that doesn’t mean that Jews here feel safe. The number of antisemitic attacks grew “noticeably” in 2002 and continues to rise with tension in the Middle East, he said.
“The other thing is anti-Zionism,” Whine said. “In most places, antisemitism is seen as something that just isn’t done. But anti-Zionism is seen as legitimate, and it is legitimizing antisemitism.”
Anti-Zionism appeared to play a role in April in the last major attack on a British synagogue, when vandals desecrated the Finsbury Park Synagogue, not far from the mosque. Prayer books were destroyed, the ark was broken, windows were smashed and an Israeli flag was burnt. The attackers left behind swaths of paint, human feces and a sense of fear.
“The mere fact that somebody broke in makes you feel violated,” said Howard Mather, administrator of the Finsbury Park Synagogue.
Despite the proximity to what is known locally as the “Al Qaeda mosque,” Mather and Whine said it is unlikely that Islamic extremists perpetrated the attack.
“It was more likely the work of an ordinary British lowlife,” Whine said.
Indeed, Muslims in Finsbury Park live peacefully next to the large Jewish communities of Stoke Newington and Hackney. There may be mutual mistrust, but there has never been even a minor outbreak of violence. The community, however, is not complacent.
“We have a very close relationship with the local police and with our own security people within United Synagogue,” Mather said. “The first thing we did after the attack in April was to call the police, and they said, ‘we’re on it.’”
The attackers, however, have not been caught.
Finsbury Park, meanwhile, has returned to normal after a few days of confrontations between police and members of the mosque’s congregation. Ordinary London Muslims, and many of their leaders, have been quick to laud the raid on the mosque and the removal of Hamza. One organization, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, is looking to install new leadership at the mosque.
“The aim of the plan is to make sure that the mosque is run by more peace-loving Muslims who have a better relationship with British society in general,” Islamic Human Rights Commission spokesman Massoud Shadjareh told the Financial Times.