Hamas cruelty, Gaza’s ordeal and a tide of fear sweeping Britain’s Jews | Antisemitism

When Jonathan Wittenberg, a British rabbi, posted a “statement on Rafah” on the website of the community he leads last week, he had no idea of the response it would generate.

“It never occurred to me that it would go beyond those it was intended to reach,” he told the Observer. Much of the response from within Masorti Judaism, a traditional branch of the Jewish faith, had been supportive, but there had also been “tough feedback” from Jews outside the UK in particular. Wittenberg said he “well understood” it.

His statement included condemnation of Hamas’s “barbarity and strategic cruelty” and contempt for human life alongside a lament over the “grief and unbearable ­suffering” of Palestinians in Gaza.

But his words were, he wrote, prompted by “deep concern over Israel’s ­potential actions in Rafah, making it ­impossible to remain silent”. He was praying for an end to “appalling bloodshed” on both sides.

News outlets in Israel and the US swiftly picked up the ­statement, with Wittenberg described as “possibly the ­highest-profile European Jewish leader to express misgivings about Israel’s war in Gaza” since Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October.

“It hadn’t occurred to me that other rabbis hadn’t spoken in a ­similar manner. I hadn’t ­realised that I’d be saying something which was considered outspoken or ­courageous,” he said.

Wittenberg stressed his deep ­connections to and staunch ­support of Israel. The atrocities ­committed by Hamas on 7 October were “unspeakable, calculated, utterly cruel and cunning”, and the fate of the hostages unimaginable.

But, he added, “huge numbers of Palestinian civilians are trapped in the middle. Israel is not at war with the Palestinian population but with Hamas.” Ordinary people were suffering, and more than a million were trapped in Rafah with nowhere to go.

His statement said: “Judaism has, throughout its history, stressed our duty to refugees and the helpless. How can we be unmoved by [Palestinian civilians’] grief and unbearable suffering?”

Jewish teaching to love and care for the stranger went hand in hand with the Jewish experience of being marginalised, persecuted and exiled – “and indeed having ­genocide practised against us”, he told the Observer.

A major military offensive in Rafah without adequate protection for civilians could “rebound against Israel and haunt Jews” for years to come. “Hamas doesn’t care about the cost in lives – instead it cynically blames Israel. But my worry is that violence leads to more violence, and [may] engender yet more hatred.”

In the UK, a shocking explosion of antisemitism since 7 October was revealed last week in figures released by the Community Security Trust that showed anti-Jewish abuse and attacks surged by 589% in 2023 compared to the year before. This month, a Leeds rabbi and his ­family were forced into hiding after ­receiving death threats over his reserve duty in the Israeli military. A London theatre apologised after a comedian reportedly abused and hounded out a Jewish man in the audience who refused to applaud a Palestinian flag. Wittenberg’s local MP, Mike Freer said he was leaving Parliament at the next ­election after death threats and repeated abuse. Wittenberg came out of his local underground station recently to find a drunk man shouting: “Kill the Jews.”

“Jews are feeling isolated and lonely in the workplace, Jewish ­students are intimidated on campus and Jewish children don’t feel safe in schools,” said Wittenberg. “This is outrageous, and a threat to the whole of society.”

On Friday, in a second ­message to ­members of his community, Wittenberg said Jews felt “­bullied, maligned, threatened, ­intimidated and alone … I can’t count the ­number of people across the ­professions who tell me they’ve been ­surrounded by a wall of silence, or outright hostility, who’ve felt let down or betrayed by ­colleagues and former friends.” Israel was being “horribly demonised”.

But there was compassion for people in Gaza, he told the Observer. “In my community, ­people – ­particularly young people – are extremely anxious about the level of suffering.” His statement on Rafah echoed the mood of many of them, he said.

From his work with families on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who have lost loved ones in violence, Wittenberg said he understood both the need and possibility of “recognising each other’s pain”. Jews and Muslims were united by fear and anguish; “standing together is supremely important”.

But right now it was also very ­difficult, he acknowledged. His hopes and prayers were focused on a “serious political intervention” to permanently remove Hamas from Gaza, to make significant moves towards a Palestinian state, and to ensure “dignity and security” for both sides: “I know so many people in Israel and across the boundaries who want to be able to live together in the long run, and that’s the only ­solution in the end.”