“The sort of fear that can drive a community out of a city”

This is a cross post by Dr Samuel Lebens

I was privileged to grow in up in Leicester; a beautiful city with fantastic schools, and a vibrant multi-cultural community. I cherish the ethnic diversity of my childhood. Now, I’m studying to become a Rabbi where the study of Judaism is the only religion on the curriculum. But, so moved was I during my youth by the wealth of multicultural wisdom around me that I chose to take a GCSE in Sikhism – a strikingly elegant religion with an egalitarian ethic.

I was also struck by the beauty of the other religions that surrounded me: Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. These experiences, I carry with me in to my adult life.

As a leader of the National Union of Students (NUS), I was in joint charge of their campaign against racism and fascism. I recall a motion that was debated at a national conference. The motion called for the NUS to condemn the practice of women wearing a headscarf. My childhood experiences in Leicester had inoculated me from the xenophobia that motivates this suggestion. I was among the first to stand in front of the 1,000 students at the conference, to defend a woman’s right to dress as she pleases. I couldn’t be moved by the notion that Islam is inherently bigoted or prejudiced. My childhood included too many counter examples to any such claim.

I grew up in a Jewish community that felt safe within this multicultural environment.

Leicester has never been home to a large number of Jews. But we’ve always been proud of our association with it. Indeed, the number of Jewish mayors that have graced Leicester’s City Hall is vastly disproportionate to our numbers. Growing up in that community, habituated to the tolerance around me, gave me a confidence in my minority identity. I owe that to the city of Leicester.

But let me describe to you another city.

At best, it can be described as a city that tolerates the anti-Semitism in its midst.

In the past few years, I have found it is almost impossible to walk down its main streets without having anti-Semitic abuse hurled at me and my family. Cars slow down, with windows opened, in order to unleash a bloodcurdling howl of Jew-hatred. I don’t feel comfortable to dress, outwardly, as a Jew in that city.

It is a place to which I fear to bring my children; I don’t want them to know the face of anti-Semitism.

A young relative of the Rabbi, in that city, had a pellet gun shot at him indiscriminately. The synagogue there has been the target of repeated acts of vandalism. Recently, anti-Semites located the home of its only Orthodox Rabbi. They hurled bricks through its door in the middle of the night. The fear that such an attack can strike into the hearts of a young family is barely describable.

When will the next brick come? Will it still be a brick, or will it, God forbid, be something worse? How are they supposed to explain the attacks to their children? It is the sort of fear that can drive a family, and even a community, out of a city.

The city I’m now describing is also Leicester; the Leicester of my adulthood.

Not since Simon de Montfort, who was known for his Jew-hatred, has Leicester been so overcast with the shadow of anti-Semitism.

Leicester’s Jewish community is shrinking. It is unlikely to last as a viable community for another generation. Its youth are attracted to larger centres of Jewish life. But, under the leadership of its vibrant young Rabbi and his wife, the community has been host to something of a renaissance.

Leicester would like to believe its greatest asset is its communal cohesion. Mercury reporter Adam Wakelin’s recent feature expressed his dismay at the attacks on our Rabbi and his family, but concluded that Leicester is, nevertheless, a tolerant town.

“Once upon a time we made socks and shoes,” he wrote. “Now we do diversity. Rather well, usually.”

But Leicester should be under no illusion about the scale of the problem it faces. Very few of Leicester’s Jews dress outwardly as Jews (in skull caps, and fringes on the corners of their clothes). But, when a Jew does walk around dressed in traditional garb, there’s almost bound to be to be a confrontation.

Community cohesion might be good, generally, but if even one religious identity cannot flourish there, then it cannot be said to be a city that “does diversity”.

What are Leicester’s faith communities going to do? What is the council going to do?

Other than issuing reassuring statements, how are they going to combat the rise of anti-Semitic attitudes?

Many of the anti-Semites who have confronted me in Leicester were of clear religious affiliation, and belonged to ethnic minorities themselves. They should have known better.

I haven’t a clue who’s responsible for this most recent spate of attacks; I certainly won’t jump to any assumptions. However, Councillor Sood was surely right to claim that “attacks on one religion are attacks on all religions”. Until the rank and file membership of faith groups in Leicester take this lesson to heart, those communities have a duty to do more than issue reassuring quotes, however heartfelt.

I appreciate their support but what are they actually going to do? What are you going to do?

The last chapter of Leicester’s Jewish history is currently being written. It could be a glorious ending: an old, venerable community, winds down, merging with larger communities elsewhere. Alternatively, the last chapter could be one in which the Jewish community is hounded and bullied out of its city by an anti-Semitism that almost goes unnoticed.

Which of these cities does Leicester want to be?

Dr Samuel Lebens is studying towards Rabbinical ordination and lives with his wife and two children in Israel.