By Harold Ohayon
“A New Struggle?”
Following the historic and shocking victory for the OUT campaign, we have been inundated with reports about increased xenophobia and racism throughout the United Kingdom. In a gross, yet predictable, manner, the supporters of the IN campaign have sought to tie this increase to the election in an attempt to demonise the movement and the 52% of the British populace that voted to withdraw from the European Union. While there is no doubt that there is a bigoted and xenophobic fringe to the OUT campaign (every political movement has it’s extremists), I find the media portrayal of these attacks and the frenzied panic of the populace to be a tad ridiculous and immensely amusing.
Perhaps amusing is too strong of a word, but it is the only one that sings true to me at the moment. Why so? I am a gay Jew living in Belfast, and since moving here several years ago I have witnessed a handful of distasteful bigotry first hand and have also witnessed the muted response by many within this country. As my Jewish roots holds much sway over my life, I will be writing this blog post in the context of this facet of my identity.
Northern Ireland is a beautiful place, full of natural wonders and kindly people. It is also one that has witnessed its fair share of violence and terror, and this legacy is noticeable in every town and city. Having grown up in New York City, being Jewish was never really an issue for me. I never felt like a minority back home, but coming to Belfast solidified this realisation for me. The Jewish community here is quickly fading away, and so I find myself seemingly a ‘person without a tribe’. That aside, I still have managed to encounter my fair share of bigotry whilst being here. This was especially true during my first summer in Belfast, when Israel went to war with Hamas in Gaza. There were weekly protests against Israel in the city centre, which would have been fine had the tone not been so hateful and extreme. The politics here can become toxic quite quickly, and so it did in relationship to protesting against Israel. During this time period, our local synagogue was defaced twice. A Jewish friend of mine, who wears a Star of David necklace, was harassed in the city centre. I was shouted at and nearly chased down a street because I had an Israeli flag on me. I have heard people making offensive comments about the Holocaust, and some even made sympathetic comments about Hitler and his war of extermination against my people. And, in the most brazen event I have witnessed in a long while, a pack of preteens shouted ‘F—ing Jews!’ at me and my boyfriend (who happens to be Catholic) at us on a city bus. During the course of those months, when the environment against Jews became increasingly hostile in Belfast, I hardly noticed a peep from anyone outside of the community. People knew what was happening, as the local news covered the protests and it was hard to miss them on the weekends. The attacks on the synagogue, too, were mentioned in the media. And yet I did not see any human rights group, or diversity group, or any sort of group rally to our defence. Some of us from within the Jewish community spoke out, many stayed silent and simply wanted to ride out the storm. But there was no massive push by anyone to stop the ever growing darkness that was befalling this city.
Sadly, it seems, this rise in anti Jewish sentiment is not confined to Belfast. For the last several years, there has been an alarming rise in anti-Semitic crime within the UK. It has reach the point where several Israeli papers reported on the increase of British Jews seeking to move to Israel to escape this hostile environment. For years now, myself and others who are politically active within the Jewish community have tried to raise the alarm for our people. And we have usually reached deaf ears. It seems combating anti-Semitism is not fashionable, and people will only rally for refugees or women’s rights these days. Whenever I would point out the hypocrisy in this, and mention the hardships we have been facing within the United Kingdom, I have usually been brushed off. This reaction has fuelled a deep seeded scepticism in me when I see people rush to champion the causes of minorities within the UK, as it seems to happen only when it can be used to further a specific political agenda or cause.
And this is what I feel is happening today. Again, I do not doubt for a minute that bigotry exists within the UK, nor do I think combating such things should be ignored. However, the constant bombardment of statistics and headlines is an obvious political plot by those who lost the referendum. Why, all of a sudden, does the nation cry out and demand justice for minorities? Why now? Why now, when for years so many ignored the plight of British Jews? Because this issue can be harnessed and weaponised against any and all that supported the OUT campaign. By trying to link OUT supporters to these attacks, people are ultimately trying to demonise the other side in the hopes of invalidating the results of the vote. This scare tactic is distasteful to the extreme. People are using us, we the minorities of this country, for their lost cause. Racism and xenophobia was here before the vote, yet hardly anyone cared. Now that the votes have been cast, people are crying out. Not from the goodness of their hearts, and not for their collective desire to see us all treated as equals. But simply because they lost, and they need a way to vent their fury and disappointment. Mark my words, when this chaotic storm calms, these people will quickly forget about the plight of the minority groups. The issue will only be raised again if some political party sees an opportunity to use it as a weapon to advance an agenda.
What we need is to have a stable and long term approach to combat racism and xenophobia within the United Kingdom. We can not let it become a ’cause of the day’ movement, where supporters will vanish after the Twitter and Facebook posts slowly fade away. We need a long term strategy that sees well into the future, past this referendum. Racism and xenophobia are hard things to destroy. If we truly want to make the United Kingdom a more inclusive country, we need to stand firm and look beyond the horizon. It will take time and dedication, but I have no doubt it is doable. But things will never change if we let politicians hijack and use these issues when they see fit. We the people must combat these social ills every day. Every hour. Every moment. Only then can we defeat the bigotry. And, if we stand for this struggle, all groups must stand together and defend one another. If a Jew is verbally attacked in Belfast, or physically beaten in London, we must all stand with them and protect them. We can not cherry pick which groups to help and which to ignore. This will weaken the cause and make hypocrites of us all. Please, friends, wake up. This struggle is not new. Wake up, friends. Do not be swayed by headlines or social media. Do not be used as pawns. Stand together with your neighbour, from today until the end of days.