Obscure cemetery becomes symbol of Jewish solidarity

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Obscure cemetery becomes symbol of Jewish solidarity

With tensions having risen in London, how are communities doing in Norfolk, Bristol, York, Bournemouth and Belfast?

The last Jewish burial in King’s Lynn took place in 1846, yet a tiny cemetery still stands there. 

Seventeen headstones lie behind ancient brick walls and the gate is locked, besides on Sundays and World Heritage Day. Yet the final resting place has became a focal point for community solidarity since the Hamas attacks on Israel.

“On October 7 people started leaving flowers there,” said Marsha Parker, a member of the tiny West Norfolk Jewish community.

“Two more bunches of roses were left this week,” Mrs Parker told Jewish News. “Every week there are more bunches of flowers left with notes in solidarity. It’s quite moving, especially when we’ve been down to London and seen exactly the opposite.”

Headlines here in Britain have centred on rising community tensions set against a backdrop of pro-Palestinian marches and rising levels of antisemitism since 7 October.

Reports have focused on London and other large Jewish areas, but what has life been like for those in far smaller UK communities?

West Norfolk has around 30 members, including Marsha and her husband Todd. It’s based 40 miles from the nearest shul – in Norwich or Cambridge – and regularly meets in people’s houses for Kabbalat Shabbat.

“We’ve had a couple of meetings recently because people are feeling isolated and concerned.

“We’re not encountering hostility day by day on our streets – it’s about belonging.” she said, adding that they have received “very kind messages” from the police and faith groups, including local muslims.

The couple have, however, noticed a difference while visiting family elsewhere.

“My husband has said that he doesn’t feel comfortable walking around north-west London,” said Mrs Parker. “He didn’t used to wear his kippah in west Norfolk and did in London, but now the opposite is true.”

Marsha said they had seen “Palestinian flags and graffiti everywhere” in Bristol, where their daughter lives, adding: “For the first time in my life I’ve taken off my Magen David l because I didn’t want it showing.”

There may be a contrast with Norfolk, but communication has been strong and ongoing between Bristol’s Jewish and Muslim communities, according to Peter Brill, a long-time member and former vice-chair of the Bristol and West Progressive Jewish Congregation.

“I think the organisers of all the events have been very very alive to and aware of the potential of these events getting out of hand or being overtaken by people with other agendas. So they’re being very careful,” he said.

Bristol is known for its activism, particularly with issues like Black Lives Matter. The current situation has been no different, said Peter.

“There was a desire for protests and vigils on both sides,” he said.

What many may not be aware of is the close co-operation behind the scenes.

“For example, with the pro-Palestinian marches the police, the local authorities, the community representatives were talking to each other and reinforcing respect and perspective with things like banners and chanting,” he said.

“It is of course naive to think that there aren’t extreme views in all communities – of course there are. But in terms of atmosphere, people have felt a great degree of reassurance.”

The congregation has a wide geographical range, stretching to Bath, Newport and beyond. The city is also home to an Orthodox synagogue and Chabad.

There have been incidences of antisemitism, Peter conceded, but the number is “tiny” compared with elsewhere.

His own synagogue has received “a huge number of membership enquiries” in recent weeks. Meanwhile there was a big crowd for a Chanukah lighting outside City Hall a sign perhaps of community cohesion.

The situation is rather different in Belfast, where the city council recently passed a package of pro-Palestinian actions, including calling for the UN to “dismantle Israel’s apartheid systems”.

Michael Black, deputy chairman of the Belfast Jewish community, said the congregation, at just 64 members strong, is frustrated by such moves.

“What I find hard to swallow is our local politicians,” he said. “They have a tendency to take sides without knowing, or worse ignoring, those facts that challenge their beliefs.

“There was no mention of Hamas and their atrocities and they were very mindful of the Palestinian community in Northern Ireland but didn’t mention the Jewish community.”

As anyone who has visited the region knows, alignment with the Middle East crisis is nothing new.

Michael said: “The problem has been adopted and brought to Belfast.

“If you drive through Belfast you go through a Protestant working class area and you see Israeli flags and in nationalist areas you see Palestinian murals.”

Since October “there has been a bit more flag waving on both sides”, he added.

Belfast’s Jewish community is elderly, said Michael, and overall they are “very much left alone”. Nevertheless, he told Jewish News that their rabbi has received several “abusive phone calls”, and that a family outside the city reported a school incident which was “trivialised” by the head.

“We don’t feel personally threatened but what gets to us is the local ignorance and the fact people seem to want to get involved in something they really don’t understand,” he said, adding that on a positive note the community had received many “heartwarming” letters of support for themselves and Israel.

Elisheva Salamo this year became the first full-time rabbi in York since the city’s Jews were killed at Clifford’s Tower more than 800 years ago.

The York Liberal Jewish Community has around 100 members, with about a quarter that amount again in students, said Rabbi Salamo.

“We have a really sweet and good relationship with the students, especially since October 7,” she said, adding that she is an adviser to the Jewish society at York University and the Jewish chaplain at York St Johns.

There have been a couple of pro-Palestinian marches and some posters of hostages have been taken down, but the situation has remained largely calm, she said.

“What’s happened with the war is that we’ve all reached out to each other a little bit more.

“People have shown up more, especially when we did the first peace prayer and prayer for the hostages. Everybody is so grateful to be together.”

Interfaith relations are strong in York with Rabbi Salamo saying she has a “good relation with the local imam”.

“We lit our first Chanukah candle at Clifford’s Tower and we had a lovely crowd. The message we’re trying to give here in York, in light of the ancient massacre, is really that Jews belong everywhere.”

Bournemouth has seen a “surge in interest of people wanting to connect”, according to Chabad’s Rabbi Bentzion Alperowitz.

“We’ve had a much higher level of engagement and interaction than ever before,” he said.

As well as attending Chanukah events, people had been asking to lay tefillin and put up mezuzot.

“It’s a feeling of wanting to be more connected,” he said. “There are many people who are fearful but the general attitude is not one of running away but on the contrary – a great need and desire to identify as Jewish and to reconnect to what makes us a people.

“I’ve definitely seen it with the students, but it’s across the board.

“To me that has been very telling. Sometimes it takes a negative force to bring that out, but that touches the deepest core of who we are.”

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