Mark Lewis, a famed libel and privacy lawyer, is leaving Britain. Worn down by years of anti-Semitic abuse and death threats, he has decided enough is enough.
The 53-year-old plans to begin a new life in Israel with his partner, Mandy Blumenthal, by year’s end. Both were born and raised in England. Both are very ready to leave.
“I just want to get out of here. It’s a massive thing to do but I’ve actually had enough,” Lewis said. “People might dislike me in Israel because of my political views, might think I’m too right-wing or left-wing or whatever, but they are not going to dislike me for being Jewish.”
Two people have previously been imprisoned for threatening to murder him for being Jewish, Lewis said. Now, he said, he’s reached the stage where he’s “almost being desensitized to the threats” – from both right and left – such is their regularity.
The couple’s decision comes as accusations of anti-Semitism dog Britain’s main opposition Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. At the same time, incidents of recorded anti-Semitism are near record levels.
Lewis sees Corbyn as a catalyst for anti-Semitism rather than a threat in himself, saying the Labour leader has “moved the rock and it’s the people who are crawling out from underneath it who are the problem.” As a public figure and prominent pro-Israel voice, Lewis is an easy target for abuse on social media.
The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity that fights anti-Semitism, recorded 727 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of 2018, the second-highest total ever marked for the first half of a year since the CST began recording anti-Semitic incidents in 1984. Only the total for the first six months of 2017 has been higher.
The current climate has shaken Britain’s roughly 300,000-strong Jewish community.
Since the UK took in some 90,000 Jews from the European mainland as World War II loomed, it has been considered one of the safest places in the world for Jews to live. Unlike in neighboring France, where a 2015 terror attack targeted a kosher supermarket and a Holocaust survivor was killed in her home in March, no lethal violence has occurred. But the conversation is changing.
“We are seeing British Jews increasingly talking about leaving and also seeing signs of people actually leaving, not just to Israel, but also to the United States and Canada – and Australia is a destination as well,” said Gideon Falter, chairman of the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA).
“Some of our volunteers from the coalition have become aware of so many incidents through their work with us that they have decided to leave and have moved with their families.”
It’s hard to pin down exact figures on how many people have left or are actively considering uprooting their lives, since Israel is the only country globally that specifically tracks the immigration of Jews, Falter said.
Yigal Palmor, communications director for the Jewish Agency for Israel, told CNN that 213 Jews had moved from Britain to Israel between January and June, up 9% compared with the same period last year. However, the total number of people who moved from the UK to Israel in 2017 was lower than in the three previous years.
Palmor said the agency’s UK office had also received more calls and that more people had opened files than last year but cautioned that this would not necessarily translate into more people moving to Israel, a process known as making “Aliyah”. Nonetheless, he said, “Aliyah has become a popular conversation theme among many British Jews and many more are talking about it.”
Some British Jews who have the financial means have started to consider buying property in Israel, Falter said, even if they aren’t planning an imminent move. Of course, not all can afford to relocate even if they want to.
“It’s a very sad state of affairs because we have all grown up here and for most us this is where our grandparents found refuge during the darkest days of humanity,” said Falter.
How did Britain get here?
The current situation is complex and involves shifting political sands, social media’s capacity to echo and amplify the views of a minority, and a long-running undercurrent of anti-Semitism.
On the political front, the Labour Party, which has long been considered a natural home for British Jews, has been embroiled for more than two years in a bitter dispute over the extent of anti-Semitism within its ranks.
The seeds of the crisis lie in Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015.
Corbyn, who long-served on his party’s backbenches in Parliament, has a history of associating with fringe left-wing groups whose support for the Palestinian cause often bleeds into anti-Semitism, wrote political commentator John McTernan earlier this month. When Corbyn became leader, those views were brought into the mainstream.
The dispute within Labour came to a head last month, when the party’s governing body adopted a new code of conduct that included the 38-word International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, but not all 11 examples of what could constitute anti-Semitic behavior. Jewish groups – and some senior Labour figures – have called for the party’s leadership to adopt the IHRA definition in full, but the party leadership appears to be concerned that it would inhibit criticism of Israel and its policies.
On July 25, Britain’s three leading Jewish newspapers – the Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Telegraph and Jewish News – took the unprecedented step of publishing the same front page, with the headline “United we stand,” in which they argued that any Corbyn-led government would be an “existential threat” to Jewish life in Britain.
Explaining the decision, the Jewish Chronicle cited “Corbynite contempt for Jews and Israel.”
Days later, Corbyn had to apologize for reportedly hosting an event at which the Israeli government was likened to the Nazis.
With the issue continuing to dominate UK headlines, Corbyn wrote an opinion piece in The Guardian in which he rejected the idea that a Labour government would be any kind of threat to the Jewish community, while at the same time dismissing the Jewish newspapers’ warning as “overheated rhetoric.”
Two days later, Corbyn issued a video statement in which he insisted that “people who hold anti-Semitic views have no place in the Labour Party.”
He acknowledged that Labour had been “too slow” to take action over anti-Semitism within its ranks but also said instances of it had been few.
The furor was stoked this week when pictures emerged showing the Labour Party leader at a 2014 wreath-laying ceremony for terrorists who killed Israeli athletes in the 1970s, prompting condemnation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Corbyn has not apologized but has said he was there to remember victims of a 1985 Israeli airstrike on the Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia.
Keith Kahn-Harris, a London-based Jewish sociologist and writer, told CNN that Corbyn and the people around him have spent years talking to the minority who agree with them, and as a result “find it exceptionally difficult to communicate with the majority Jewish community.”
“That means that even when they do try to do something about anti-Semitism they do it in a way that alienates rather than brings people together,” he said. “I think what that has led to is a situation where there is no trust.”
‘We just want to find a safe homeland’
Meanwhile, Lewis, who was born and grew up in Manchester but now lives in north London, is in the throes of applying to move to Israel, a process that includes producing paperwork to prove he is Jewish and meets the requirements of the Israeli Law of Return.
It’s a huge step, complicated by the fact that he has multiple sclerosis, doesn’t speak Hebrew and won’t be qualified to practice law in Israel.
But Lewis – who plans to continue to practice in Britain through remote working where possible – is adamant that it is necessary.
“At a point you think, enough is enough,” he said. “I still get all this abuse and I think it’s not worth a candle. I don’t need to keep on fighting against people. It seems that my life is all about fighting to justify my own existence and I shouldn’t have to do this.
“The biggest irony is, it’s the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and … all the anti-Israel people who make you want to live in Israel. They are trying to suggest that Israel caused anti-Semitism but historically it’s the other way round. Anti-Semitism is what caused people to become Zionists and say, ‘We just want to get out of here and find a safe homeland.’ “
Blumenthal, also 53, can “get by” in Hebrew and says she is feeling “very positive” about the move.
She had a very British upbringing, she said, with a father who served in the military and as Lord Mayor of Birmingham and a mother who was a magistrate. The family embraced both British and Jewish culture. “Sunday roast lunch and Friday night dinner – both parts of the tradition were very much part of our lives,” she said.
But in more recent years, Blumenthal said, there’s been a “snowball effect” where it appears to have become acceptable in British society to be anti-Semitic. “I’ve seen too much, whether it’s personal things, or things that have happened to friends,” she said.
Blumenthal, an outspoken pro-Israel campaigner, fears that verbal and physical abuse against Jews will escalate into more serious harm or death. “We are at that point in England. We get death threats. I’ve had different things saying that I should be gassed to death on social media,” she said.
“I know that wherever you live there are different struggles, it’s not a fairy tale. But I don’t like this racial abuse for being Jewish. I’ve had enough of it and it’s left more than a nasty taste for me.”
Similarly, Jewish journalist Miriam Shaviv described in a piece for the Jewish Chronicle in April how she came to the “heartbreaking” realization that her “family’s longterm future cannot be in the UK,” although she’s not yet ready to leave.
“Jeremy Corbyn has spent his career fighting against Zionism, and allying with people and organisations who want to destroy the Jewish state,” she wrote. “Corbyn embodies the reason why Israel’s existence is forever necessary, as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution and distress.”
By contrast, 20-year-old Sam Anton, who’s studying history and French at Durham University in northeast England, questions the warning of an “existential threat” under a Corbyn government, saying the issue is more one of Jews being shut out of Labour politics.
Anton, whose parents and brother are Labour Party members, doesn’t consider Corbyn to be an anti-Semite as such but believes “he doesn’t want a strong Jewish voice in the Labour Party” because Jews “tend to push Labour towards the center” at a time when Corbyn wants to shift the party further left.
Anton, from southwest London, says neither he nor his immediate family plan to quit Britain.
“I’m proud to be British, I don’t have an Israeli passport, I would only move to Israel if I had to,” he said. At the same time, he said, some friends of his – particularly those who live in heavily Jewish areas of north London, where a collective feeling of threat is greater – feel quite differently.
Verbal, physical, online abuse
Community Security Trust figures show that more than 100 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded every month from January to June this year, with the highest monthly totals in April and May. The group says it is “likely” that Gaza-Israel tensions and the turmoil within Labour “partly caused” the increase.
Fifty-nine of the reported incidents involved physical violence, at least three of which left the victims requiring hospital treatment, while around a fifth involved social media. There were also instances of anti-Semitic graffiti, desecration of Jewish sites and the abuse of Jewish schoolchildren and staff.
“I don’t know how many people are actively thinking on those terms of leaving the country but certainly a lot of Jewish people are worrying about what the future might hold,” Dave Rich, head of policy for the CST, told CNN.
Although it’s hard to quantify, the publicity around anti-Semitism may have led both to more incidents occurring and to more being reported, he said.
“There is just general concern across the Jewish community at the moment about anti-Semitism, about the fact that it seems to be part of mainstream politics and mainstream life in a way that it never used to be.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of the Campaign Against Antisemitism.