After Paris: Keeping our buildings and minds open

In the wake of the Paris shootings the Daily Mail, and other national newspapers, reported with sadness that Britain’s Jewish community had been forced to take additional security measures, and received increased police support, in advance of its Sabbath services.  While this is factually correct, my initial reaction is that the realities of change will be minimal for Britain’s Jews, who are already well used to functioning in a climate of fear and tension. For as long as I can remember, all Jewish community activities, from synagogue services to schools and youth clubs, have involved a significant security presence. For Britain’s Jews, it has historically been entirely normal to gather in secure buildings policed by volunteer security guards, who work in a close relationship with local police. You can’t just wander into a Jewish building in Britain, at least not in London or other major cities.

Nationwide, Jewish security arrangements are coordinated through a charitable trust, the CST.  They monitor antisemitism, produce research and intelligence, and provide on-the-ground security for community events. CST is a big deal. Indeed it is one of the top ten Jewish charities in Britain with an annual turnover in excess of seven million pounds. At a local level, things can feel a little more ad-hoc. Synagogue volunteers take it in turns ‘on security’, including my 70-year-old dad. Of course, this kind of community initiative would probably not have stopped the Paris attacks from taking place. Having people on lookout stops you being seen as an easy target. It probably doesn’t prevent determined, military-trained and armed terrorists. For me, Jewish security has always felt a little like the Home Guard. My dad is determined to help defend his community – Jackie Chan, he ain’t.

Security measures within the Jewish community are so normal, so long term, that we don’t tend to notice. And I would be very surprised if recent events changed anything much. Historically, fears have been different, but the effect much the same. In the interwar period, community action meant defending buildings and people from Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and likeminded groups. Similarly, in the postwar, even when I was growing up in the 1980s, it was the far right that was seen as the primary threat. Throughout, fears have not been imaginary. In the 1960s, fascist leaders like Colin Jordan and John Tyndall were jailed, under public order legislation, for plotting to attack British Jewry.

But real as the danger is and has always been, it does not detract from the fact that living a life in the shadow of constant security takes a heavy toll. The money and time is not the issue, though it is a sad diversion from better causes. More important is the psychological impact of constantly feeling threatened and believing that without the barriers between them and us, we would be done for. It is of course true that security drives paranoia, though as any good shrink will confirm, suffering from paranoia doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t out to get you! Just to be clear, I would not like to be the one to pull back the security infrastructure around British Jewry. But I feel resentment and anger that it’s there, and am sure that we have not thought nearly enough about what all the security has done to us (as opposed to what it has done for us).

Most British Jews, like most British people, are deeply committed to our imperfect multicultural home. And if we don’t want our cities ever to descend into the fantasised dystopia that ludicrous Fox News commentators already believe to exist, multiculturalism must mean keeping our doors and our minds open, living alongside other Britons in the fullest sense, entering into each other’s lives and homes as friends, neighbours and colleagues. Our houses of prayer, our community buildings, should be prominent cultural resources, enriching our city landscapes, not hidden behind high fences or barbed wire. Sadly, some of Britain’s most remarkable Jewish buildings aren’t even signposted for fear of the attention they may attract.

The point I am making is not primarily for/or about British Jews.  Community security is far from just a Jewish affair and there is little doubt that it is British Muslims who face the greatest threat in the current climate. Instead, it is a plea to all Britons to hold our ground in the aftermath of last week’s attacks. Because if Paris makes us build new walls around ourselves or ushers in a new wave of security arrangements it will do so at the cost of our conviviality. And in the long run, this might cause a bigger problem than it solves, especially when measures are ill equipped to effectively stop the kinds of attacks we are likely to face in any case.

Mike and Trevor Phillips, in their book on Windrush immigration, famously described the rise of British multiculturalism as irresistible. I think they are right, but what is certainly true is that Britain’s present enemies, both fundamentalist religious bigots and the far right, would like to see it resisted. This truly is the battle that’s worth fighting, and it is one where keeping our barriers down might be more important in the long run than trying to defend ourselves with new ones.

Professor Gavin Schaffer is Professor of British History at the University of Birmingham. This article was originally published on the MBS Birmingham blog.