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When worship needs security on the door

Features | Published:

The leader of Jersey's Jewish community tells David Edbrooke why he is concerned for his fellow Jews in Britain.

When Stephen Regal considers the position of British Jews living in the UK, he does so with sorrowful eyes.

‘It’s strange to walk along the street in the UK as a Jewish person knowing, statistically, that one in five people coming the other way hates me, even though they don’t know me,’ says Mr Regal, who has been president of the Jersey Jewish Congregation for the past 19 years.

In January it was reported that anti-Semitic hate crime had reached record levels in the UK. The Community Security Trust, a charity that monitors anti-Semitism, said that the Jewish community in the UK had been targeted at a rate of nearly four times a day last year.

According to the CST, there were 1,382 cases of anti-Semitism in 2017 – the most since it began documenting such instances in 1984 – including a 34 per cent rise in violent assaults.

Mr Regal says that the resurgence of anti-Semitism in the UK is cause for serious concern.

‘As a Jewish man it’s extremely worrying. It is a resurgence of the sort of violence that our parents and grandparents faced in middle Europe from 1933 to 1945, and that our ancestors faced in eastern-Europe. It’s one of the reasons why many of the Jews who live in Britain are here,’ adds Mr Regal, whose grandparents emigrated to Britain from Russia and Poland respectively.

‘They left those countries because of state-sponsored anti-Semitism there and they came to Britain because of the freedoms of expression that Britain traditionally has offered.’

In 2016, the UK Labour Party suspended 50 of its members following allegations of anti-Semitism. Among them was Ken Livingstone, the former London mayor, who is still serving his suspension having suggested, two years ago, that Hitler supported Zionism – the movement to establish a Jewish state in the historic land of Israel – before the Holocaust.

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And last month the Jewish Labour Movement accused the Labour Party of failing to deal with a ‘vast backlog’ of anti-Semitism complaints.

Anti-Semitism is hostility and prejudice directed at Jewish people, and Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has denied that his party has an anti-Semitism problem.

‘The Labour Party have done nothing to dispel [claims of anti-Semitism among members],’ insists Mr Regal. ‘The disappointment is amplified because the social comment the Labour Party makes fits snuggly with the Jewish heart – love for others, charity et cetera.

‘But many Jews will be considering their position in the UK mainland in the event that the current Labour Party wins the next election.’

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Back in Jersey, Mr Regal says the Jewish community – which comprises about 50 families – could not feel any more welcome.

‘As a Jew in Jersey we have the utmost confidence in our government and our establishment to support and protect us, and the security authorities have always given us the utmost support.’

Yet there have been instances of anti-Semitism, even in Jersey. In the past, the synagogue – which is in St Brelade and was purchased from the Methodist Church in 1972 – has been vandalised with swastikas daubed onto it, and the cemetery was once ransacked.

‘And we’ve occasionally had cars drive past when we congregate outside the synagogue at the end of a service and somebody in the car has shouted out “Y**s” or whatever.

‘There’s always going to be a nutter fringe, but most people I’ve met in Jersey are intrigued by Judaism.’

Mr Regal, who can read and speak Hebrew fluently, says Jersey’s community has shown great solidarity with Jewish people over the years – and that the warm-hearted reaction following the vandalism of the synagogue was a case in point.

‘Sometimes good things come out of very bad things and as Jews here, we push against an open gate. In mainland Britain this sort of thing happens more than once a week, but when the swastikas were painted on the synagogue here, two guys from down the road came along with a steam cleaner and volunteered to remove the paint.

‘Jersey’s chief of police attended the scene of the crime too – even though from a Jersey perspective it wasn’t such an important crime.

‘The Rector of St Brelade came along with a massive bunch of flowers and we received over 500 letters of sympathy from the general public. I can’t tell you how gratifying that support was – and it tells you more about Jersey than it does about Jews.’

Even so, when the Jewish community in Jersey comes together to pray, it does so behind locked doors with security guards outside.

‘The perceived risk here in Jersey is much lower [than the UK], but we’d be foolhardy to ignore it,’ says Mr Regal, who has been re-elected as president of the Jersey Jewish Congregation every year for 19 years.

‘We’ve been praying behind locked doors for six or seven years, since the rise in violence against Jews started in the UK.

‘We joined with the CST – which, I hasten to add, is not a vigilante organisation – to train our watch-keepers in identifying and helping to prevent incidents occurring in the synagogue.’

Three of the synagogue’s membership have been trained in passive self-defence by the CST, which was set up to ensure the safety of the Jewish community in Britain.

‘They are led by ex-St Helier centenier David Rothband, who understands civil ground patrol. They have been to the UK for training and anyone who comes to the synagogue will be asked a couple of casual questions if they don’t recognise them. It’s just to make sure that people haven’t come to make mischief.

‘Our guys are equipped with telephones and radios and they liaise with the States police generally and with special branch in certain circumstances – there are national threat levels and they rise and fall when certain individuals, who might be of interest to the police, arrive in Jersey.

‘But we don’t get to know specific police intelligence – and neither should we, because we are civilians.’

Two weeks ago Jersey remembered victims of the Nazi regime, on Holocaust Memorial Day.

A number of wreaths were laid at the Lighthouse Memorial at the Maritime Museum, including one on behalf of the families of the 21 Islanders who died in German concentration camps and prisons. Several other wreaths were laid, including on behalf of Jersey’s Jewish Congregation, and the Island’s Muslim community.

Mr Regal believes that other countries in the world could learn a lot from the harmonious inter-faith ties between religious groups in the Island.

‘In Jersey we have an excellent relationship with Muslims. I treat many of the senior Muslims in Jersey as friends and that could be a lesson to the rest of the world – in the way that inter-religious relationships occur here.

‘My wife and I have enjoyed the end of Ramadan with the Muslim community and we were invited to the opening of the Islamic Centre, and to prayer with them.

‘And myself and Dr Sarfraz Jamali – the lay leader who is my equivalent in the Islamic community – have established a very warm relationship. We end up sitting together regularly at various civic functions and my wife knows his wife extremely well.’

Mr Regal and his wife Lynda (68) have a daughter and son – Lisa and Simon – and six grandchildren.

Lisa lives with her husband and their four children in North Yorkshire, and Simon and his wife – who have two children – live in Jersey.

‘Our grandson has experienced some fairly mild anti-Semitism at school in Yorkshire – just the odd comment,’ adds Mr Regal, who owns the building firm Regal Construction. ‘But as Jews you get used to comments.’

Has Brexit, in his view, made the situation worse for Jews in the UK?

‘I don’t believe so, but Brexit has made some sections of the British public more xenophobic and it has polarised British society like it’s never been polarised before. Whether you are for or against Brexit, blaming Britain’s ills on the influx of Polish workers or Italian waiters et cetera is the wrong way to set about it – there are much more legalistic reasons to be for or against Brexit.

‘Britain, without our immigrants, would be poorer in so many ways.’

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