Paris attacks prompt London Jewish community to tighten security

Kosher Kingdom is one of the largest kosher supermarkets in the United Kingdom. Photo by Rachel Stafler
Kosher Kingdom is one of the largest kosher supermarkets in the United Kingdom.
Photo by Rachel Stafler

LONDON — Guards, closed-circuit television, locked gates, 24-hour surveillance: These are some of the security measures that Jewish schools, community centers and synagogues in the United Kingdom and Europe have in place. The protections are especially striking compared to what can seem like little or no security at Jewish communal buildings in the United States.

Still, since the Paris attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket, Jewish organizations and institutions in London are reviewing their safety protocols and putting even tighter arrangements into place.

The U.K. has the second largest population of Jews in Europe, after France, with the total population reaching just under 300,000, around the size of the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Jewish populations combined. More than 200,000 Jews live in the greater London area, mostly in the Northwest section of the city, home to scores of schools, synagogues and community organizations.

But the U.K. isn’t the only country in Europe to take stock in the wake of recent events. In continental Europe, where security at Jewish buildings can include bulletproof doors and concrete barriers, scores of community leaders gathered in the Belgian capital of Brussels just three days after the Paris attacks to simulate and train for the next crisis. The program was organized by the European Jewish Congress’ Security and Crisis Centre.

“Although the threat level hasn’t changed, when something happens like the events in Paris it unnerves people and causes an increase in concern and anxiety,” said Dave Rich, spokesman for the Community Service Trust, the organization that provides physical security, training and advice for British Jewry. “In terms of communal anxiety, there is still a hangover from the summer when we had a big rise in anti-Semitic incidents during the Gaza conflict. The police and CST have put on extra security to reassure people that they can go about their normal lives and know that they are protected.”

In a measure of the community’s anxiety, Rich said that the organization has never had such a high volume of calls, and it added staff to deal with the many inquiries coming in. It also saw about 40 volunteers coming forward to patrol Jewish areas. This comes after a year when anti-Semitic incidents were at a record high: In excess of 1,000 events were recorded, according to the CST, the vast majority not severe.

Police, on Jan. 23, said there is “heightened concern about the risk to the Jewish community,” according to a statement issued by Mark Rowley, assistant commissioner at the National Policing Lead for Counter Terrorism.

Home Secretary Theresa May said Jan. 25 that Britain must do more to tackle anti-Semitism.

“I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom would say they were fearful of remaining here,” she said at an event commemorating the Jews killed in the Paris attacks. “And that means we must all redouble our efforts to wipe out anti-Semitism here.”

Despite reassurances, there is still widespread insecurity in the Jewish community given the attacks in Paris.

“We are a lot more alert now,” said Shana Leitner, 30, who lives in the London neighborhood of Golders Green. “When we leave the house, we don’t just walk out. We first look around. At the supermarket, no one is standing around and chatting. … And it’s the same at my children’s school.”

Police are quick to dismiss any parallels between the threats to the Jews of London and Paris. At a community meeting for the Northwest London Jewish community, the local police commander emphasized the strength of the counter-terror intelligence system and detailed the difficulty terrorists would have acquiring automatic weapons in the country, where firearms legislation is notoriously strict. Even so, the police and the CST have increased foot patrols in Jewish areas, especially during busy shopping times.

The owners of Jewish shops in London, such as bakeries, supermarkets and butchers, are also taking no chances. The Kosher Deli, a chain of five butcher stores in northwest London, has altered its security plan to include 24-hour CCTV surveillance.

Kosher Kingdom, one of the largest kosher supermarkets in the U.K., sent out an email to customers describing steps it is taking to enhance customer safety, including staff training, a new CCTV network and walky-talkies for workers.

“As soon as it happened we had to make sure that all the right systems were in place,” said Chuny Rokach, the owner of Kosher Kingdom. “We thought we had to take steps to reassure our customers and staff. Footfall hasn’t been affected, but people are … definitely concerned.”

Many Jewish schools have also reviewed their security procedures, with some briefing parents on revised protocols. In addition to high gates and permanent security guards, many also
assign parents to stand guard during pick-up and drop-off times.

“We are definitely more alert and the police are also more visible,” said the spokesman for one Jewish school in London, who asked not to be named due to security concerns. “Security at most of the Jewish schools was already at a high level after the events last summer. … We have to be on point 100 percent of the time, but they only need to get lucky once.”

Rachel Elbaum is a freelance writer in London.

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