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Anti-Semitism Moral Panics, by Gavin Lewis

Coverage of the Moshe Fuerst assault reveals deep-seated media prejudice

In the aftermath of global condemnation of Israel’s 2014 bombing of Gaza’s civilians, including hundreds of children, the UK media and that of the broader Western world, became swept up in a moral panic suggesting that the world’s ‘real’ victims were in fact affluent, middle-class, white ethnic Western Jews. Apparently anti-Semitism was to be the ‘real’ prioritised problem, and it was claimed to be rife. However, in the UK, even in the face of media under-reporting, the extent of racism experienced by Black Britons and Muslims is evident, because we know the names of those who experience crippling attack, and who die at the hands of racists and disproportionately at the hands of the police: Dr Sarandev Bhambra, Mohammad Saleem Chaudry, Mark Duggan and Jermaine Baker have been some of the many victims of these various experiences. We even know the places of Muslim worship subjected to arson, such as the Finsbury Park and Bishopbriggs mosques. By comparison, where were the equivalent white ethnic Jewish victims of anti-Semitism? Even in the case of the much-trumpeted fist fight that occurred at Stamford Hill synagogue—which got considerable, disproportionate media coverage—the local rabbi, Maurice Davis, excluded anti-Semitism as a cause.[1]Finally, filling a gap in the dominant ideological narrative, there was one incident that the media could invoke by reference to a real name, which therefore was privileged with elevated coverage, despite obvious undermining contradictions in the reportage.

Reporting the incident

While out in a group of four teenage Jewish friends, Moshe Fuerst was involved in an incident during which he suffered a ‘bleed on the brain’ (media accounts of his injury vary from ‘serious head injury’ to ‘fractured skull’). The Guardian chose to headline the story ‘suspected antisemitic attack’.[2] However, the Jewish Chronicle (JC), which was The Guardian’s cited source, initially reported Fuerst’s father’s assertions that this had actually been drug-related violence; it later took down its original online report entirely, and instead ran with an anti-Semitism claim. Israel’s Haaretz, though, ran the original JC story, which is still available: ‘This was not an anti-Semitic attack’, a family friend of Fuerst’s was reported as saying. ‘They might have said something about him being Jewish—but it all started because of drugs. He smokes a lot of weed.’ Fuerst’s father, Rabbi Michael Fuerst, told the JC in an exclusive interview that he would not be surprised if the attack on Saturday night came after a disagreement over cannabis. ‘He is on the fringes of society and that is what kids on the fringe do’, Rabbi Fuerst said. ‘He was not involved in hard drugs—he’s not any different to any other middle classes’.[3]

At trial, Judge Prowse noted that throwaway anti-Semitic remarks had been made but found that Fuerst and his friends had not been attacked because they were Jewish: they were just ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’. Ian Rushton, deputy chief crown prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service for the North West, said,

We considered very carefully what each of the victims reported the two attackers saying during the incident, and we have studied the available CCTV. None of the victims reported that racist or religiously abusive language was used by the offenders and there is no clear evidence from the statement or CCTV to prove to the court that they demonstrated or were motivated by racial or religious hostility.[4]

This material was never used to update The Guardian’s original story page,[5] which to this day continues to label the attack as anti-Semitic violence.

In a broader context, the evolving coverage that occurred during the course of this story was considerably worse. The Manchester Evening News (MEN) is the newspaper of the city where the incident took place. The MEN has a practice of covering criticism of Israel pejoratively, as anti-Semitism—there is a very small hard core of wealthy Zionist activism in Manchester, apparently with significant advertising budgets to spend or withhold. The paper has previously smeared Muslims protesting Israel’s bombing of Gaza by likening them to Nazis[6] (as if people of colour weren’t also persecuted by the Nazis). The credibility of these smears unashamedly rested entirely on the utterings of local councillor Richard Leese, who in 2010 spent twenty hours in a cell and received a police caution for assaulting his sixteen-year-old stepdaughter.[7] The paper ran more than eight variants of the Moshe Fuerst story, of which some, perhaps reflecting the sensationalist tone of its coverage, it subsequently felt obliged to either take down or update. In its coverage the paper explicitly labelled the attack anti-Semitic or emphasised the Jewish identity of the teenagers, so as to give that impression. This overt and definitive media reporting tends to be rarer in the cases of Black Britons who have suffered a racist attack, where the label ‘racism’ is often withheld until it has been ‘legitimised’ by the police or a court. In almost all coverage, and heightening the sensationalist tone, a substantially blown-up photo of Moshe Fuerst’s shaved, stitched and operated-on head was used. The Guardian employed a similar tactic of ‘splashing’ the photo.

Moshe Fuerst[8]

One report, which later disappeared from the news site but is still available via the website of one of the MEN’s local sister papers, The Bury Times, claimed that it was a case of young teenagers ‘set upon by a gang of men’—by inference many fully grown adults victimising a smaller number of teenagers.[9] Like several other news outlets, Israel’s National News revised the figure down to a ‘gang of three men’.[10] The MEN conceded that it was actually a ‘gang of three youths’—so, not adults.[11] By the time the case went to trial, it turned out—as the MEN had to further concede—to be two youths in a confrontation with, er, a ‘gang?’of four Jewish youths.[12] Despite the fact that anti-Semitism as a motivation for the attack was unsubstantiated by any official source, the paper referred to the two accused youths as ‘the hate attackers’.[13] The extent of some of these hyped claims is still evident, and they have been repeated in the Israeli media, for example in The Times of Israel: ‘Fuerst’s father Michael said the attack was carried out by a gang of “non-Jewish boys who were drunk” and who took “great joy, I’m sure, from the fact that they were beating up a Jewish kid”’.[14] However, it’s not just that the numbers and ages of people involved in this confrontation were manipulated, or even that loaded assumptions about the assailants’ motivations coloured the story, but also that in this coverage the media use of the word ‘gang’ is coming though a particular class- and race-based ideological prism, and therefore it has been unevenly applied. North Manchester has some affluent sections, home in part to the city’s historic Jewish communities. When middle-class Jewish teenagers congregate in these areas they are referred to as a ‘group’. By contrast, working-class kids from poorer and former blue-collar neighbourhoods that border these areas, such as Middleton and Salford, are described as gathering in ‘gangs’, as are, in particular, Black teenagers from the poorer parts of South Manchester, known as Moss Side. None of the media coverage that prioritised an anti-Semitic motivation in its reporting investigated or even considered the option that this was perhaps simply lower-middle-class youths fighting with rich kids.

Much of the MEN’s coverage not only gave the impression that this was without question an anti-Semitic attack but also that it was attempted murder. ‘I believe these men killed my son and the NHS brought him back to life’ (Michael Fuerst).[15] ‘(W)hy…come up to him while he is lying on the ground unconscious, kick him in the head, and potentially kill him?’[16] The impression is also given by the MEN that the extent of Moshe Fuerst’s vulnerabilities and potentially critical health status was instantly evident to those involved in the violent confrontation, thereby justifying the attempted-murder inferences. Here the MEN writes, suggesting an immediate consequence, ‘He suffered a bleed to the brain. He was intubated at North Manchester General Hospital and then put in an ambulance and taken to the neurosurgery specialist centre at Salford Royal. As soon as he arrived there he was operated on. At Crumpsall (North Manchester General) he was already slipping into a coma’.[17] Actually, as the JC reported—perhaps unaware of the MEN narratives—it was apparently a day or so later that Moshe Fuerst’s health crashed and his condition became apparent: ‘The 17-year-old was taken to hospital and initially discharged. He returned to Salford Royal Hospital on Sunday after he complained of headaches, and vomited and collapsed’.[18] But the MEN reporting reinforced national tabloid coverage in papers like the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, which consequently followed a similar tone: using the language ‘anti-semitic attack’ and the inference of attempted murder, and, like The Guardian, splashing the post-operative photo of the teenage victim.[19] It’s worth reiterating that the youths were convicted of assault. No attempted-murder or hate-crime charge was made. By the time the case came to trial, in reference to the assailants and in contradiction of the implied media narrative that they’d kicked the victim into a coma and casually sauntered off, Judge Prowse said, ‘They genuinely had no idea of the severity of the incident that they had been involved in’.[20]

The other issue in the reporting is the manner in which the potential gangs, class, drugs and/or alcohol-related aspects of this case were underexplored and under-represented in favour of an anti-Semitism narrative. Significantly, the JC initially wrote that ‘the two groups clashed after shouting at each other’ (accounts suggest that this took place from opposite platforms at a tram stop).[21] The JC’s subsequent reports were revised, apparently so as not to give the impression that the Jewish teenagers had been doing any of the baiting and ‘shouting’. But the pictures of the two youths who were eventually convicted of the assault are quite telling in that, in contradiction of the anti-Semitism narrative, both young men appear to be performing gang signs with their hands, perhaps indicative of a more basic, tribal youth conflict?

Moshe Fuerst’s assailants, Joseph Kelly, left, and Zach Birch, right. Source: Manchester Evening News.

None of this—even the legal decision—categorically rules out any anti-Semitic motive in this attack, but a number of questions arise. Why, given the weight of evidence and testimony, did the coverage veer off in the direction of an anti-Semitism narrative when so many other factors were worthy of consideration? Why did the corporate media manipulate material in this way, particularly as the coverage occurred just after the first anniversary of Israel’s bombing of the children of Gaza? If there is a homogenous ‘anti-Semitic’ narrative being encouraged, it does not appear to be a genuine expression of the diverse grassroots reality of Jewish-British experience, sentiments or communal allegiances. In May 2016 the Daily Mirror (also part of the MEN’s Trinity Mirror news stable) splashed the headline ‘Jewish cemetery vandalised by yobs in “sickening” anti-Semitic attack’. Yet buried at the very bottom of the page was the following statement: ‘Stephen Wilson, administrator of the North Manchester Jewish Cemetaries Trust, said he reported the vandalism to the police after being alerted by the cemetery’s ground staff. He said he was “dismayed” by the attacks but was not convinced the motive was antisemitism. “It’s my guess—locals come over the wall, you always find drink cans (beer) over here, they’ve been in that frame of mind and they’ve done it for the sheer hell and fun of it”’.[22] Mr Wilson’s dismissal of an anti-Semitic motive to the vandalism in Manchester replicates Rabbi Maurice Davis’s position—‘everybody gets on and we haven’t had any experience of anti-Semitism’[23]—on the fight that occurred at the entrance to Stamford Hill synagogue hundreds of miles away in London. Both incidents, though, were headlined as anti-Semitic.

Four consecutive Al Jazeera investigations plus ongoing commentaries have revealed that the Israeli embassy has been attempting to provoke its sympathisers to intervene in and manipulate British political and media culture.[24] Could this current moral panic, its tone and potential misrepresentation of Jewish-British experience, be a reflection of this?

It appears that at one point, apparently in support of an interpretation of the Moshe Fuerst incident as an anti-Semitic attack, claims were made that ‘a Jewish Kippah skullcap worn by one of the boys appeared to have been spat at after it fell to the ground during the incident. However, police said the victim “couldn’t be sure” about this happening in a formal statement which was presented to the Crown Prosecution Service to make a charging decision’. Greater Manchester Police ‘said the allegation surrounding the Kippah cap was fully investigated, but the victim was “unsure” as to whether it was spat on’. The police later said:

On September 21, two weeks after the attack, one of the victims attended a police station to report that he believed his Kippahmay have been spat upon on the floor during the attack. Further enquiries were carried out by officers to investigate and the circumstances were discussed with the victim. On September 30, the victim made a formal statement to the police regarding this matter, in which he was unsure if the offender spat towards his Kippah.[25]

To summarise: in support of an anti-Semitism narrative, and as an apparent afterthought two weeks after the incident, these claims were made, then withdrawn, then made again, unsubstantiated, at trial. No DNA evidence was ever produced in support of the claims.

As noted above, this coverage and its continuous self-contradictory, flip-flopping claims, occurred just a few months after the first anniversary of Israel’s bombing of Gaza’s children, which in many quarters received much less coverage than the assault on Moshe Fuerst. To put this incident in broader socio-historical context, at almost any time in postwar Britain, regardless of the injuries he sustained, if Moshe Fuerst had been Black, he may well have been treated as a suspect, even prosecuted—unjustifiably or not—for an offence such as ‘affray’. One infamous historical example illustrating this institutional prejudice is the 1993 racist murder of Black teenager Stephen Lawrence, where not only did the authorities initially refuse to prosecute the killers but also the police put the dead victim’s parents, Neville and Doreen Lawrence, under surveillance[26] after they publicly complained to the media about continuing police inaction.

More recent incidents echo Britain’s ‘all darkies look and are the same’ racist past. Bristol police tasered an elderly Black Briton, Judah Adunbi, directly in the face because the officers involved couldn’t tell the difference between him and another Afro-Caribbean man who was the genuine suspect. This generic ‘Black labelling’ resulting in a ‘police stop’ was something Adunbi had suffered before. He had merely been attempting to enter his own home, and the police were apparently oblivious to or unable to recognise the fact that he had been their own race-relations adviser to the local Independent Advisory Group.[27] Police Commander Cressida Dick was the officer in charge of the operation in which an innocent, unarmed Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes, was publicly shot dead because he was presumed to be Middle Eastern—as if that would have made it all right. Retired top-flight professional footballer Dalian Atkinson was killed by repeated police taser assaults.[28] Complaints of racism—on an incident-by-incident and thematic basis—are given far less column space, and often the term ‘racism’ is not even permitted to be used. These inconsistent degrees of coverage have certainly never reached equivalent anti-Semitism moral-panic reportage levels, even—as in case of the killing of Mark Duggan—when the original incident provoked rioting.[29] In contrast to the relatively free use of the term anti-Semitism, the word racism was hard to find in either news coverage of the original de Menezes killing or in commentary on the extraordinarily surprising subsequent promotion of Cressida Dick to police commissioner.

Given how heavily the anti-Semitism narrative was pushed in reporting the Moshe Fuerst assault, it’s worth going back to original coverage, including family testimony, that featured in the JC: ‘The rabbi [the boy’s father, Michael Fuerst] questioned whether antisemitism had been the key driving force behind the attack. “They were not neo-Nazis out looking for Jewish boys to beat up. They were drunk kids. I imagine they knew they were all Jewish—one of the boys was wearing a yarmulke”’.[30]

One of the defining characteristics of ongoing racial oppression is that it is underpinned by a history of slavery, colonial genocide, institutional power, the leverage of the cultural-media apparatus, and white racial, economic and class privilege. This is what differentiates it from simple prejudice that individuals such as redheads experience. By comparison to the Black experience of racism, rather than being oppressed by institutional practices, the mobilisations of current anti-Semitism moral panics—particularly as and where they support the Israel lobby and aspects of white privilege—appear to be benefiting from these entrenched power dynamics. Even now there are numerous easily accessible webpages on news sites—including that of The Guardian—where the constructed narrative of the Moshe Fuerst incident includes the headlines and descriptions ‘anti-semitic attack’, and this plays into a broader, largely incident-free moral panic about anti-Semitism. By comparison, racist incidents against Black and Muslim Britons require a far greater degree of substantiation. The death toll experienced by the Palestinians is downplayed and/or, in the tradition of nineteenth-century racist, ‘civilising-the-savage’ narratives, is treated as a justifiable developmental inevitability of white Western progress. Similarly, the oppression of Black and indigenous Jews in Israel is made invisible by the corporate media. And, disgracefully, the reported reality of Israel practising apartheid and ethnic cleansing is treated as questionable, even when it is supported by the testimony of Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.[31] But perhaps, given the racist double standards on the comparative value of human life upon which the current moral panic is structured, presumably the hypocrites in the corporate media regard Mandela and Tutu as only Black Noble Prize winners.

 

Notes

[1]<http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/132553/rabbi-reveals-stamford-hill-synagogue-brawl-was-sparked-party-dispute>

[2]<https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/10/two-teenagers-arrested-after-suspected-antisemitic-attack-in-manchester>

[3]<http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/1.675134>

[4]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/pictured-bowker-vale-station-attack-10197925>

[5]<https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/10/two-teenagers-arrested-after-suspected-antisemitic-attack-in-manchester>

[6]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/anti-semitic-behaviour-not-tolerated-says-7537021>

[7]<https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/apr/14/manchester-richard-leese-cautioned>

[8]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/bowker-vale-teen-yobs-jailed-10185399>; <https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/sep/10/two-teenagers-arrested-after-suspected-antisemitic-attack-in-manchester>

[9]<http://www.burytimes.co.uk/news/13709583.Teenager_suffers_brain_injuries_in_anti_Semitic_tram_stop_attack/>

[10]<http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/200541>

[11]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/anti-semitic-attack-nhs-saved-10013768>

[12]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/pictured-bowker-vale-station-attack-10197925>

[13]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/jewish-teenager-attack-bowker-vale-10025187>

[14]<http://www.timesofisrael.com/two-british-teens-jailed-in-beating-of-manchester-jew/>

[15]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/anti-semitic-attack-nhs-saved-10013768>

[16]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/father-hate-crime-victim-says-10038377>

[17]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/anti-semitic-attack-nhs-saved-10013768>

[18]<https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/manchester-teenager-survives-coma-after-antisemitic-attack-1.57819>

[19]<http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/teenager-suffers-fractured-skull-brain-6405044>; <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3260730/Pictured-Teenage-thugs-17-attacked-group-Jewish-friends-train-station-leaving-one-fractured-skull-coma-three-days.html>

[20]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/bowker-vale-teen-yobs-jailed-10185399>

[21]<https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/manchester-teenager-survives-coma-after-antisemitic-attack-1.57819>

[22]<http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/jewish-cemetery-vandalised-yobs-sickening-8007711>

[23]<http://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/132553/rabbi-reveals-stamford-hill-synagogue-brawl-was-sparked-party-dispute>

[24]AlJazeera Investigations – The Lobby P1: Young Friends of IsraelAlJazeera Investigations – The Lobby P2: The Training Session AlJazeera Investigations – The Lobby P3: An Anti-Semitic TropeAlJazeera Investigations – The Lobby P4: The Takedown <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/01/israel-lobby-bark-bite-170130091544381.html>

[25]<http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/pictured-bowker-vale-station-attack-10197925>

[26]<https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/jun/23/stephen-lawrence-undercover-police-smears>; <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/stephen-lawrence-senior-metropolitan-police-officer-who-met-accused-lawrence-family-spy-will-face-no-a6907201.html>; <https://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity/adam-elliott-cooper/doreen-lawrence-police-spies-and-institutional-racism>

[27]<http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/investigation-as-bristol-police-taser-prominent-member-of-their-own-race-relations-group-by-mistake/story-30072082-detail/story.html>; <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/20/police-taser-race-relations-adviser-bristol-judah-adunbi>

[28]Reports (<http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/dalian-atkinson-calls-review-police-11758814>; <http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/officers-investigated-over-ex-footballer-s-taser-death-9fx0dv69x>; <http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/dalian-atkinson-dead-footballer-tasered-8637094>) revealed he had a well-known history of mental-health problems, and also ‘the 48-year-old had a weak heart and had recently undergone dialysis for kidney failure’.

[29]<http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/mark-duggan-shooting-documentary-the-hard-stop-police-london-riots-2011-a7136251.html>; <http://theconversation.com/five-years-after-his-death-sparked-riots-we-must-not-forget-mark-duggan-62748>

[30]<https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/manchester-teenager-survives-coma-after-antisemitic-attack-1.57819>

[31]‘If one has to refer to any of the parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government, because they are the people who are slaughtering defenceless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories, and we don’t regard that as acceptable’, Nelson Mandela <http://www.jta.org/1990/10/25/archive/mandela-angers-australian-jews-with-fresh-anti-israel-rhetoric>. For Desmond Tutu’s condemnations, see <http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/Desmond-Tutu-Israel-guilty-of-apartheid-in-treatment-of-Palestinians-344874; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/desmond-tutu/divesting-from-injustice_b_534994.html>.

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