On Shabbat afternoon I was taking a leisurely stroll through the picturesque winding streets of Cambridge with my son. Passing by The Cambridge Lehrhaus, the centre for Jewish thought that I founded nearly five years ago, I noticed the now notorious smashed window. Unable to take any meaningful measures to secure the building and protect passersby from harming themselves on the exposed glass, I made sure to inform my landlords at Gonville & Caius College of the problem and told them I would take care of it that evening.
The ever helpful porters arranged for the glass to be cleaned and the window to be boarded up.
On my way home I bumped into a non-Jewish friend who asked me if I had seen The Lehrhaus. She appeared very concerned which I thought was kind but it still didn’t dawn on me that I would soon be at the centre of a full scale ‘incident.’ The only thing going through my mind was that I would have to wait until after the bank holiday weekend before I would be able to get the window replaced.
That evening, already in bed, I received a message from a concerned Jewish student who wanted to speak with me about the ‘incident.’ I was amused that something so obviously innocuous as a window being smashed on a prominent high street could be construed as anything more than drunken vandalism. I messaged back that I look forward to chatting in the morning.
Without my knowledge, some more concerned Jewish students contacted the student media to alert them about a potentially anti-semitic attack on a Jewish building in Cambridge even providing their own quotes and comments. Even were it to have been an act of anti-semitic violence, which I couldn’t categorically rule out at that stage of the ‘incident,’ I still don’t believe it would have warranted any particular attention. I have lived in Cambridge for fifteen years, most of the time with a six foot Menorah outside my home, and even with my appearance having all the hallmarks of a Jew I have never encountered any anti-semitism. So a middle of the night smashing of my window would only highlight how rare and exceptional it is for such a thing to happen.
Notwithstanding my sanguine approach, I was contacted by a student journalist from Varsity asking some framed and very pointed questions.
Apparently the ‘incident’ was (sensitive) already. I replied:
Windows on trinity street get smashed on a semi regular basis, this weekend it was our turn. Unless you know something I don’t, I can’t see what the story is here. Best wishes, Reuven
Naively, I thought that was going to be the end of it, but I was then approached by a student journalist at the rival TCS asking for comment. At this point I was quite miffed why this was drawing so much attention, anyone who knows Cambridge will know that The Lehrhaus is situated in one of the most prominent parts of town with window frontage straight on the street. Any number of shops on the same street get their windows smashed due to late night drunkenness and I was just grateful this was the first time in nearly five years. In fact, a shop a few doors up from us had a car ram straight through its frontage just a short while ago and I can imagine how people would have jumped to wild conclusions if that had happened to us.
At this point I thought the best way to kill this non-story was with a bit of humour and ridicule so I replied:
The Lib Dems won in south Cambridgeshire and less than 24 hours later a Jewish window got smashed, coincidence? Alternatively, a window on Trinity Street was vandalised on a Friday night. At the moment we can only speculate.
It may have been a tad harsh on the unwitting student journalist who was just following a lead prompted by some overly concerned and paranoid Jewish students, and for that I apologise. However, my attempt at humour wasn’t immediately processed and I was asked for a comment to go with the story. Realising that my first joke didn’t work I decided to ramp it up and give the most over the top response possible to demonstrate how ludicrous this was all becoming:
With anti-semitism rife in the Labour party and the racist xenophobia unleashed by Brexit, we as Jews feel terrified that Europe may no longer be a safe place for Jews. We must never forget what happened on this continent just 70 years ago which started with vandalism of Jewish shop fronts in Germany.
And just in case she didn’t realise I was being satirical I added:
You may also want to run an opinion piece on the fetishisation of Jews as victims in the public mind.
In my naiveté I assumed that my unwillingness to play ball and go with the already scripted anti-semitism narrative would render the story unworkable. Instead the story went up on the TCS website with my quote in full. What was also surprising was the inclusion of a comment from the Jewish Society presidents, who hadn’t even tried to contact me, cautiously accepting the possibility of an anti semitic incident.
I now felt I was inside a special episode of The Day Today or Brass Eye. So when I was contacted by The Tab I thought it would be fun to test whether they had any common sense or would quote me verbatim too, which they did.
I must admit I was having quite a bit of fun at this point so I posted a bunch of ridiculous and over the top posts on Twitter/Facebook to keep the spoof going:
At this point the student journalist from Varsity got back in touch all confused wondering why I had given such a strong comment after I had told her there was no story. I explained to her that whipping up faux outrage without a scintilla of evidence was hugely irresponsible and I was just engaging in an act of performative art to highlight the problem and she is very welcome to quote me on that, which she did, prompting the TCS to responsibly update their story.
Meanwhile, The Jewish Chronicle without talking to me just lifted the story from The Tab and republished it on their site.
I contacted the JC journalist and told her she was being irresponsible lifting stories from the student press without verifying the information. I explained what was going, but from inside the bubble of The Jewish Chronicle my attempt at satirising knee jerk reactions to ‘incidents’ was not immediately appreciated. The story has still not been modified by the JC or The Tab.
Another amusing part of this story is the over the top response from CU Labour Club quoted in the TCS article:
We at CULC are saddened by the act of vandalism against Cambridge Lehrhaus. We are deeply troubled by the possibility that anti-Semitism motivated the attack. We recognise that anti-Semitism is a serious problem in society and in our party. We in CULC are committed to fighting that trend, making Cambridge and the Labour Party a safe space for Jewish people. We believe Labour — as the party of human rights, equality, and anti-fascism — must be at the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism. We pass on our condolences to Cambridge Lehrhaus and hope the perpetrators are brought to justice.
I just want to apologise to whichever student felt compelled to write the above.
Whilst I was receiving offers from Jewish media strategists on how to best frame the story and use it to my advantage (you know who you are) I received an email from a student from another university who helps bring this story to its bittersweet end. He had just got out of hospital after receiving stitches to his face, he apologised profusely for the damage to the window which he accidentally fell through, and offered to cover the expense of any repairs.
We send our heartfelt wishes to him for a speedy recovery, applaud his mentschlechkeit for getting in touch, and thank him for restoring our faith in humanity.
I am not deluded and I know there are serious problems with anti-semitism in this country and beyond. I am extremely privileged to live in a place where there is no need for me to feel threatened as a Jew, and I really appreciate all the hard work many individuals and organisations do to ensure that safety.
At the same time, I hope the above can serve as a cautionary tale. I am not sure what it was about my upbringing that doesn’t make me jump at every ‘incident’ and assume I am being victimised as a Jew. I don’t doubt there are anti-semites out there who wish to do me harm, but my default response and knee jerk reaction every time some misfortune befalls me is not one of victimhood. At one stage a concerned student tried to explain to me that from the shape of the smashed window it must have been an intentional act. All I can suggest is that everyone should be more careful not to construe events in a manner that just confirms their predisposed biases.
One positive that came out of this ‘incident’ was the outpouring of love and support from many friends who were taken in by the spoof, it provided an excuse to be in touch with friends in Sydney and San Franscisco and I might consider instigating a monthly hate crime for that alone. Alternatively, let’s try to keep in touch more often just to share good news.
In all seriousness though, I recognise there are many Jews who feel deeply threatened a lot of the time and I can only imagine how unpleasant and uncomfortable that must feel. If my playfulness in any way upset you I apologise.
I believe there are many structural reasons why so many Jews feel this way and if you come by for dinner on Friday night I hope we can begin to address them and move towards a more positive approach to Jewish exceptionalism.
As for the press, you guys need to get your house in order.