The Anti-Semitic Attack that wasn’t
I'm happy to run this story about a serious assault on a Jewish man, but the question is whether it was anti-semitic or not. It would appear that what was a drug related attack has been elevated, for entirely cynical reasons into being an anti-Semitic attack. We should remember that whilst all anti-Semitic attacks are made on Jews, not all attacks on Jews are anti-Semitic.
Guest Post: Gavin Lewis
Gavin Lewis is a freelance British mixed-race writer and academic. He has published in Britain, Australia and the United States on film, media, politics, cultural theory, race and representation. He has taught critical theory, film and cultural studies at a number of British universities.
Coverage of the Moshe Fuerste assault reveals deep-seated media prejudice.
‘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.’
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’. 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’.
At trial, ‘Judge Prowse said that “throwaway remarks that were anti-Semitic were made”, but ruled the victims weren’t attacked because they were Jewish, saying they were simply “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.
This material was never used to update the Guardian’s original story page, which to this day continues to label the attack as anti-Semitic violence
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 as ‘the hate attackers’.
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. Like several other news outlets, Israel’s National News revised the figure down to a ‘gang of three men’. The MEN conceded that it was actually a ‘gang of three youths’—so, not adults. 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. 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’. 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”’. However, it’s not just that the numbers and ages of the 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.
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). ‘(W)hy…come up to him while he is lying on the ground unconscious, kick him in the head, and potentially kill him?’ 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’. 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’. 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. 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’.
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). 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 Fuerste’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”’. 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’—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.