Death threats force Jersey leader to go

By Jessica Elgot, July 14, 2011
Senator Cohen

Senator Cohen

Jersey's deputy chief minister Freddie Cohen has spoken of his family's anguish over antisemitic abuse and death threats - which has led him to step down at the next election.

Senator Cohen, who is also planning minister and responsible for foreign relations, was president of the Jewish community in Jersey, two years before moving into politics.

He said he was "astonished" when the abuse began during his election campaign in 2005 - with swastikas and "Jews Out" daubed on his posters. "It was really quite a surprise because, having grown up here, I know islanders are very open minded and they are well aware that the population is formed from so many different nationalities. And we never got to the bottom of it, no arrests, nothing."

Sen Cohen is an authority on Jersey's Jewish heritage, which stretches back to the Middle Ages. He has written a book on the Jewish population during the Nazi occupation. Around 65 Jewish families live on the island. "The community is small but well respected," Sen Cohen said. "We are represented at almost every event."

Originally a property developer, Sen Cohen made the move into politics because "it was a challenge. And I wanted to improve the standard of architecture on the island."

But a controversial planning development meant the abuse began again, with sinister phone messages. He has recorded one message which says: "Get out you f-----g Jew boy, why don't you f--- off back to Jerusalem, you bastard? You f-----g Jew b-----d."

Then he received a death threat against him and his family, while he was on holiday in South Africa. His youngest son was home alone in Jersey. "My wife was extremely upset, and felt threatened in her own home. My wife converted to Judaism - her ancestors were actually Huguenot refugees from France - and she said: 'I didn't expect to find myself in the same position hundreds of years later.'

"All the calls were from phone boxes. The police haven't found anyone."

Last week, Sen Cohen left his position as planning minister and will step down as deputy chief minister and foreign minister after the elections in October.

"It might seem like a coward's way out, but I do feel like I have achieved everything I wanted to. There's nothing to be gained if you are going to suffer abuse of that sort. I've fudged the issue in public when I've discussed why I'm stepping down. It's quite difficult for people to understand antisemitism".

He added: "In 2005, the present chief minister was also standing for election. His wife was so appalled when she heard about the abuse that she wore my rosette, even though her husband was standing against me. People were absolutely furious that the abuse happened. That's all well and good, and yes, I'm sure it's just a few idiots, but it has had a disproportionate effect on my family."

As foreign minister, Sen Cohen has been instrumental in forming close ties with Israel. In May, he led a delegation of 30 Jersey politicians and business leaders to forge business links. He said: "Israel is a specialist, small, nimble economy. And we are similar. Israel has the potential to be Jersey's best trading partner."

Working with Israel has been, comparatively, extremely smooth when it comes to islanders' reactions. "There's been no opposition to working with Israel at all; I haven't heard a single negative comment. The recent trip we made to China was the opposite, lots of comment on the human rights issues. But with Israel, not a single whiff."

Last updated: 4:20pm, July 14 2011