Life & Culture

Arm yourself with the skills to beat a hate attack

Antisemitic incidents are at record levels. But how would you cope if you were faced with abuse or the threat of assault?


This month, Charlie Sheen badmouthed Chuck Lorre, the creator of his hit TV show, highlighting his Jewish roots by calling him 'Chaim Levine'. Then there was John Galliano's slurring rant about how much he loved Hitler. And Wikileaks founder Julian Assange allegedly told Private Eye that Guardian journalists were parts of a "Jewish conspiracy" against him.

These were just the antisemitic incidents that hit the headlines. Many more go on unreported. The CST, the community's security organisation, received more than 639 reports of antisemitic street attacks, hate mail, threats, and vandalism in Britain last year, the second worst since records began, with 2009 being the worst. Attacks included 114 assaults, 83 incidents of vandalism, 385 reports of abuse and 32 direct threats.

In such a climate of hate, it is becoming increasingly likely that any British Jew will, at some point, be on the receiving end of some form of antisemitic abuse. But what do you do when it happens?

I am getting a taster of the skills that I could need if I was the target of random antisemitic abuse or violence. A dozen of us are gathered in a community hall near Kings Cross, in London, a mixture of community organisers, teachers and concerned citizens. We are here for a basic course run by Dfuse Citizen Training, a not-for-profit organisation, which bases its training on that received by the Metropolitan Police on how to communicate in conflict situations.

Though people have come on the course with different motivations, our questions are similar. When should I challenge the behaviour I don't like? How do I stem a torrent of abuse? How to I defuse an argument with someone whose views will never be compatible with mine? And how can I cope if it turns violent?

How to stay safe

● Consider if the situation merits your attention, and if it is safe to intervene.
● Communication is key, keep your tone calm and do not talk over the abuser.
● Do not act submissively and do not be the victim. Be collected and confident.
● Be aware of what is around you. Look to see if furniture could be used as a weapon against you. Could you be thrown from a height? Are other people about?
● Report any antisemitic abuse, violence or vandalism to the CST and the police as soon as you can. The CST's Dave Rich says: We would always advise people to make personal safety a priority and not to put themselves in physical danger. If you intend to verbally challenge antisemitism, always have an exit strategy to avoid violence.

Our tutor is Martin Graves, an expert in resolving conflict situations. He stresses he cannot give an easy answer about when to challenge conflict and when to walk away, but he can provide the tools to help us make decisions. The first step is understanding when there is the potential for conflict.

"I think when someone starts insulting your religion, of course it's very difficult not to become volatile yourself," he says. "Jewish history speaks for itself, and you can see why some people feel like victims. So more and more, people want to respond in a forthright way to prevent them from being, or feeling like the victim when confronted with abuse."

The trick of remaining calm enough to deal with the situation is to distance yourself from the insult, he says. "First you need to ask yourself, is it personal? With antisemitic abuse, 99 per cent of the time, it isn't actually about you. It's directed at the way you dress, the place you come from. So is it really personal? Or is someone just shouting 'oi Yid'? Is it directed at you, or is it directed at your kippah, for instance?"

If you find yourself in a conflict situation, you need to assess quickly the potential risks that may arise, says Graves. "Look around for objects that might be used as a weapon against you, and move them away, or physically move away from them, an ashtray, a chair, whatever it might be. You also need to assess your location. Are there crowds around? Where is my exit?"

The next step is to begin to defuse the potential conflict, and here communication with the abuser is crucial.

"The key to good communication is 'your turn- my turn'," explains Graves. "Never speak over them, give them indicators that you are hearing what they are saying." Techniques include repeating back the last word of the abusers' sentence, or the sentence's loaded word.

Even if a person's views are abhorrent, Graves suggests never telling anyone that they "don't understand" or to "calm down." And when you are speaking, make your views explicitly a personal opinion. "Use phrases like 'it seems to me', 'I feel as though' - tell them what you can see, hear, how you understand it.

"If you intend to try to interact with them, you need to make it personal. Make sure they know that as well as being Jewish, you're also Jonathan or Sarah. It's the same technique used by hostage negotiators. They are less likely to hurt you, abuse you, hit you, if they see you as an individual, rather than the guy in the 'funny hat'."

He advises us on body language, getting the class to practise how to show we are in charge of the conversation. My first instinct is to put on a serious expression and look directly at the person I am speaking to. However, Graves recommends that I should avoid continuous or unnatural eye contact as I could look like I am trying to stare someone out.

He advises: "Look non-threatening but not submissive. Keep you hands open and in view, and try and keep a barrier between you, a chair or a table. Keep far enough away that you'll have time to react if they throw a punch." Also ensure that you do not encroach onto the abuser's personal space as this is never a good idea.

If you feel the situation is escalating, and even if you feel the abuse is unacceptable, "the priority is to escape", says Graves. The class sets about learning basic self-defence techniques, which will allow us the few crucial seconds to distract the abuser and flee. We pair up, playing the role of aggressor and the object of aggression.

"You can begin by using verbal signals," Graves says. We practise shouting 'stop!' and holding up our arms. It is surprisingly effective, the loudness of the word shocks you into a freeze for a second or two. He teaches us how to deflect a punch, how to remove hands from around the throat.

"By law, you can defend yourself, another or property, from an attacker if you have a genuine and honestly held belief that the danger is happening right now, that what you do is reasonable and necessary and that you can explain what you did and why. You do not have to wait for someone to attack you, you can use force to prevent the attack from happening," he says.

I am worried that faced with antisemitic abuse, sheer panic would take over and I would forget these techniques. Graves advises that there is no substitute for keeping a clear head and a grip on reality, no matter how insulting the abuse.

"I am overweight and bald, and if someone turns round to me and says, 'you fat so-and-so' then I might not like it, but actually they are telling the truth, they are making an observation based on what they see. If someone shouts 'oi Jew', it's like, 'yes, thank you, I am Jewish, and so what?' Think about if the situation is necessarily going to escalate. There's a good chance they may not come across the road and start shoving you about. But it might happen, and then you need something in your locker to deal with that."


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