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'Jews are terrified — we keep the location of our Jewish Chronicle offices hidden for fear of attacks'

Jewish Chronicle editor Jake Wallis Simons (Matt Writtle)
Jewish Chronicle editor Jake Wallis Simons (Matt Writtle)

I find myself looking over my shoulder before I step into lobby at the Jewish Chronicle’s headquarters in central London. “We’ve always had to take security very seriously,” the paper’s editor, Jake Wallis Simons, tells me as he walks me through a warren of anonymous white corridors to a small, nondescript meeting room with a modest Jewish Chronicle logo on the wall (the only branding in the whole building). It is the same room his colleagues would use to escape the newsroom and cry in those first sleepless, “traumatic” days after October 7.

Wallis Simons and his colleagues have kept the location of their offices secret since they moved here two years ago for fear of anti-Semitic attacks (they choose not to publish their address, a rare move in the media industry) and I’m shocked at first — but perhaps I shouldn’t be. The 2015 shootings at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris were horrifying proof of the threats journalists can face while doing their job, and attacks against Jews have only escalated since then – even before Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and its response triggered a wave of anti-Semitic hate here in Britain.

Wallis Simons at the JC's offices in central London (Matt Writtle)
Wallis Simons at the JC's offices in central London (Matt Writtle)

Wallis Simons, 45, a warm, smartly-dressed father-of-four, is realistic about the dangers he and his staff face, but this is their new normal now. He struggles to remember what life looked like before October 7 — the day his role as editor of the world’s oldest and most influential Jewish newspaper changed forever — but he certainly never used to look over his shoulder in the way I did walking into his office and the way he now does every time he steps out onto the streets of our capital city.

The London-born author and journalist, 46, reported from all over Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East during his years as a foreign correspondent, so he’s long been accustomed to death threats and hostile environments. Still, never did he expect to find himself facing those same threats in London. “I remember reporting from Venezuela years ago, when the country was collapsing and I was sent to Caracas, the most dangerous city in the world at the time [2016]. Walking through the streets there felt so unstable, but at the same time very controlled,” he tells me. “After October 7, I was out and about in the media a lot more and people began to recognise me in the street. I was walking to work and began to feel the same way: on high alert, looking over my shoulder. I’ve kept my head down and it’s been ok, touch wood, and I’ve settled into a new normal with it now. But the level of hate on Twitter has been... quite extreme.”

Members of the Jewish community attend a Solidarity Rally in Trafalgar Square (Lucy North/PA) (PA Wire)
Members of the Jewish community attend a Solidarity Rally in Trafalgar Square (Lucy North/PA) (PA Wire)

The events that unfolded in that first 24 hours of Hamas attacks — more than 1,400 Israelis killed and more than 200 taken hostage — have since been called the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. But Wallis Simons says he was shocked but not surprised, in many ways. His latest book, Israelophobia, was published (somewhat “eerily”) exactly a month before October 7 and seeks to provide a framework for understanding where crises of this kind come from; that — in his words — they are just the newest version of the oldest version of hatred: the so-called demonisation of the Jewish state.

“Israel is doing the only thing it can,” is his verdict on Israel’s response to October 7. “Hamas openly disdains the two-state solution and has vowed to carry out October 7 again and again. Its only motivation is jihad. This would mean an even bigger war in the future... It goes without saying that every innocent civilian death is a tragedy. But the truth is that civilian death is Hamas’ strategy... If Hamas survives, all hopes for peace will be lost. Every innocent life lost, on either side, is a victory for Hamas and a defeat for Israel.”

Israel is doing the only thing it can. Civilian death is Hamas’ strategy... If Hamas survives, all hopes for peace will be lost

His book’s title is an obvious and deliberate nod to the very thing Wallis Simons has been accused of many times in his career: Islamophobia — most recently, after posting a tweet that accused “not all, but many Muslims” of being “in the grip of a death cult that sacralises bloodshed”. He has since deleted the tweet and apologised for the “clumsy wording” during an appearance on Question Time (”everyone makes mistakes, particularly when you’re fighting the fight in such an intense environment”, he tells me today), adding that he strongly denies he is Islamophobic.

But he refuses to let the mishap deter from his central point. His book is not a defence of Israel, nor is it an attempt to deny the atrocities suffered by the Palestinians, but a call for context — an examination of the way Israel has been weaponised in the culture war by an evolving strain of anti-Semitism.

Israelophobia by Jake Wallis Simons (Jake Wallis Simons)
Israelophobia by Jake Wallis Simons (Jake Wallis Simons)

The book sets out the ways in which this can be seen throughout history, from Nazi Germany to the Kremlin, and why contemporary conflicts like the one we now see in the Middle East are no surprise (he’s since added a foreword, titled ‘I told you so’). “Massacres and attempted genocides are nothing new for us as Jews,” he says. But what he did not predict was the potency or scale of this latest conflict.

“In history [these massacres] have always come as a crescendo; after a build-up of antisemitism over years, whether that’s in Nazi Germany or in Russia or the Middle East. On this occasion, in our country, this orgy of violence precipitated the antisemitism, so it was a reverse — and that’s a worrying phenomenon. It pulled the cork out of the bottle and allowed the poison to come flowing out. It was always there, but was it was corked, and it took this grotesque massacre to pull the cork out. That’s something that I didn’t see coming.”

As the editor of a publication that many British Jews trust to be their voice around the world, the ensuing weeks were to be the most challenging and rewarding of Wallis Simons’ career. “It’s been traumatic and tragic and difficult and disturbing and unsettling in profound ways, for me and for everybody,” he says, pointing proudly to the ‘F*** Hamas’ sticker on his water bottle. “But in a strange way, it’s also been very meaningful.”

It’s brought him closer to readers. “[The JC] went from being something that was just always around, in every Jewish household, to something people turned to for leadership — and needed. After October 7, people would often ask Jews whether we had any family affected and the answer would end up being ‘Yes, I have nine million of them’. That’s how it felt then and how it feels now. The community has felt like family even more than it did before — and I think we as a newspaper have felt that way to them: fighting that fight on their behalf.”

It’s been traumatic and tragic and difficult and disturbing and unsettling in profound ways, for me and for everybody

He points to a framed copy of the first edition of the JC that he and his team printed after October 7, now hanging proudly in the middle of the small, 30-person newsroom next door. It was the first cover in the paper’s 183-year history to be printed with a headline in Hebrew. “That felt significant,” he says. “You do get the sense that future historians charting the history of Anglo-Jewry in Britain will look back at how it was chronicled in our paper.”

Naturally, the anti-Semitism his community faces has been a key subject for Wallis Simons’ paper in the months since then. He does not believe Jews are safe entering politics (”though that’s not to say they shouldn’t do it”) and feels that while Keir Starmer has done a “commendable job” in rooting out anti-Semitism from the Labour party since Jeremy Corbyn (police guards were first introduced at the JC offices during the Corbyn era), there is a “very dark force working against him” — as demonstrated by the recent “clown show” that is the Rochdale by-election, “so the danger [of anti-Semitism within the party] remains”.

A recent Jewish Chronicle front page (Jewish Chronicle)
A recent Jewish Chronicle front page (Jewish Chronicle)

He is frustrated, too, about the “appalling” double-standards around the policing of recent pro-Palestine marches in central London. He points to the divisive phrase “from the river to the sea” being projected onto Big ben at a march last month. “The police response was ‘it depends on the context’. Would any other racial minority be treated with such disdain? If we had 100,000 white supremacist hooligans marching through London week after week, do you think the police would be standing back and talking about the context? No, they’d be wading in with their truncheons and riot helmets. Yet suddenly, when it’s Jews, there’s a context, there’s a tolerance, there’s ‘everyone needs to calm down’. I don’t want to blame any individual police officer, but the cultural attitude is wrong and it contributes towards Jews feeling very isolated.”

Wallis Simons hopes his newspaper can help to combat this — and he’s had to get used to being its very public face. He spent weeks not sleeping; running on adrenaline as he dashed between media engagements and leading the colleagues that quickly became family. “When I went on Question Time [five days later], I was already so exhausted that I went to the loo and put my head against the wall and slept for five minutes, just to get some energy because I was so burnt out,” he remembers. “Nobody slept. You couldn’t. It was too haunting.”

Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters in central London (AFP via Getty Images)
Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters in central London (AFP via Getty Images)

His appearance quickly blew up on social media in the days afterwards thanks to his impassioned speech on the brutality of those first few days of war — a result of what he says was days-worth of repressed emotions breaking through at once. Repressing emotions had long been his coping mechanism during those first few decades of his career — he remembers the emotions hitting him like a train on the final day reporting on the Bataclan attacks in Paris in 2015, after days of no sleep — but after Question Time he realised that intensity was unsustainable. There was “no end in sight” for this particular crisis.

Today he is forceful but calm, never raising his voice. He’s long ignored social media trolling because he finds it “a constant chorus of idiocy”, but he’s had to become better at compartmentalising in other ways now too, such as carving out more time with his wife Roxanna and their four children (including twins and one step-daughter), aged between 10 and 16.

Nobody slept [in those first days after October 7]. You couldn’t. It was too haunting

The family live in Winchester (they moved down from London in 2009), a medieval city in Hampshire with a significant Jewish history but only a small Jewish community today, and his children’s upbringing is a far cry to his own, in many ways. While he had a relatively orthodox childhood in the “Jewish bubble” of Golders Green (his Jewish mother sent him to increasingly orthodox schools after she divorced his non-Jewish father when Wallis Simons was five), his own children have a non-Jewish mother and attend mainstream schools.

Still, they’ve all experienced their fair share of anti-Semitic remarks over the years, and he’s seen some of the “divisive” misinformation that comes up on his daughter’s TikTok, such as the bizarre moment Osama bin Laden’s 2002 letter justifying the 9/11 attacks went viral last November. He worries about trends like this for his kids’ generation — that social media is “rotting” their moral compasses and turning an entire generation into anti-Semites — but believes that children’s most true sense of self and morality comes down to the parents.

“I feel that the key to living happily as a Jew in Britain comes from a sense of confidence and pride and certainty about who you are. There are so many waves of hate that try to make you believe you’re part of a genocidal race, and you need to have a lot of pride and competence to resist that and dismiss it. With children, it’s when the parents begin to doubt themselves that the kids will lose their sense of identity and self.”

Is he hopeful, then, that the situation can improve for Jews across the world? “There’s an old joke that the difference between a Jewish pessimist and a Jewish optimist is that the Jewish pessimist thinks things couldn’t get worse, and the optimist thinks yes they could,” he says. “I, however, have more hope than that — and I hope that we can win the argument. It’s a mountain to climb: if you look at the extremism in Britain both in Muslim communities and outside of it, there’s a mania that’s gripping people. But there’s no reason why being Muslim should condemn you to extremist views and there are Muslims who do not share those views and who are moderate who are my friends and allies. I have confidence that we can embrace those friends and allies and with their help begin to turn against the extremist elements and begin to drive it out.”

Not being frightened into silence will play a key role in driving this kind of hatred out, whether that’s becoming an MP or author (he’s already working on his next book proposal) or the editor of a newspaper, he says. “If you allow yourself to be cowed by the mob and give up your values or identity or principles, then nobody else is going to fight the fight. It’s our shift.”

Happily, he believes it’s working already. “Britain is a lovely, tolerant, amazing place to live in; an environment that’s better than Jews have had it in the last 2,000 years. My kids have got it better than any Jews has ever had it.” He turns to a metaphor the Chief Rabbi once used: of a black dot in the middle of a white piece of paper, representing anti-Semitism in Britain right now.

“What draws the attention to the black dot, rightly, is that if you don’t address it it will begin to eat up the rest of the piece of paper. At the same time, sometimes when we look at [the piece of paper], it can seem like it’s the other way around: that there’s a small glimmer of light within a great darkness... So it’s a matter of finding that balance all the time: of realising that yes there is a security threat, but let’s not relinquish our identity in the service of safety. It’s a bit like being in a hostile environment, really. You need to look at threats realistically and assess them rationally, rather than out of fear.”