By James Silver
BBC Radio Five Live
The desecration of gravestones has distressed the Jewish community
New figures suggest the number of abusive and violent attacks on Britain's Jewish community reached record levels in 2004. BBC News spoke to one of the victims.
Sam, a softly-spoken solicitor from a leafy suburb of Manchester, was walking home alone after celebrating the birth of a friend's baby son.
It was a route he had taken thousands of times before. But as he turned the corner he was confronted by a gang of five white teenage youths.
They surrounded him and began snarling anti-Semitic abuse.
His heart racing, he quickened his pace. But one of them blocked his path.
"He broke away from the others and came towards me," recalls Sam, a distinctively-dressed Orthodox Jew.
"I could smell alcohol on his breath. He started yelling racist, anti-Jewish abuse."
"He tried to grab me. I pushed him away. He grabbed my hat. Then he took one step back and punched me in the face. I felt the pain of the punch straight away and almost fell over.
"But I just turned and ran as fast as I could down the street. They chased me for a bit but eventually gave up."
Random attacks on increase
Since his assault, Sam - not his real name - has become jittery. A married 38-year-old, he no longer ventures out alone at night.
"If you're on your own you're vulnerable," he tells BBC Radio Five Live, "I keep thinking it's going to happen again."
Sam's experiences are far from rare among Britain's Jewish population today.
Recent figures released by the Community Security Trust (CST), who advise the Jewish community on matters of anti-Semitism and security, reveal a 50% leap in violent attacks last year.
Now Metropolitan Police records corroborate the Trust's figures for 2004 in the capital.
More than 500 incidents were recorded last year by the CST, ranging from life-threatening assaults to criminal damage to property. One-fifth of these were carried out by elements of the far right.
Yet according to many in the community, it's the desecrations of Jewish graves by neo-Nazis which really sends a shudder through the population, with its echoes of the past.
"It's particularly distressing for elderly Jews who have lived through all this before," says Melvyn Hartog, who maintains United Synagogues' cemeteries.
He describes what it was like to discover that Jewish graves at the Redan Road cemetery in Aldershot had been desecrated with swastikas, SS signs and Combat 18 insignia twice over a three month period:
"It was one of the saddest days of my life. One of the first graves I saw was the war grave of a Jewish second lieutenant who died in 1941.
"This man gave his life like many thousands to rid the world of the Swastika, now one had been placed on his grave."
He pauses to compose himself. "I just wish whoever did this could come face to face with this soldier. I wonder how brave he would be then?"
While the number of attacks by the far right on Jewish targets have remained more or less static in recent years, opportunistic or random attacks - like Sam's - have surged.
Middle East conflict link
The CST say around 120 incidents in Britain last year were directly linked to tension in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
New research due to be published next month, for example, reveals a 'spike' in anti-Semitic incidents in London, during April-May 2002, when the Israeli Defence Force launched its incursion into the Jenin refugee camp.
The indications are that Orthodox Jews, with their easily-identifiable appearance, are bearing the brunt of such attacks.
In North London's Stamford Hill, home to one of Britain's largest Orthodox communities, feelings are running high, especially after a recent spate of violent attacks.
One parent at a Jewish school who asked not to be named said: "There's a feeling of fear and nervousness, of always looking over your shoulder."
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