By Karen E.H. Skinazi
As my husband and I were taking our regular after-dinner walk in our city of Birmingham, England, I stopped dead in my tracks. My hand flew to my chest, like a character in an overly melodramatic play.
My husband turned his head to follow my gaze. There, spray-painted across a brick wall on the other side of the street, were the semi-literate and fully offensive words “DIE JEWISH.”
Despite the profusion of anti-Semitism blasted across newspapers and social media every day, it’s surreal to encounter it in your own neighborhood. This was the same street we traversed hundreds, if not thousands, of times in the past months, confined to the distance our feet could cover during the pandemic. Suddenly, this expanse of my telescoped world was defaced with hatred. And we were the target.
I called the police, but after long minutes of waiting, I gave up. We went home and I emailed my member of Parliament, trying to impress upon him the offensive nature of the graffiti. I received an auto-reply. My husband uploaded incident reports on the police and city websites. We waited to hear.
Then it occurred to me to contact some of the most helpful, proactive women I knew: fellow members of Nisa-Nashim, a UK network of Jewish and Muslim women. I opened WhatsApp and wrote to my local chapter. Within seconds, the support came pouring in.
The next day, I arrived at the scene to find Salma Hamid there. I met Salma through our Muslim-Jewish book club, a subgroup of our local Nisa-Nashim. As soon as I sent the photo to Nisa-Nashim, Salma offered to meet there as an active ally. We were quickly joined by a larger group: Jewish and Muslim women, bareheaded and headscarfed, pre-prayers and post, congregated in front of the offensive message.
We came equipped! We had signs and bunting, chalk and posters. We donned sashes, suffragette-style — only instead of “Votes for Women,” our swathes of satiny pink fabric were adorned with the name of our group, “Nisa Nashim, Jewish Muslim Women’s Network.”
We were not alone for long. A police constable, Adrian Griffiths, soon showed up with a box of tools to remove the paint. Steve McCabe, the Parliament member for the constituency (contacted by one of the Nisa-Nashim women) appeared. So did a university student representing Citizens UK, and the rabbi of the Birmingham Progressive Synagogue.
Until the constable could remove the words, we covered them with bunting left over from the 2020 Great Get Together, a community event inspired by the murdered lawmaker Jo Cox who, in her first speech in Parliament declared, “We have more in common than that which divides us.”
The bunting had words that encouraged goodwill: “Love More, Hate Less,” “We are all part of one race — the human race,” “We need to respect differences” and “I believe in the power of community.”
Once the graffiti was removed, we wrapped the bunting around a nearby tree to stand testament.
As I walked home, buoyed by our shared efforts, I thought about a Friday night dinner at our synagogue that my husband and I attended in the fall. The speaker, a rabbi who leads Holocaust tours in Poland, told us he had met hundreds of survivors, and the message they had was not one of despair or revenge, but rather that love conquers all.
It was a nice message — but it didn’t resonate. The message I grew up on, passed down from my Holocaust survivor grandmother who lost her parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, nieces, friends and her home, was a lot less rosy: Trust no one.
Yet when this anti-Semitic graffiti showed up on my doorstep, I found I could trust and depend on not only my Jewish sisters, but also my Muslim ones. It amazes me that in less than 24 hours, the anti-Semitic message was replaced by signs of love.
On the following evening, after dinner, my husband and I again set off for our evening walk. I suggested we head in the direction of the incident. By then I figured our chalk rainbow would be long gone, as it had drizzled pretty steadily. But I wanted to see the constable’s handiwork; he had still been busily scrubbing at the paint when I left earlier.
As we approached, I saw ghostly traces of the anti-Semitic words on the wall — just barely there. Far bolder, in bright colors, not the least impacted by the rain, was our beautiful rainbow, and beside it, our monumental pledge to solidarity.
Karen E.H. Skinazi is director of liberal arts at the University of Bristol and author of “Women of Valor: Orthodox Jewish Troll Fighters, Crime Writers, and Rock Stars in Contemporary Literature and Culture.” This piece originally appeared at JTA.org, where Salma Hamid’s account of this incident can also be read.