Memories of IRA bombing

By Richard Verber

JUNE 15, 1996 was a hot summer’s day in Manchester. The city was in a good mood: Euro 96 was well underway and, for once, it looked as if England were going to do well in a football tournament.

That afternoon was a crunch match against Scotland.

It was also a Shabbat and I remember walking back from shul, my dad next to me. I was 11.

We were both excited about the game. We got home to discover the news from my mum that an enormous bomb had gone off in Manchester city centre.

I remember watching the pictures in confusion. Images of people covered in blood and debris. Why on earth would someone want to hurt innocent people like that?

More than 200 people were injured, some seriously. But unbelievably, thanks to a herculean effort by the emergency services to evacuate the city centre, nobody died.

In the years ahead, Mancunians would go on to joke — in a way that only Mancunians can — that the bomb, one of the largest ever exploded by the IRA, was the best thing to happen to Manchester.

It ripped the heart out of our ugly city centre and began a regeneration process that continues to this day.

This week’s bomb, however, is very different. My parents hugged me firmly that day in 1996. Heartbroken parents today will never see their children again.

And make no mistake — this was an attack on children specifically, and women, their mothers, who had taken their kids to a concert that night to create a special memory that would have lasted a lifetime. The memory will now be very different.

On Monday evening, a 22-year-old man strapped explosives to his body, packed in nuts and bolts to maximise the damage, and went to a place where he knew that children and teenagers would be gathering in their thousands.

His aim was simple: kill as many of them as possible.

As I watched the news unfold this week, I asked myself the same question that had perplexed 11-year-old me: why?

I don’t know. Beyond killing children, presumably the terrorist’s goal was to create fear, to sow division in British society and to undermine confidence in our democracy.

Ironically, Manchester responded by showing what it means to be British.

Taxi drivers gave free rides to concert-goers who were stranded, people offered strangers a place to sleep and social media was flooded with stories of kindness and compassion.

There have been outpourings of love and grief from all communities including our own. Muslim communities too have stood up and condemned the attack.

Manchester must not — and will not — hand victory to the extremists by allowing ourselves to become divided.

Although this was not an attack targeted at the Jewish community, we know that Islamist extremists reserve a particular loathing for Jews.

In recent years, terrorists have targeted a Jewish museum in Brussels, a kosher supermarket in Paris, a Jewish school in Toulouse and Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.

Around the world, state-run broadcasters beam hatred towards Jews to millions of television sets.

Schoolchildren are brainwashed to believe conspiracy theories about Jews.

The internet is swamped with videos which incite violence.

The Jewish community in Manchester has lived with this danger for a long time.

In 2012, a Muslim couple were convicted of plotting a terror attack against Jews in Manchester.

Despite this, community relations remain strong. I echo the Manchester Jewish Representative Council's call for unity.

The Board of Deputies has an active outreach programme to foster good community relations.

We have visited and held events with Muslim communities around the country, most recently in Bradford and at Palmers Green Mosque in north London.

We meet with community and religious leaders.

At a recent questions and answers session with children in a Muslim secondary school, our president, Jonathan Arkush, spoke freely and frankly on a range of topics.

Despite this, there will always be extremists.

There may be further terrorist attacks. Britain may grow to know the regular terror that Israel has faced for decades. I sincerely hope not.

Manchester will bounce back, of course. It always does. People will go about their daily business and summer will return to the city.

The Manchester Arena — home to so many of my early memories — will open its doors once more.

The scars from the IRA bomb may have healed, but for the families who have has lost loved ones this week, the scars will last a lifetime.

* Richard Verber is senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph