Britain’s Anti-Semitic Turn
A new manifestation of the oldest hatred demonizes the Jewish state.
In August 2006, as the war in Lebanon raged, a gang of teenage girls confronted 12-year-old Jasmine Kranat and a friend on a London bus. “Are you Jewish?” they demanded. They didn’t hurt the friend, who was wearing a crucifix. But they subjected Jasmine, a Jew, to a brutal beating—stomping on her head and chest, fracturing her eye socket, and knocking her unconscious.
According to the Community Security Trust, the defense organization of Britain’s 300,000-strong Jewish community, last year saw nearly 600 anti-Semitic assaults, incidents of vandalism, cases of abuse, and threats against Jewish individuals and institutions—double the 2001 number. According to the police, Jews are four times more likely to be attacked because of their religion than are Muslims. Every synagogue service and Jewish communal event now requires guards on the lookout for violence from both neo-Nazis and Muslim extremists. Orthodox Jews have become particular targets; some have begun wearing baseball caps instead of skullcaps and concealing their Star of David jewelry.
Anti-Semitism is rife within Britain’s Muslim community. Islamic bookshops sell copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the notorious czarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; as an undercover TV documentary revealed in January, imams routinely preach anti-Jewish sermons. Opinion polls show that nearly two-fifths of Britain’s Muslims believe that the Jewish community in Britain is a legitimate target “as part of the ongoing struggle for justice in the Middle East”; that more than half believe that British Jews have “too much influence over the direction of UK foreign policy”; and that no fewer than 46 percent think that the Jewish community is “in league with Freemasons to control the media and politics.”
But anti-Semitism has also become respectable in mainstream British society. “Anti-Jewish themes and remarks are gaining acceptability in some quarters in public and private discourse in Britain and there is a danger that this trend will become more and more mainstream,” reported a Parliamentary inquiry last year. “It is this phenomenon that has contributed to an atmosphere where Jews have become more anxious and more vulnerable to abuse and attack than at any other time for a generation or longer.”
At the heart of this ugly development is a new variety of anti-Semitism, aimed primarily not at the Jewish religion, and not at a purported Jewish race, but at the Jewish state. Zionism is now a dirty word in Britain, and opposition to Israel has become a fig leaf for a resurgence of the oldest hatred.
Anti-Semitism has continually changed its shape over the centuries. In the Greco-Roman world, it expressed itself in cultural hostility, resentment of the Jews’ economic power, and disdain for the separate lives that Jews led as the result of their religious practices, such as dietary laws and refusal to marry outside the faith.
Adding fuel to these pagan prejudices, Christian theology accused Jews of deicide and held them responsible for all time for killing Christ, a position that effectively associated them with the devil and, crucially, laid the blame for their suffering on their own shoulders. Later, medieval Christianity attempted to usurp the Jewish heritage through “replacement theology,” which claimed that Christians inherited all the promises that God had made to the Jews, who were to be eliminated through either conversion or death. These ideas underlay medieval Europe’s regular anti-Jewish pogroms, which consisted of massacres, forced conversions, and torchings of synagogues.
Theological anti-Semitism’s themes reemerged in the next mutation: racial anti-Semitism. This ideology held that, on account of their genetic inheritance, Jews were the enemies of humanity—a demonic conspiracy whose malign influence could be countered only by removing them from the face of the earth. Nazi Germany tried to do just that, killing 6 million Jews between 1933 and 1945.
And now, in Britain and elsewhere, anti-Semitism has mutated again, its target shifting from culture to creed to race to nation. What anti-Semitism once did to Jews as people, it now does to Jews as a people. First it wanted the Jewish religion, and then the Jews themselves, to disappear; now it wants the Jewish state to disappear. For the presentation of Israel in British public discourse does not consist of mere criticism. It has become a torrent of libels, distortions, and obsessional vilification, representing Israel not as a country under exterminatory attack by the Arabs for the 60 years of its existence but as a regional bully persecuting innocent Palestinians who want only a homeland.
Language straight out of the lexicon of medieval and Nazi Jew-hatred has become commonplace in acceptable British discourse, particularly in the media. Indeed, the most striking evidence that hatred of Israel is the latest mutation of anti-Semitism is that it resurrects the libel of the world Jewish conspiracy, a defining anti-Semitic motif that went underground after the Holocaust.
Take the much-abused term “neoconservatives,” which has become code for the Jews who have supposedly suborned America in Israel’s interests. In the Guardian, Geoffrey Wheatcroft lamented the fact that Conservative Party leader David Cameron had fallen under the spell of neoconservatives’ “ardent support for the Iraq war, for the US and for Israel,” and urged Cameron to ensure that British foreign policy was no longer based on the interest of “another country”—Israel. In the Times, Simon Jenkins supported the notion that “a small group of neo-conservatives contrived to take the greatest nation on Earth to war and kill thousands of people” and that these “traitors to the American conservative tradition,” whose “first commitment was to the defence of Israel,” had achieved a “seizure of Washington (and London) after 9/11.” According to this familiar thesis, the Jews covertly exercise their extraordinary power to advance their own interests and harm the rest of mankind.
The New Statesman took a more straightforward approach in 2002, printing an investigation into the power of the “Zionist” lobby in Britain, which it dubbed the “Kosher Conspiracy” and illustrated on its cover with a gold Star of David piercing the Union Jack. The image conveyed at a glance the message that rich Jews were stabbing British interests through the national heart.
The British media accuse Israel of a host of crimes. The Guardian published a two-day special report painting Israel as an apartheid state, ignoring the fact that Israeli Arabs have full civil rights. Another Guardian article, by Patrick Seale, portrayed Israel’s incursions into Gaza as a “destructive rampage.” Dismissing or ignoring the rocket attacks, hostage-taking, and terrorism that those incursions were trying to stop, Seale concluded instead that Israel “deliberately inflicts inhumane hardships on the Palestinians in order to radicalise them and drive the moderates from the scene.” When the National Union of Journalists, joining a number of other academic and professional groups, voted last April to boycott Israeli goods—a move that it has since reversed—one of its members, freelancer Pamela Hardyment, described Israel as “a wonderful Nazi-like killing machine backed by the world’s richest Jews.” Then she referred to the “so-called Holocaust” and concluded: “Shame on all Jews, may your lives be cursed.”
The British media uncritically regurgitate Palestinian propaganda even when it is demonstrably false. In April 2002, many outlets labeled Israel’s assault on the refugee camp in Jenin a “massacre” with thousands dead; in fact, some 52 Palestinian men had died (of whom the great majority were terrorists), along with 23 Israeli soldiers. In last year’s Lebanon war, the media propagated manifestly false Hezbollah claims of Israeli massacres that later proved to have been staged.
During the same war, the Guardian published a cartoon depicting a huge fist, armed with brass knuckles shaped like Stars of David, hammering a bloody child while a wasp representing Hezbollah buzzed around ineffectually. The image suggested that Israel was a gigantic oppressor, slaughtering children in brutal overreaction to Hezbollah, a minor irritant. It was reminiscent of an earlier cartoon in the Independent that showed a monstrous Ariel Sharon biting the head off a Palestinian baby, which won first prize in the British Political Cartoon Society’s annual competition for 2003. By showing Jews killing children, both cartoons employed the imagery of the blood libel—the medieval European calumny that sparked many massacres of Jews by claiming that they murdered Gentile children and used their blood for religious rituals.
The BBC, despite its claims of fairness and honesty, is just as marked by hatred of Israel, and much more influential. It reported the Lebanon war by focusing almost entirely on the Israeli assault upon Lebanon, with scarcely a nod at the Hezbollah rocket barrage against Israel. Its reporters blame Israel even for Palestinians’ killing of other Palestinians. Last December, in a briefing for other BBC staff, Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen wrote of the incipient Palestinian civil war in Gaza: “The reason is the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel’s military activities, land expropriation and settlement building—and the financial sanctions imposed on the Hamas led government.”
Some media websites publish readers’ anti-Semitic comments. On the Guardian’s Comment Is Free blog—which does try to remove some of the more offensive remarks—one reader wrote: “Because of their religious teachings whenever Jews have had power they have used it to persecute non-Jews—from the extermination of Amalek to the killing of Christian converts, to the oppression of medieval peasantry in Poland to the Palestinians today.” A message board on BBC Radio Five Live’s website published a reader’s remark that “Zionism is a racist ideology where jews [sic] are given supremacy over all other races and faiths. This is found in the Talmud.” Though the site reserves the right not to post messages that are “racist, sexist, homophobic, sexually explicit, abusive or otherwise objectionable,” it refused to remove that posting, which apparently “did not contravene the house rules.”
Another force propagating the new anti-Semitism is the institution at the heart of the old theological version: the Church, which has reverted to blaming Jews for their own suffering and accusing them once again of a diabolical conspiracy against the innocent. Although Britain is in many ways a postreligious society, it still sees the churches as custodians of high-minded conscience and truth. And those churches are viscerally prejudiced against Israel.
The Church of England is especially unfriendly; one might say that it is the Guardian at prayer. In a lecture in 2001, the archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in the Middle East, Canon Andrew White, observed with concern that propaganda accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and of systematically “Judaising” Jerusalem had assumed great authority within the Church of England. The Church, he said, was undergoing not just a spell of Israel-hatred but also a revival of theological anti-Semitism.
One major influence here is radical Palestinian Christian theology, such as that of Canon Naim Ateek, which revives the imagery of Christ-killing in order to claim that the Palestinians are the rightful inheritors of God’s promise of the Land of Israel. Another is the prominent Reverend Stephen Sizer, who has said that Israel is fundamentally an apartheid state, that he hopes that it will be “brought to an end,” and that Christianity has inherited God’s promises to the Jews. Sizer agrees with another leading Anglican, Reverend Dr. John Stott, that the idea that Jews still have a special relationship with God is “biblically anathema.” And Colin Chapman’s book Whose Promised Land?—hugely influential within the Church—likewise says that God’s promises to the Jews now pertain to the Christians, adding that violence has always been implicit in Zionism and that Jewish self-determination is somehow racist.
Small wonder, then, that Christian aid societies regularly represent Israel as a malevolent occupying power, distorting Jews’ historical claims to the land and making scant reference to the sustained campaign of Arab terrorism against them. A 2005 report by the Anglican Peace and Justice Network—which underpinned a short-lived move to “divest” from companies supporting Israel—compared Israel’s security barrier with “the barbed-wire fence of the Buchenwald camp.” Jews were apparently like Nazis—and because of a measure aimed at preventing a second Jewish Holocaust. Last Christmas, several Anglican and Catholic churches replaced their traditional nativity tableaux with montages of Israel’s security barrier, carrying the unmistakable message that the Palestinians were the modern version of the suffering Christ being crucified all over again by the Jews. And earlier this year, the Catholic weekly The Tablet revealed that almost 80 percent of British Christians polled did not believe that Israel was fighting enemies that were pledged to destroy it.
Like the media and the churches, Britain’s political and academic Left is making common cause with Islamist radicalism. The Islamists oppose the Left’s most deeply held causes, such as gay rights and equality for women. Yet leftists and Islamists now march together under such slogans as “We are all Hezbollah now” during rallies protesting the Lebanon war, and even “Death to the Jews” outside a debate over whether Manchester University’s Jewish Society should be banned.
In 2005, London’s far-left mayor, Ken Livingstone, illustrated this unholy alliance by publicly embracing Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the cleric who endorses suicide bombings in Israel and Iraq. In the same year, he asked a Jewish reporter who approached him after a party, “What did you do before? Were you a German war criminal?” When the reporter said that he was Jewish and that the remark offended him, Livingstone likened him to a “concentration camp guard.” After a government panel found that Livingstone had brought his office into disrepute, the mayor challenged the finding in court, where a judge ruled that his remarks were not anti-Semitic. But the Community Security Trust found that a number of perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks mentioned those comments. And John Mann, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism, was in no doubt: “If you have people like the Mayor of London crossing the line . . . then it gives a message out to the rest of the community. That is why antisemitism is on the rise again—because it’s become acceptable.”
Livingstone is not the only leftist politician “crossing the line.” In 2003, Labour backbencher Tam Dalyell claimed that Tony Blair was “being unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers.” Liberal Democrat Jenny Tonge, whose party honored her with a peerage after she sympathized with suicide bombers and compared Arabs in Gaza with Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, told her party conference in 2006: “The pro-Israel lobby has got its grips on the Western world. I think they’ve probably got a certain grip on our party.”
Even a distinguished general told me, without a shred of evidence, that Rupert Murdoch had ordered the Times, which he owns, to limit its opposition to the Iraq War “on the instruction of the Jewish lobby in America.” Furthermore, claimed the general, George Bush had invaded Iraq because “he had Ariel Sharon’s hand up his back.” Moreover, a number of institutions and professional groups have tried to launch boycotts of Israel: academics, journalists, architects, doctors, public-sector unions, and again the Church of England. Many of these have not succeeded, but they have served to remind the public that Israel is a pariah.
Given these views, widespread in the media and among political and intellectual elites, it’s no surprise that many Britons believe that global Islamic terrorism is the result of Israel’s behavior toward the Palestinians—or that hatred of both the Jewish state and Jews in general has become increasingly acceptable among the population. As a woman said to me conversationally at dinner one evening: “I hate the Jews because of what they do to the Palestinians.” So acceptable has the new anti-Semitism become that many left-wing Jews promulgate the idea that Israel is a racist or apartheid state, demonize those Jews who seek to defend it against slander, and claim that because they are Jews themselves, their words cannot be anti-Semitic—despite the fact that throughout history there have been Jews who have turned on their coreligionists.
One of the most conspicuous features of British anti-Semitism is that the British deny its existence. The Parliamentary inquiry received only a muted response. Both Mann and Richard Littlejohn, a journalist whose TV program on the subject aired in July 2007, encountered people who, when discovering their concern about anti-Semitism, said: “Oh, I didn’t know you were Jewish.” But Mann and Littlejohn aren’t Jewish. As Littlejohn noted, the implication was that no non-Jew would ever identify anti-Semitism, and therefore that anti-Semitism was generally a figment of the Jewish imagination. When I proposed to write a book about it, I was turned down by every mainstream publishing house. “No British publisher will touch this,” one editorial director told me. “Claiming there is anti-Semitism in Britain is simply unsayable.”
Many Britons deny the resurgence of anti-Semitism because they think of it as prejudice toward Jews as people and believe that it died with Hitler. The argument that attitudes toward Israel may be anti-Semitic strikes them as absurd. But consider the characteristics of anti-Semitism. It applies to the Jews expectations applied to no other people; it libels, vilifies, demonizes, and dehumanizes them; it scapegoats them not merely for crimes that they have not committed, but for crimes of which they are the victims; it holds them responsible for all the ills of the world. These characteristics remain precisely the same in today’s hatred of the Jewish state. Israel is held to standards expected of no other nation; it is libeled and vilified; it is blamed both for crimes that it has not committed and for those of which it is the victim; and it is held responsible for all the world’s misfortunes—most recently, Islamic terrorism.
So the Israel boycotts that have broken out in Britain are intrinsically anti-Semitic. The boycotters do not seek to cut ties with any other country, however tyrannical or murderous. They blame no other country for populations that have been displaced through war or other upheavals. And they expect no other nation that has held off its mortal enemies to defer to those aggressors and accede to their demands.
Britons also tend to suspect that Jews use the charge of anti-Semitism to divert attention from Israel’s crimes. This is why, for so many in Britain, the suggestion that anti-Semitism is enjoying a renaissance seems not only false but sinister. Outraged to be accused of peddling bigotry, they begin to hate those who level that charge—who, they conclude, are part of a conspiracy against truth.
Thus Jews who seek to defend Israel find themselves in a trap. By complaining that attacks on Israel are anti-Semitic, they become examples of the supposed Jewish tendency to play the anti-Semitism card to suppress legitimate debate—and provoke yet more of the very prejudice that they are trying to combat. Such Jews find themselves in a situation that Kafka could have scripted. The Economist hosted a 2004 debate in London proposing that “the enemies of antisemitism are the new McCarthyites” because they were trying to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel. And at that debate, a former Conservative higher-education minister and a member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding stated that any British Jew who supported Israel’s policies was guilty of “dual loyalty.” I myself, on the BBC’s Question Time in 2001, was accused of dual loyalty for the same reason.
Insofar as Britons are forced to acknowledge a rise in anti-Semitism, they assume that Jews have brought it on themselves because of Israel’s behavior. There is certainly a link: whenever Middle East violence surges, as in the 2006 Lebanon war or at the height of the second intifada, physical attacks on British Jews surge, too. Since violence in the Middle East invariably consists of attacks on Israel to which it is forced to respond, the appalling conclusion is that the more Jews are murdered in Israel, the more Jews are attacked in Britain.
Not all Britons who oppose Israel are anti-Semites, of course. Many are decent people who hate prejudice. Indeed, that is why they hate Israel—because they have been taught that it is like apartheid-era South Africa. Profoundly ignorant of the history of the Jewish people and of the Middle East, they have been indoctrinated with one of the Big Lies of human history. And it is because of their very high-mindedness that the better educated and more socially progressive they are, the more likely they are to spew Jew-hatred.
But why has this poison seeped into the British bloodstream? Why has the country that was once the cradle of the Enlightenment values of tolerance, objectivity, and reason departed so precipitately from its own tradition?
For one thing, Britain has always had an ambivalent relationship with the Jews. Medieval England actually led the European charge against them. The blood libel is thought to have originated in twelfth-century England; and in 1290, after numerous pogroms against its Jewish citizens, it expelled them altogether. It was not until 1656 that, for a variety of economic and religious reasons, Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to return to England. Though they subsequently flourished there, a measure of social anti-Semitism persisted until the Holocaust.
Britain’s role in the creation of modern Israel is also a factor in British antagonism toward the Jewish state. In the early 1920s, the League of Nations entrusted Britain with the administration of Palestine, holding it responsible for “placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home.” For almost three decades, the British tried to evade that obligation in order to appease the Arabs. The Jews of Palestine thus found themselves fighting the British as well as the Arabs, a fact that caused lasting resentment in Britain. Public opinion recalls with undimmed bitterness the Jewish terrorism of that period, such as the 1946 destruction of the British headquarters at Jerusalem’s King David hotel. Arabism is still the default position at the Foreign Office, where sympathetic diplomats are dubbed “the camel corps.”
But a subtler reason exists for Britain’s embrace of the new anti-Semitism. After the Second World War, the radical Left set out to destroy the fundamentals of Western morality, but its campaign played out very differently in America and Britain. In America, it resulted in the culture wars, with conservatives, many churches, and sensible liberals launching a vigorous counterattack in defense of Western moral values—and, as it happened, Israel.
Exhausted by two world wars, shattered by the loss of empire, and hollowed out by the failure of the Church of England or a substantial body of intellectuals and elites to hold the line, Britain was uniquely vulnerable to the predations of the Left. The institutions that underpinned truth and morality—the traditional family and an education system that transmitted the national culture—collapsed. Britain’s monolithic intelligentsia soon embraced postmodernism, multiculturalism, victim culture, and a morally inverted hegemony of ideas in which the values of marginalized or transgressive groups replaced the values of the purportedly racist, oppressive West.
Further, people across the political spectrum became increasingly unable to make moral distinctions based on behavior. This erasing of the line between right and wrong produced a tendency to equate, and then invert, the roles of terrorists and of their victims, and to regard self-defense as aggression and the original violence as understandable and even justified. That attitude is, of course, inherently antagonistic to Israel, which was founded on the determination never to allow another genocide of Jews, to defend itself when attacked, and to destroy those who would destroy it. But for the Left, powerlessness is virtue; better for Jews to die than to kill, because only as dead victims can they be moral.
And this general endorsement of surrender feeds straight into a subterranean but potent resentment simmering in Europe. For over 60 years, a major tendency in European thought has sought to distance itself from moral responsibility for the Holocaust. The only way to do so, however, was somehow to blame the Jews for their own destruction; and that monstrous reasoning was inconceivable while the dominant narrative was of Jews as victims.
Now, however, the Palestinians have handed Europe a rival narrative. The misrepresentation of Israeli self-defense as belligerence, suggesting that Jews are not victims but aggressors, implicitly provides Europeans with the means to blame the destruction of European Jewry on its own misdeeds. As one influential left-wing editor said to me: “The Holocaust meant that for decades the Jews were untouchable. It’s such a relief that Israel means we don’t have to worry about that any more.”
It is no accident that Jews find themselves at the center of Britain’s modern convulsion. Today’s British prejudices rest on a repudiation of truth and a refusal to defend Western moral values. And it was the Jews who first gave the West those moral codes that underpin its civilization and that are now under siege.
If British politicians were to start speaking the truth about Israel’s history and defending Jews publicly, they might help stem the new anti-Semitism. Likewise, British Jews—who, unlike their American counterparts, are almost totally silent for fear of making things worse—need to put their heads above the parapet and start telling the truth about Israel. But for Jews who had allowed themselves to believe that they were truly at home in Britain, the new anti-Semitism is the end of an idyll.
Melanie Phillips, a British writer, is a commentator for the Daily Mail and the author of Londonistan. She blogs at http://www.melaniephillips.com.