Keeping it in proportion
4 Jun 2009 by CST
In recent years, antisemitism has become an increasingly common topic of conversation in the UK, whether in the pages of mainstream newspapers, around the Shabbat dinner tables of British Jews or in the corridors of Westminster. There are several reasons for this, and endless opinions can be found as to whether, why, how and to what end antisemitism has returned as a problem.
Antisemitism is a complex and nuanced phenomenon, and it is important to understand it properly in order to fight it successfully. It is false to assume that antisemitism comes from one source - be it the Muslims, the left or the right - or that anti-Israel feelings or xenophobic nationalism are the sole motivating factors. Even dealing in such general terms is an error in itself: when you have an example of antisemitism from, say, a Muslim source, that certainly does not mean that all or even most Muslims are antisemitic, any more than neo-Nazi antisemitism means that most white people hate Jews.
Often, antisemitic words and ideas are used by people who have no idea of their antisemitic provenance or impact. Ready made ways of thinking about Jews circulate and emerge when Jews or Israel are in the news, and it is a sensitive and precise task to identify any antisemitic resonance, isolate it and explain why it is a problem.
One thing that must be stressed, though, is that antisemitism does not and should not define the British Jewish experience. It defines CSTs work, but we spend our working days thinking about antisemitism, so that the rest of the Jewish community can spend their time doing other things. It cannot be said often enough that Britain remains a good place to be Jewish. This is a liberal democratic society, with all the freedoms that implies. The Jewish community is, generally speaking, prosperous and integrated. There are many important parts of British society where antisemitism has no meaningful presence at all.
Over half of all Jewish children of school age attend Jewish schools, while Jewish cultural activity is flourishing. Antisemitism does not overshadow day-to-day Jewish life in Britain in the way that some people outside this country seem to believe. CST works with British Jews right across the political and religious spectrum in order to protect all these positive aspects of our Jewish lives.
There are problems, for sure. CSTs annual Antisemitic Incidents Reports have catalogued a steady rise in antisemitic incidents, which means that many more British Jews have experienced direct antisemitism in their daily lives than, say, a decade ago.
There is an extremist political position, once rooted in the far left but now floating on a sea of populist, hand-wringing anti-Westernism, that promotes conspiracy theories that blame Zionism for all manner of global crimes; while dismissing any complaints about antisemitism as cynical and politically motivated.
The British National Party has grown from an electoral joke into a far right party with council seats in many parts of the UK, a seat on the London Assembly and is on the verge of being elected to the European Parliament.
The campaign to boycott Israel, with the unavoidable danger that it will lead to the social exclusion of British Jews, is stronger in Britain than elsewhere. Media coverage of Israel or of Jews in public life too often strays into language and images that remind us of crude historic antisemitism. CST has started to analyse this type of antisemitism in its Antisemitic Discourse Report.
Most seriously of all, the threat of a terrorist attack against the Jewish community, if successful, could have a profound and long-lasting impact on Jewish life. Radical Islamist ideology, with its attendant antisemitism, has influence amongst some British Muslims and cannot be ignored.
Many of these factors came together at the beginning of 2009 in the reaction to Israels military campaign against Hamas in Gaza. An unprecedented rise in antisemitic incidents and some of the wider commentary left many British Jews feeling vulnerable and isolated for the first time in their lives.
So yes, antisemitism is more prevalent in Britain than it was a decade ago, but the appropriate response is not to shrei gevalt (scream in protest, if your Yiddish is a bit rusty). This is not Germany in the 1930s, and a sense of proportion and balance is vital. At the same time, it is not sensible to deny that problems do exist, or explain them away as developments that have no antisemitic origin, content or, most importantly, impact.
Better to recognize the problems for what they are, and do the work that needs to be done to counter them. This blog will try to shed some light on the nature of contemporary antisemitism, but also on the good work being done to combat it.