What antisemites really think
14 April 2016
Last night Channel 4 broadcast a documentary called “What British Muslims Really Think”, based on an opinion poll asking a range of questions about integration, identity, religion social attitudes.
The survey included a set of questions about attitudes towards, and beliefs about, Jews. It confirmed the findings of previous polls, showing that levels of antisemitism in Muslim communities are higher than in the general population. This pattern has been found by polls across Western Europe.
This latest poll showed something else that is interesting, and is not specific to Muslims: that people who believe antisemitic things about Jews rarely think of themselves as antisemitic.
For example, 35% of British Muslims agreed that “Jewish people have too much power in Britain”. 39% agreed “Jewish people have too much power over the media.” 44 % said they have “too much power in the business world”. 26% said “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars” and 27% said “People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.”
All unpleasant stuff. Put it together and you have somewhere around a third of British Muslims who believe conspiratorial ideas about Jews that are drawn directly from classical antisemitism, and (on the surface at least) have little to do with anger over the Israel/Palestine conflict.
What is perhaps curious, though, is that this is not reflected in a more basic question that was asked in the same poll about how favourable or unfavourable Muslims feel towards Jewish people as a religious group. When this was asked, Muslims averaged out as having favourable feelings towards Jews: on a sliding scale from 0-100, where 0 is the least favourable and 100 the most, British Muslims scored 57.1 in their feelings towards Jews.
This was lower than they scored in their feelings towards Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and people of no religion, but still, there is a gap between how the Muslim respondents in the poll feel towards Jews, and what they believe about them.
This repeats the findings of earlier polls, and not just for Muslims. In 2014 and 2015 the Anti-Defamation League conducted a large-scale global opinion poll about antisemitism. In Britain, they found that 7% of people in the general population feel unfavourable towards Jews, but 21% said “Jews have too much power in the business world”, 22% said “Jews have too much power in international financial markets”, 15% said “Jews have too much power over global affairs”, 19% said “People hate Jews because of the way Jews behave”, and so on.
It is as if antisemitic ideas circulate in society and influence the stereotypes people believe about Jews, but this does not affect how people imagine they relate to actual, living Jews who they know or might meet. Or perhaps people simply don’t like to think of themselves as prejudiced, so are less likely to admit to feeling unfavourable towards ethnic or religious groups in society.
It’s an important distinction to remember when discussing antisemitism in Muslim communities, or in political parties, or on social media. Even people who believe there is a global Jewish conspiracy or deny the Holocaust are affronted by the notion they might be antisemitic.
This has two consequences. Firstly, simply pointing out that somebody has said, written or tweeted something antisemitic is not always a guide to how they consciously feel about Jews. People can be inconsistent and irrational.
But also, the same applies in reverse: the fact that a person may have Jewish friends or family members, or may not consider themselves an antisemite, is no guide whatsoever to whether they believe antisemitic things about Jews.