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19 February 2024

Britain’s anti-Semitism problem

How stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jews have become a part of our common culture.

By David Feldman

The past, sometimes even the recent past, really is another country. In 1994 the Runnymede Trust, an equality think tank, issued a report on anti-Semitism with the title “A Very Light Sleeper”. Its message to readers was that they should guard against complacency. Prejudice might easily rise again, even though it appeared to have been banished to the margins of society and politics.

Today “A Very Light Sleeper” seems both outdated and prescient. In Britain, this century has been marked by a rising trend in recorded anti-Semitic incidents and, over almost a decade, bitter controversy over the recurrence and response to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The years of complacency are now a memory.

One feature of the return of anti-Semitism has been its interaction with Israel’s wars in Gaza. Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 were accompanied in the UK by a surge in recorded anti-Semitic incidents. What is different in the context of the current war in Gaza, launched following Hamas’s massacre on 7 October 2023, is the sheer scale of the abuse, threat and violence targeting Jews.

The facts are set out in authoritative and dismal detail in the “Antisemitic Incidents Report, 2023” issued by the Jewish charity Community Security Trust (CST). In the period from October to December the organisation recorded a 589 per cent increase on the same period in 2022. Through 2023 as a whole, there were 4,103 recorded incidents; a huge increase on the 1,662 incidents in 2022. The most common forms of anti-Semitic rhetoric used in anti-Semitic incidents in 2023 were linked to Israel, Palestine, the Hamas terror attack, or the subsequent war. The CST’s assessment that we face “a genuine rise… initiated by a specific set of circumstances” is sober and credible.

Speaking about the CST report on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, was despairing. “It is Jew-hatred, it’s as simple as that.” The report provides a similar interpretation. The upsurge in incidents after 7 October, it says, “demonstrates the opportunism of antisemitism”. The implication here is that we face an implacable anti-Semitic “virus” that is forever trying to persecute Jews.

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But if this analysis was correct, we would expect the rising number of recorded anti-Semitic incidents to reflect a society increasingly awash with negativity towards Jewish people. Yet in Britain this is far from the case. Surveys suggest that hostile and negative attitudes to Jews are flatlining and have been for several years. The number of people who exhibit comprehensive negativity towards Jews is low and extends to a small minority of British adults – approximately 5 per cent according to one Institute for Jewish Policy Research report.

Yet while this suggests there are relatively few fully fledged anti-Semites, it also finds that agreement with one or two individual anti-Semitic statements is spread thinly but widely, reaching 30 per cent of the adult population. For instance, 13 per cent agreed with the idea that Jews think they are better than other people and 12 per cent agreed that the interests of Jews are very different from those of non-Jews. In this light, the problem we face is not just one of convinced anti-Semites captured by the anti-Semitic “virus” but of anti-Semitism: a widely diffused reservoir of stereotypes and narratives about Jews. This reservoir has accumulated over centuries and has become a part of our common culture.

This distinction between anti-Semites and anti-Semitism illumines the situation that confronts us now and has significant implications for politics. At the core of anti-Semitism is the myth that Jews uniquely conspire and pursue power to promote their own interests. The claim “Israel can get away with anything because its supporters control the media” has proved remarkably persistent on the left. People reach for ideas such as this – wittingly or not – because they provide a simple but persuasive explanation of the problem that engages them. Today that problem is the war in Gaza. In this context, the conspiratorial notion that Jewish money is shaping policy globally is propagated and approved by some who act in in solidarity with Palestinians.

Anti-Semitism provides a vision of the world in which Jews are a homogeneous group with a single collective interest, which they pursue remorselessly. Little wonder then that those who dip into the reservoir of anti-Semitism hold Jews everywhere responsible for the actions of Jews in Israel. The consequences are documented in the CST report.

The surge in anti-Semitic incidents since October points to the need for better awareness and understanding of anti-Semitism and, following from that, a better politics. Illegal acts and rule-breaking need to be dealt with in appropriate ways. But we also need more education and vigilance to resist and tackle the diffuse anti-Semitism embedded in our common culture.

Neither anti-Zionism nor the pursuit of justice for Palestinians need be anti-Semitic, as the CST report acknowledges. Solidarity with Palestinians takes a mistaken and destructive turn whenever it embraces anti-Semitism. By the same token, Israel’s friends place themselves in a weak position if they decry anti-Jewish racism in the UK while remaining silent on the long-standing and systematic discrimination against Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The cause of anti-racism should be neither selective nor divisible.

[See also: Oren Cass: “Trump is an inherently time-limited phenomenon”]

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