Why do so many people seem to think anti-Semitism doesn’t exist?

From bots to spies, we keep trying to find something else to blame for genuine prejudice.


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Twitter bots. Trump supporters. The media. A right-wing co-ordinated attack. Spies. Israel itself.

One thing that’s clear from the Labour anti-Semitism row is how many people don’t really believe that anti-Semitism exists.

The tendency to blame abuse of Jews on something else – to put it down to any social force other than genuine prejudice – is present across the spectrum of UK politics.

From right-wing Brexiteer Arron Banks, who sees Labour simply making an electoral calculation in response to a “witch hunt”, to hard-left Labour supporters, who suspect a cynical plot to smear Jeremy Corbyn, many don’t seem to believe – or don’t seem to want to believe – that anti-Semitism is a problem.

I can almost understand it. As someone who isn’t Jewish, I was ignorant until fairly recently of the problem in this country. It took a Jewish MP I had coffee with years ago, before the Labour row blew up, to show me the notifications on their phone – plastered with hideous Nazi Germany-style propaganda images and aggressive hate speech – for me to realise.

As someone who hadn’t seen such tropes since reading my history GCSE textbook, I must’ve looked shocked as they scrolled through, because they reassured me that most people have no clue about the extent of it unless they’re on the receiving end.

In reality, anti-Semitic incidents in the UK are at an all-time high. If you’re Jewish in this country, you were over three times as likely to be violently assaulted last year than the year before. Anti-Semitic hate crimes – the most common type involving verbal abuse randomly directed at Jewish people in public – rose by three per cent from 2016 to 2017: a record since monitoring began in 1984.

This is in line with the five-fold increase in Islamophobic hate crime last year, and the spike in racist hate crime recorded following the EU referendum result in 2016.

Denial persists among some on the right that racist crime is rising, though you scarcely find voices on the left making the same argument. Yet both seem to have a blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism.

Perhaps, as a Jewish colleague suggested to me, this is because most Jewish people in this country are not visibly of an ethnic minority – the majority are white and don’t wear religious dress. A combination that makes it safer and easier to do everything in UK society, from walking down the street to getting promoted.

So we don’t necessarily see them as vulnerable to racism as other groups.

“Unless you are strictly Orthodox, choose to wear a kippah or bear another emblem of Judaism on your person, you blend in,” as Abi Symons writes for the Jewish Chronicle.

“You pass as white if that’s your skin tone and therefore on physical first impressions carry the privileges associated with appearing to be part of the powerful majority.”

Often only when people “come out” as Jewish, as Symons puts it, or if there’s a giveaway in their name, or they are seen attending a synagogue or Jewish celebration, will the abuse begin. And that’s the part we don’t see – or don’t want to see.

“Many do not see us as the minority we statistically, legally and rightfully are. And those tropes are helping to write us out of progressive historical narratives,” she adds.

It’s too generous to suggest Labour’s problems are simply born of people not realising anti-Semitism exists – but there’s an awful lot of that wilful blindness about in trying to explain the party’s response.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.