LONDON - Eyebrows are being raised, and a debate has been sparked here following accusations made by President Shimon Peres that England is "deeply pro-Arab ... and anti-Israeli," and that "they always worked against us."
Peres' comments were tucked inside a far-ranging 6,800-word interview he gave to historian Professor Benny Morris, which was published in the Jewish online magazine Tablet last week. It took several days until the president's words on the matter were noticed - but now that they have been, they are beginning to cause something of a storm.
Peres, who was awarded an honorary knighthood by the Queen in 2008, said that England's attitude toward Jews was Israel's "next big problem," and added that: "There is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary."
Coming, as they did, days after British Prime Minister David Cameron told an audience in Turkey that Gaza was one a big "prison camp," and that Israel's reaction to the flotilla had been unacceptable, Peres' words were seen as particularly pertinent. In the interview, Peres hints that because there are so many millions of Muslim voters in England, many members of parliament feel the need to pander to them: "That's the difference between getting elected and not getting elected," he said. "And in England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab, of course, not among all Englishmen, and anti-Israeli, in the establishment."
Talking history with the historian Morris, Peres went on to remind that "They [Britain] abstained in the [pro-Zionist] 1947 UN partition resolution ... They maintained an arms embargo against us in the 1950s ... They always worked against us. They think the Arabs are the underdogs."
The British Foreign Office declined to comment yesterday. However, James Clappison, a member Cameron's party and vice-chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel, said that while he could "understand the frustration" that people in Israel felt with "certain elements of the British broadcast media" which present an unbalanced view of Israel, "Peres has got this wrong."
Clappison went on to say that "There are pro- and anti-Israel views in all European countries. Things are certainly no worse, as far as Israel is concerned, in this country than in other European countries."
Others disagreed. Anthony Julius, a prominent litigator in London who recently came out with a book about anti-Semitism in Britain, "Trials of the Diaspora," believes that there has, indeed, always been a particular sort of anti-Semitism here.
"Among historical peculiarities of English anti-Semitism I would say it has been exceptionally innovative," he tells Haaretz. "The blood libel first appeared here, and the expulsion of 1290 was the first national expulsion. Second is that in more recent times anti-Semitism has been of an export kind. England has exported its anti-Semitism to the continent. What England begins, other nations in Europe adopted and in some cases continued."
And, while reports of a massive increase in anti-Semitism in Britain today might be exaggerated, continues Julius, he admits the situation is worsening and worrying. "It's troubling that its necessary for schools and shuls to be protected by security guards. And it's also troubling that people don't think its troubling," he says.
"Its hard to see where the threats are coming from with utter precision," he continues. "There is no doubt that there are high levels of anti-Israel discourse in some of the Muslim communities here, which become anti-Semitic - it's also plain that there is a sort of perceived opinion now about the history of Israel that is utterly and ignorantly hostile to Israel. The whole complicated history of the region has been cast into a melodrama with a villain and a victim. And Israel is the villain."
The latest figures show that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain is rising, according to the Community Security Trust (CST ), a charity set up in 1984 to monitor such incidents. In 2009 there were 924 anti-Semitic incidents, the highest figure since CST began keeping records, and 55 percent higher than the previous record of 2006. The figures include reports - accepted only when backed by evidence - of physical assaults, verbal abuse and racist graffiti. The monthly figure has soared from 10-20 incidents in the 1990s to 40-50 now. Last year nearly half the anti-Semitic race attacks recorded by the CST showed a political motivation, with 66 percent of those including some reference to Israel and the Middle East.
A 2009 report by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League found one in five Britons admitted Israel influences their opinion of British Jews, and the majority of those said that they felt "worse" about Jews than they used to. It found, however, that Britain was less anti-Semitic than other European countries.
Peres would probably agree with that, as in the interview he went on to say that relations with Germany, France and Italy were "pretty good." But, he added, he could not say the same about the Scandinavian countries, whom he calls "yefei nefesh" (bleeding hearts ).
Nir Hasson adds: The President's Residence denied the remarks attributed to Peres in his interview with Benny Morris. According to associates of the president, a review of the recordings of the interview show that he in no way accused the British of anti-Semitism. Peres did accuse Britain of unfairness toward Israel since its establishment.
In reply to a question about whether that was the result of anti-Semitism, Peres, according to the associates, is said to have answered: "There is anti-Semitism everywhere but that is not the issue in this instance."
Last night, a spokeswoman for the President's Residence issued a clarification for editors of the major newspapers in Britain, in an effort to repair the damage.
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