Judeophobia - Not Your Parents' anti-Semitism

Is a new hostility toward Jews emerging in Great Britain?

Is there a `new anti-Semitism' in Britain? And if there is, where is it? These are the questions, among others, tackled by a new book, "A New Antisemitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st Century Britain," published by JPR, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London. It contains essays by a cross-section of Jewish thinkers in Britain - writers, academics and other experts - including Peter Pulzer, Melanie Phillips, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Jonathan Freedland, Robert Wistrich, Anthony Julius, Winston Pickett and Howard Jacobson.

The book challenges the impression given by many commentators - especially in the United States - that a singular, pan-European virus of anti-Semitism has infected European countries. Yet scratch the surface of that notion and even a cursory analysis of the problem shows a different picture: what's happening in Britain is not the same as it is in France, in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe for that matter. In addition, there has been little in-depth and focused analysis on Britain, as distinct from her European neighbors - until now. It is this analytic gap that "A New Antisemitism?" seeks to fill. Along the way it also challenges some of the current conceptions about present-day anti-Semitism.

Where is it?

The first place that many look for anti-Semitism is on the streets. Certainly it's the seeming upsurge in violence against Jews that has exercised many commentators. But it's important to step back and take a more careful look: Historically, violent anti-Semitism has been associated with social and economic dislocation and political crisis, as in Weimar Germany. Yet at the start of the 21st century, Britain has a low level of unemployment, a strong currency, low inflation and social and political stability. British Jews as individuals also face little economic and occupational discrimination: they have above-average socio-economic status, having achieved prominence in the commercial, professional, artistic and public life of the nation out of all proportion to their numbers.

To be sure, recent history still casts a dark shadow. The violence of Kristallnacht and its portents understandably resides in the collective memory of many Jews when thinking about Europe. Look again, however: The moral climate of the 1930s was the result of a right-wing animus that fed directly into the economic, racist and biological components of anti-Semitism.

In present-day Europe, "Nazi style" anti-Semitism - both in its ideology and its manifestation - has been dealt with. Legislation has eliminated the armbands and the brown shirts. Occupational discrimination by means of racial hierarchies and Nuremberg-style laws are no longer a threat. Modern science has all but permanently discredited theories of biological racial superiority.

Not on the streets

Nor are there particularly new strains of violent anti-Semitism to be found on British streets. To be sure, malevolent synagogue and cemetery desecrations in Swansea, Finsbury Park and, most recently, in Plashet East London have received widespread media attention. Yet a closer analysis of the data reveals a different phenomenon. The rise in hate crimes against Jews in the last couple of years shows the number of recorded incidents to be a very weak indicator of the prevailing national climate of anti-Semitism.

In absolute terms, anti-Semitic incidents are still low when compared with the number of racist incidents recorded by law enforcement authorities. This is not to diminish the impact of such acts of violence. Even a single racist incident can terrorize a community. But the number of recorded incidents hardly suggests a climate of explosive hostility - at least at the moment. Moreover, such "street anti-Semitism" fits a familiar pattern. In recent years violent acts against Jewish targets have fluctuated in tandem with media coverage of events in the Middle East. More revealing still is that fact that a consistent level of street anti-Semitism has more to do with Britain's "yob culture" of juvenile delinquency than deep-seated bigotry.

There is a self-protective dimension as well: the Jewish community in Britain is well organized through the Community Security Trust to deal effectively with this type of attack, usually associated with far right extremists and young vandals. The Jewish community can also look to active support from the British public and from the police and local authorities in their struggle.

A similar coalition of support and interest has coalesced around the threat from Islamic militants. They target not only Jews, but also Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Western society in general. While Jews are a key focus of their animus since September 11 we can look to the full protection of government and state and even the U.S. superpower in combating the worldwide network of Islamist terrorism.

What then is the new anti-Semitism in Britain? Is it simply a collective psychosis - a hypersensitive minority traumatized by the events of 1933-45 and haunted by fears of genocidal victimization? After all, the contributors to the JPR book appear rational enough to refute this allegation. Most argue that there is indeed a cause producing an effect.

Judeophobia

The irreducible fact is this: something new is at work in Britain. But it's not the old anti-Semitism. It's not eliminationist. It's not genocidal. Nor is it even a deep-seated, visceral hatred of individual Jews.

In fact, the "new anti-Semitism" hasn't shown up yet on the streets in Britain. Instead, it has taken hold in loftier places. For this reason and others the phenomenon in evidence may be more accurately termed Judeophobia - a fear of, and hostility toward Jews as a collectivity, rather than the propagation of the racial ideologies of the old anti-Semitism. Not widespread in "Middle England" at the moment, it nevertheless resides among certain "cognitive elites" within the news media, churches, universities, and trades unions. It is a mindset characterized by an obsession with, and vilification of, the State of Israel, and Jews in general, in the case of Britain, as a consequence of their strong sense of attachment to Israel. Today's Judeophobia is an assault on the essence of the Jewish collectivity, both in terms of a Jewish sovereign state in its ancient homeland, and the nature of robust, emancipated, and self-aware Diaspora communities.

It is important to be clear: Criticism of Israeli policy per se does not constitute Judeophobia. It's not the argument that hurts, it's the way it's conducted. Like the fashionable trend of critics to equate Israel to Nazi Germany. Such language has become routine in school yards and student protests. Calling others "Nazis" takes on an edge, especially when directed at those wearing a police uniform. When this happens the term is used as the ultimate insult with little thought to its meaning. But there can be no excuse when this kind of sentiment is allowed to appear in serious broadsheet newspapers such as the Independent and Observer.

Using Holocaust imagery to describe Israeli defense policy only compounds the hurt. It is nothing less than a contemporary variant of Holocaust denial and a vicious and malicious form of group libel.

Then, too there is the singling out of Israel for moral opprobrium because of its alleged culpability for human and civil rights abuses in its conflict with the Palestinians. All the while gross violations of human and civil rights elsewhere, particularly among its Arab enemies, frequently go ignored and unreported.

The discriminatory outcome of this campaign of vilification is the demonization of Israel, and by association Jews wherever they may live. Such demonization contributes little to constructive dialogue over Israel's conflict with the Palestinians. In fact, it is another obstacle on the road to peace.

This new Judeophobia comfortably co-habits with the use of disparaging stereotypes about Jews that are a throw-back to the old anti-Semitism. Last year, when the New Statesman - the weekly publication for the liberal-left intelligentsia - slapped a piece of incendiary classic anti-Semitic iconography on its front cover - a gold star of David stabbing a supine Union Jack - the classic canard of divided Jewish loyalty was effectively conjured up. The identical conspiracy typology was evoked more recently by Tam Dalyell - Britain's veteran Labour party parliamentarian and a far leftist of aristocratic origin - in his recent allegation of a cabal of Jews in Britain and the United States using their influence to promote a Zionist agenda.

To be sure: the new Judeophobia is less dangerous to individual Jews in Britain than the old anti-Semitism. It does not aim to reproduce Vichy France in 1941, or Vienna in 1938. No one wants to make Jews scrub the streets, or be expelled from universities or occupations, any more than they wish "to relocate the Jews in the East." It is not the Gobineau or Wilhelm Marre type of anti-Jewish prejudice.

Judeophobia in contemporary Britain is also not an organized conspiracy. It does constitute, however, an opportunistic coalition of interest for the new left, the far right and radical Islamists. It includes human rights campaigners and activists, who, while perhaps more well-meaning than others, in their singular obsession contribute to Israel's demonization, and by extension, to all Jews. Israel is now the new cause celebre for the liberal left intelligentsia, educated in the days of student action, anti-Vietnam war protest, the anti-apartheid movement, and the polarized politics of the Cold War. Many of this 1968 generation now occupy senior positions in the universities, media and established churches. For them, Israel represents an outpost of what they most abhor about liberal western democracy.

Back in the ghetto

In retrospect, this new metamorphosis of Judeophobia was predictable as soon as Jews asserted themselves as equals in Western societies or alternatively on the international stage as a nation state. As the perceived - and in most cases, loyal - supporters of the State of Israel, Diaspora Jewish communities inevitably have become the target of anger and hostility, catalyzed by world events. Few would have predicted, however, that in this toxic mix, it is the progressives who appear so keen to put the Jews back where they belong - in the ghetto.

The advantage of hindsight is that it makes even the surprising look predictable. Thus it becomes clear that the current animus is rooted in Soviet-style anti-Zionist doctrine that provided the ideological foundation for the British left. It has a clear Marxist provenance which rejects the notion of Jews a nation and sees them only as a class. Their nationalism is therefore illegitimate. In Stalin's "classless" Soviet Union, any form of alternative religious authenticity was likewise taboo. Its ultimate goal is not biological, but cultural and political.

But Judeophobia in Britain is not just a local problem. It has a knock-on effect on Israelis - not only because the UK is an important ally of the United States. Britain is also the historic cultural and media capital of the wider English-speaking world. How Israeli commentators and spokesmen frame the conflict needs to be approached with care.

Unfortunately, the language used by the far right and far left in Israel does a disservice to the country and erodes the standing of Jews worldwide. Israelis who use the term anti-Semitism indiscriminately and carelessly label virtually every opponent as an anti-Semite actually assist the real anti-Semites. Thus the insidious paradox: When anti-Semitism is everything and everywhere, it's easily dismissed as nothing and nowhere. Israelis who denounce the IDF at pro-Palestine rallies and in the European media give aid and comfort to Islamist militants and those who organize economic and academic boycotts of Israel and by extension Jews everywhere. Stuck in a 1930s time warp, their sin is to be in denial. Unless their Arab and radical European friends actually don a brown shirt, swastika armband and jackboots they refuse to recognize that they have an animus towards the Jewish people.

The Jewish people today face a worldwide political and intellectual assault from Judeophobia. Winning the battle of ideas requires political acumen and finesse. Only a sober analysis and respectful discourse will win the hearts and minds of Jews - and most neutrals.

Paul Iganski, who teaches criminology at the University of Essex, and Barry Kosmin, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, are editors of "A New Antisemitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st Century Britain," published by Profile Books and available from Amazon.co.uk at $10.49.