The New British anti-Semitism

Great Britain has regrettably become home to a wave of anti-Jewish sentiments, innuendos, motifs, symbols, and public statements.

Robert Wistrich
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Robert Wistrich

Earlier this month, a parliamentary committee of inquiry began to hear testimony on the subject of the proliferation of anti-Semitism in Britain, with the aim of submitting a report that would aid the government of Britain in combating the phenomenon.

This matter took on added significance in light of the trial of Abu Hamza, one of the leaders of the Islamic organization "al-Muhajiroun" (the Exiles), who is accused of inciting to murder Jews and recruiting British Muslims for objectives of the global Jihad. In the wake of a few studies that I have published about the issue, I was asked by the British House of Commons to appear before a parliamentary committee of inquiry.

In fact, Britain has begun to generate its own suicide terrorists - for instance, Asif Mohammed Hanif, who blew himself up in April 2003 at "Mike's Place" in Tel Aviv, killing three civilians and wounding scores of others. Since then, homegrown Muslim terrorism struck in the heart of London, on July 7, 2005. This was not an anti-Jewish action but part of the global Jihad which threatens the West as a whole. But for some leading Muslim clerics like Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad (recently expelled from Britain), Jews, Christians and the West are all part of the "infidel" enemy to be destroyed. He and Abu Hamza openly recruited Muslim youth for "holy war" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.

In absolute numbers, Great Britain is today second only to France in serious anti-Semitic incidents among European countries. The hostile climate of opinion has been accompanied by an increase in violent assaults in the last two years. The number of synagogue desecrations has also soared, as well as serious attacks in the London neighborhood of Finsbury Park, and in the cities of Swansea and Edinburgh. A near-tripling in anti-Semitic incidents in British schools prompted the National Union of Teachers to issue new guidelines in July 2003 for combating anti-Semitism. There were also acts of vandalism in the months following the American invasion of Iraq, such as the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the East End of London, where more than 400 graves were smashed. Last June, particularly ugly desecrations took place in Manchester and London cemeteries.

In the past year, much has changed for the worse when it comes to anti-Semitism in Britain. Between 15 percent and 20 percent of Britons could be defined as anti-Semitic, according to a sampling by the Jewish Chronicle last year. As many as one in five Britons believe the Holocaust is "exaggerated"; a similar percentage would not vote for a Jewish prime minister, and a much higher number hold conventional anti-Semitic stereotypes about the link between Jews and money. As elsewhere in Western Europe, over 50 percent of Britons think Israel is the greatest danger to world peace.

Last April, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), which has some 40,000 members, voted by sizable majorities to impose a boycott of two Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan University and University of Haifa, in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The rushed vote was held on Passover eve, preventing most Jewish members from taking part. Just before the vote, speakers addressing the AUT's executive union meeting declared Israel a "colonial apartheid state, more insidious than South Africa," and called for the "removal of this regime." The boycott was reversed but the campaign continues. For most British Jews, such discriminatory boycotts are eerily reminiscent of anti-Semitic methods.

The old-new anti-Semitism in Britain is not the kind of hatred that prevailed in Europe 60 years ago. The emerging multi-cultural society of Great Britain will not tolerate cries of Sieg Heil, jackboots, or the openly racist mythology that was irrevocably stained by the Holocaust. Still, the Muslim Council of Britain once again boycotted International Holocaust Memorial Day.

It should be added that the vilification of Israel is leading to a sweeping accusation of the Jews as collaborators with a movement and a state that is conceived by some of the country's elites as a new form of fascism. This is evidenced by the unacceptable ease with which Israel is accused of "ethnic cleansing" or genocide of the Palestinians.

This is not to say that British culture is inherently or overwhelmingly hostile to Jews. Great Britain, the birthplace of modern liberalism, continues to be an open society today, with a stable democracy, a free press and an independent judiciary dedicated to protecting individual liberties. For several centuries, and through World War II, Great Britain was, relative to the rest of Europe at least, a model of tolerance. Nevertheless, Great Britain has regrettably become home to a wave of anti-Jewish sentiments, innuendos, motifs, symbols, and public statements, which have gained legitimacy in British public discourse far beyond what is either healthy or acceptable.

The writer is head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University.



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