Jewish World / The Language of anti-Semitism

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

When, in 2003, the veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell described the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair as being influenced by a "Jewish cabal," he was roundly condemned for making what many saw as an obviously antisemitic remark. Some, though, sought to justify his comment as a legitimate, if poorly-worded, criticism of Israel's supporters, rather than something more sinister.

The late left-wing journalist Paul Foot, writing in The Guardian, explained that Dalyell was "wrong to complain about Jewish pressure on Blair and Bush when he means Zionist pressure."

The idea that political leaders are influenced for malign purposes by Jews is at the heart of modern anti-Semitism. It is an alarming but increasingly familiar notion that by swapping "Zionist" for "Jewish" - i.e. that the then Prime Minister was surrounded by a "Zionist cabal" - Dalyell's comment can be rendered apparently "bigotry-free." This is typical of an anti-Semitic discourse by which the most common ideas, themes and images from the history of anti-Semitism have re-emerged in recent years, cloaked in an anti-Israel or anti-Zionist wrapping.

This is something that the U.K.'s All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism recognised. Their report noted the existence of an anti-Semitic discourse, the difficulty in identifying and defining it, and that ideas and images with roots in traditional antisemitism crop up in anti-Israel commentary and activism. The Inquiry called on the media in particular to consider "the impact of language and imagery in current discourse on Judaism, anti-Zionism and Israel."

This is not an easy subject to analyse. Opinions will differ over exactly where, or whether, an anti-Israel screed becomes anti-Semitic. Often, the writer or publisher in question may be completely unaware that the words or images they choose have an anti-Semitic provenance. There is a necessary process of education before it can even be asked why a particular metaphor appealed to them, or why they thought it would resonate with their readers.

In an effort to measure and track the phenomenon, my organisation, CST, has published its first survey of anti-Semitism in mainstream discourse in Britain. This publication will be produced annually - the first one covers 2007 - and will complement our existing reports into anti-Semitic incidents each year.

One example is of a magazine article about the pro-Israel lobby in America which was illustrated with a cartoon of a giant sea dragon, emblazoned with what looked like a Star of David, but was in fact the AIPAC logo, a nuance that will have been missed by many of its British readers. Anti-Semitic iconography has long portrayed Jews as dragons, both in their individual physicality and as an abstract, collective force.

When a funding scandal broke involving donors to the Labour Party, and some (although by no means most) of the figures linked to the scandal happened to be Jewish, The Independent's columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote of "the shadowy role of Labour Friends of Israel" and described the central figure in the story as a "strange shape-shifter," while expressing her fear of "the wrath of Moses" for daring to ask such questions.

We also found - and this is something with which Haaretz , like every major media organisation, has to grapple - that new media have opened a space, via online social networks, talkboards, message forums and so on, for expressions of anti-Semitism and other bigotry that previously only existed on extremist Web sites.

When the British Medical Journal ran an online poll asking if readers supported or opposed an academic boycott of Israel, one reader left the message: "Would you not boycott dr mengele [sic]?" An infamous posting on the BBC talkboards, which the BBC moderators removed and then put back after they decided it did not contravene their rules, read: "Zionism is a racist ideology where jews are given supremacy over all other races and faiths. This is found in the Talmud..."

When neo-Nazis allege Jewish control of the media or government, Jewish conspiracies to cause war or global foment, or Jewish infanticide and bloodlust, and when their propaganda portrays Jews as snakes, dragons or other beasts, nobody questions whether it is anti-Semitic. When similar allegations are made and associations drawn, but about supporters of Israel, not Jews per se, and set in the context of arguments over Israel and the Palestinians, there are plenty of people who cannot, or will not, see the connection between this contemporary discourse and an anti-Semitic past. Neo-Nazis have spotted this, and now also talk about Zionists, not Jews, blurring the distinctions further.

Anti-Semitism is not just about the hate crimes that make up the numbers of anti-Semitic incidents that get reported each year; it is also about the ideas, words and images of anti-Semitic discourse. We hope our report will go some way to helping measure, assess and understand this side of a very old bigotry.

Dave Rich is Deputy Director of Communications for CST, which provides security and defense services to the U.K. Jewish community and advises government and police on anti-Semitism and terrorism.

More by Dave Rich on Haaretz.com:

More Jewish World news and features

Comments