On the streets of British cities, we are told, anti-Semitic attacks are reaching “record” highs. At Westminster the Labour Party leadership poses an “existential threat to Jewish life.” So possessed with anxiety has the British public become that prominent Jewish figures—and mainstream publications—are asking: “Do we have a future here?”
As a young Jewish person living in Britain, I have been mystified by the sudden arrival of this existential crisis. Incidents such as the attempted arson at the Exeter synagogue should raise concern about fringe violence against the Jewish community—but not more concern than should be raised by fatal terrorism at British mosques, Islamophobic attacks on British streets, and a more general rise in racist attitudes across Britain. The Jewish community has certainly been affected by Britain’s widespread disenchantment with multiculturalism. But as global outlets such as CNN report an exodus of Jews from the United Kingdom, it is imperative to set the record straight.
Are British Jews in danger? Is such widespread panic warranted? And if not, what is really going on here?
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Two key measurements have stoked the view that the Jewish community is in crisis in Britain: the very definition of anti-Semitism, and figures on the number of “hate incidents” against Jews in 2017. Each of these points, however, raises more questions about the people who are pushing it into public view than it answers about anti-Semitism.
Take the definition first. The one preferred by a coalition of British rabbis—and adopted by a wide range of political parties around the world—is specified by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). It includes both a strict definition (“Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews. . . . ”) and a handful of “illustrative examples.”
British pundits equate Judaism—the religion, culture, ethnicity—with the political project of Zionism.
Part of the recent outrage has been prompted by the Labour Party’s reluctance to adopt the IHRA statute in its entirety. Pundit after pundit—Jewish and otherwise—have condemned the “sickness” exposed by Jeremy Corbyn’s rejection of the IHRA definition. It was only this week—after the accusations of “dog-whistling to anti-Semites” had piled up to a political crisis—that the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee agreed to adopt the IHRA definition in full.
But amidst the outrage, the actual content of the IHRA controversy has largely gone missing. In fact, the Labour leadership had already adopted the IHRA definition word for word, rejecting only the illustrative examples that they perceived to stifle conversation around—and criticism of—the State of Israel.
These examples merit closer examination. According to the IHRA, it is anti-Semitic to “target” the state of Israel, to deny “the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and to draw “comparisons of contemporary Israel policy to that of the Nazis.” The last stipulation was initially considered damning when it was discovered that Jeremy Corbyn hosted a “vile” event in 2010 where such a comparison was made. But then it was revealed that the person accused of committing this anti-Semitic attack—the event’s keynote speaker—was Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and prominent human rights activist.
The transformation of Meyer from a Holocaust survivor into a bogeyman of British anti-Semitism raises the question: are the critics of Corbyn’s position on IHRA really concerned about the welfare of Jews in Britain? Or are they more interested in protecting Israel from criticism?
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One striking feature of the anti-Semitism panic is how seamlessly British pundits and parliamentarians take Judaism—the religion, the culture, the ethnicity—to be synonymous with the political project of Zionism. Sometimes this effort is implicit, as in the Daily Mail’s smearing of Jeremy Corbyn’s secretary Nicolette Peterson for speaking out against “Israel-supporting MPs.” Other times it is explicit, as in Jewish writer David Hirsh’s recent column in The Jewish Chronicle: “the trashing of Israel is a trashing of us all.”
The relationship between Judaism and Zionism is, of course, complicated—not only for outsiders, but also for Jews. I grew up in a highly progressive Jewish community where we spoke openly about the complex politics of the State of Israel. But even in this progressive circle, Israel was an article of faith: we sang the national anthem under the Israeli flag, and we were taught that the foundation of Israel was both a necessary measure after World War II and an admirable cause for our people.
From the outside, it can be difficult to appreciate how hard it is for Jews to develop a full-throated critique of Israel. My religious community considered my own criticism myopic, or sociopathic, or—most commonly—evidence of “self-hatred.” I was frequently pushed by teachers and summer camp counsellors to see the beauty, and necessity, of a Jewish homeland. Programs such as Birthright, which send Jewish youths to Israel, are intended to build on this sentiment.
In other words, very little space is afforded for beliefs that are simultaneously pro-Jewish and anti-Zionist, and that space is consistently marginalized by more mainstream Jewish figures. Progressive organizations such as Jewdas—made famous for hosting Jeremy Corbyn at its annual Passover Seder—are accused of being a “source of virulent anti-Semitism.”
Very little space is afforded for beliefs that are simultaneously pro-Jewish and anti-Zionist. That space is consistently marginalized by mainstream Jewish figures.
And so it is with the IHRA definition. This year, Labour MP Joan Ryan and Conservative MP Matthew Offord cited the IHRA definition in their call for the government to shut down “Israeli apartheid week,” which aims to raise public awareness about the ongoing occupation of Palestine. “In December 2016,” Offord announced to the House of Commons, “the British Government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of ‘anti-Semitism’. . . . By the Government’s own measure, the words ‘Israeli apartheid week’ are manifestly anti-Semitic and violate this country’s own definition of anti-Semitism.”
Certainly there are many people, in Britain and elsewhere, who use criticism of Israel as a Trojan horse for their anti-Semitism. Conspiracy theories abound, mapping the usual suspects—the Rothschilds, Mossad, the Clintons—in a ploy for global domination. Consider the mural painted by artist Mear One in East London: big-nosed, bushy-moustached men hunched over a monopoly board that is propped up by the naked bodies of the unnamed, exploited masses. Jeremy Corbyn shared his support for the mural on Facebook back in 2012, support which has come back to haunt him in the recent row. “I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image,” Corbyn has said on reflection.
There are also cases in which a poorly informed critique of Israel can veer into charges against Jews as an ethnic group. Consider Paul Eisen, whose criticism of the awful massacre at Deir Yassin has led him to full-blown Holocaust denial. Jeremy Corbyn has been closely linked to Eisen’s organization, Deir Yassin Remembered, though he recently claimed he has “no contact” with the organization any longer. There is, then, a fine line, and it must be said that Jeremy Corbyn has occasionally crossed it.
But by the same token, fighting anti-Semitism can be its own Trojan horse for an uncritical Zionism. Demanding that all political parties refrain from calling Israel a “racist” country—lest they be labelled anti-Semitic, with all the term’s attendant political consequences—is a ludicrous ransom, particularly in the context of an Israeli government whose policies explicitly entrench discrimination against non-Jews. The right to criticize the Israeli government for their racist policies—and the right to criticize the Zionist project from which they steal legitimacy—must be guarded with equal vigilance.
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What about the crisis at our doorstep? According to the Community Security Trust (CST), 1,382 “hate incidents” against Jews took place in 2017. Since the publication of its Antisemitic Incidents Report, this figure has been published in every major outlet as evidence of rapidly deteriorating social relations for Jews in Britain.
But on what basis? Some of the “incidents” reported by the CST seem serious: 76 incidents “targeted synagogues,” and another 145 are categorized as “assaults.” The vast majority of incidents, though—66 percent of all anti-Semitic attacks reported by the CST—are verbal abuse and online slurs. Imagine if we recorded hate crimes against women by the number of misogynistic tweets on the web and catcalls in the street: they would outpace those against minorities in an hour. And yet, for better or for worse, our newspapers do not whip up hysteria about whether women “have a future” in Britain.
Few bothered to ask who, exactly, runs CST and what their views might be. The organization claims that it “represents the Jewish community on a wide range of police, governmental, and policy-making bodies.” The organization also claims to be non-political, offering an unbiased account of anti-Semitism in Britain.
Neither is a fair characterization.
Fighting anti-Semitism can be its own Trojan horse for an uncritical Zionism.
The makeup of CST’s board—solely responsible for the group’s governance and policymaking—is telling. Keith Joseph Black is the director of United Jewish Israel Appeal, which “has been building meaningful connections between the UK Jewish community and the people of Israel” for nearly 100 years. Lord Young is a “patron” of the UK Lawyers for Israel, a “voluntary organization of lawyers who support Israel using their legal skills.” And, of course, founder Gerald Ronson—real estate tycoon and member of the Guinness Four, convicted of share-trading fraud in the 1980s—boasts of a close relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In Ronson’s 2017 address to the CST Annual Dinner, he said: “I don’t doubt that the Labour leader opposes anti-Semitism when it comes from Nazis but when it comes dressed up as anti-Zionism he is more likely to ask if he can join in. This is far more subversive than the danger posed by Nazis.”
The statement is revealing. The CST sees anti-Zionism as the frontline in their fight against anti-Semitism. "Take it from a British Jew," wrote CST communications director Dave Rich in 2017. "Anti-Zionism leads to anti-Semitism." The position on Israel—far from a non-political orientation—is cooked right into the CST’s mission. During the 2011 Israel-Gaza conflict CST spokesman Mark Gardner asked, “Are British Jews (and those elsewhere) to be forever held hostage to a seemingly intractable conflict in which totalitarian Jihadists are sworn to destroy Israel at whatever costs?” The description of Hamas as “totalitarian Jihadists” is quite far from non-political.
Perhaps no episode better illustrates the political bent of the CST than the banning of Palestinian activist Sheikh Raed Salah from the United Kingdom in 2012. Salah was arrested on the orders of Theresa May, then home secretary, after entering the country against his ban. As the Guardian reported then, “The principal source for the decision to ban him, according to witnesses who testified in court for the Home Office, was a report compiled by the CST.”
More than arguing against Salah, the dossier that CST provided to the government argues that the government should ignore calls by Jewish activists to invite Sheikh Raed Salah on the basis that anti-Zionist British Jewish “individuals and groups are unrepresentative of the vast majority of British Jews or Jewish communities worldwide, and they have extremely small followings. . . . The extent of their credibility to speak on these issues should be considered,” they urged. Theresa May fell in line.
In their own words, then, the CST does not speak for me—or for any Jews in Britain who identify with a strong critique of the State of Israel. Quite the contrary, these organizations weaponize my identity against my own politics, all under the cover of the impartial protection of the Jewish community.
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No one should face abuse—online or otherwise. And fighting anti-Semitism goes hand in hand with fighting all other forms of racism. But the representation of an “existential threat” to Jews in Britain is an exaggeration at best and irresponsible alarmism at worst.
All campaigns are political. All politics demand scrutiny. The Jewish community’s is no exception.
In reality, the Jewish community already receives extensive—disproportionate, in fact—protection from the British government. Theresa May’s government currently commits £13.4 million each year to protect Jewish schools, compared to just £2.4 million that the government spends on its “hate crime action plan” to provide protection for places of worship for all other religions—from Mosques to Gurudwaras. Yet the government’s own figures suggest that Britain’s 2.8 million Muslims are at a significantly higher risk of hate crime than its 270,000 Jews. In other words, the Jewish population—less than a tenth of the size of the Muslim population—receives five times the fiscal support Muslims do.
Gerald Ronson likes to say that Jews are “the canary in the coalmine”: if we are not safe, then no one is. But Islamophobia is already deep set in the culture of the Conservative Party and British society more broadly. We should laud efforts to bring the campaign to end anti-Semitism together with the campaign to end Islamophobia. Each, however, should be equipped with the resources, the legitimacy, and the airtime it deserves.
Anti-Semites live in Britain, no doubt. But there is too much at stake—no less than the future of Britain, the prospects for a free Palestine, and the well-being of Jews around the world—to throw caution to the wind in favor of whichever organization screams loudest on our behalf. All campaigns are political. All politics demand scrutiny. The Jewish community’s is no exception.