However you look at it, Antisemitism is on the rise in Britain. I will look at some of the statistics later in this article. My belief is that the increase is the result of a “perfect storm” of circumstances plus the unwitting collusion of different groups with overlapping, and often contradictory, agendas. This article is based on examples of Antisemitism I have personally heard or seen over the past few years. I never used to come across anything like this, but now I am seeing evidence of Antisemitism on an almost daily basis, especially on social media.
How I got involved in this issueI grew up in a part of Scotland where there were very few Jews. The only Jewish family I knew growing up was one of my dad’s best friends and work colleagues. I never questioned the fact that they happened to be Jewish. They were very much part of my experience of growing up and in my childish way I just felt they went to a different church. I never saw any Antisemitism during my childhood. It may have been the more recent memory of World War 2, but the idea of discriminating against people because they were Jewish just would not have been acceptable in the society I lived in.
In later life I went on to study Hebrew at university for biblical study, during which I visited synagogues and got to know more Jewish people. Many of the experts in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages are Jewish so it was natural that I would meet more people from this background. I always found the religious Jewish community to be very welcoming of anyone who was interested in studying Hebrew scripture or Talmud. Working with people from a Jewish background was an entirely life affirming experience for me. In my current work I have a little bit of contact with rabbis and synagogues and I am entirely comfortable in that setting.
The first time I ever witnessed any Antisemitism was much later in life when I was in a dispute with someone who happened to be Jewish. Although our dispute had nothing to do with him being Jewish the number of people who said things to me like “it’s because he is Jewish” was quite astounding. It was nothing to do with his ethnicity or his religion. It was just one of those disputes that happens when two people disagree. We were both to blame and it was nothing to do with me being Scottish either.
Over the past two years I have observed a rising tide of antisemitic incidents locally and nationally, and it's not just me.
Evidence for the rise in AntisemitismThe Community Security Trust has recorded the rise in figures that they obtain from police forces around the country. They found 1,382 incidents reported during 2017, the highest figure they have ever recorded.
The rise started in 2014.
In Scotland supporters of Orange Order style unionism in Scotland have been seen giving nazi salutes in public and flying or carrying swastika flags along with the British or Ulster flags. This seems to have resulted from the Scottish Independence referendum campaign, but also their concern with immigration from Eastern Europe - which is mainly of Roman Catholics. The extreme right is growing, and with it a growing amount of Holocaust denial.
What constitutes AntisemitismIn 2016 the British Government adopted the International Definition of Antisemitism.
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of Antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.
Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.”
You can read the full definition here.
Causes of AntisemitismThere are a number of causes I have identified, but they overlap with each other and different people will be exposed to different parts of it. This is one reason why it is difficult to stamp out. People are getting the same ideas from more than one source.
The political right have become bolder in speaking out against Jews. They learned from their treatment of Asians that you can get away with condemning “Muslims” but not Asians or Pakistanis, because Muslim is not a race and therefore not as closely protected in law. Now we have large scale use of the word “Zionist” being used as a code word for Jew. If anyone complains about people doing this the response seems to be “it is a choice to be offended, this is an issue of free speech”. Yet, some of the same people holding out free speech as a defence have used legal threats to get links to articles critical of them removed from Google’s search index.
The political far right
To bolster their idea that Jew is a chosen religion rather than a race they try to claim that European Jews are not from the middle east and therefore not semitic. They feel able to say anything about European Jews clear of any accusation of antisemitism. They also point out that the Palestinians are a semitic people and play on sympathy for Palestinians - whilst elsewhere saying that Palestinians, because they are muslims are terrorists. By their own warped definition of antisemitism this is antisemitic, but they play a game with people, drawing them in with a benign message, baiting and switching until they are agreeing with racist ideologies.
The European Jews who were mostly affected by the Holocaust were Ashkenazi Jews. The far right claim that they are not real Jews and just adopted Judaism. They can’t explain why they adopted Judaism or provide any evidence that they did. In spite of this total lack of evidence this idea has also been adopted by some conspiracy theorists as a cover for their own Antisemitism.
In reality the Ashkenazim migrated from what is now Israel and Syria to what the land we now call Germany around 1000 AD. They then moved eastward to countries where they were more welcome after the Germanic countries became hostile towards them. Any claim that they just “adopted Judaism” does not match this recorded history. There is also geneological proof of their middle eastern origins if you are interested, see a summary here.
Any viewing of far right videos, no matter how respectable they may be contains coded messages about “those we can’t mention” or “Rothschilds”. They can get away with this because up until now the law has been weak. Fortunately this is changing.
The political leftThe left has always had a confusion about Judaism. Although a lot of leading left thinkers and revolutionaries have been Jews (Marx had some Jewish heritage and Trotsky was from a secular Jewish family) the former eastern bloc countries tended to continue the tsarist oppression of Jews and continued to use claims like those in the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion to whip up anti Jewish feeling. The continued romance of some parts of the left with the former Soviet Union has tended to continue this way of thinking.
Within the current Labour Party there are now incidents of open antisemitism and the party has failed to discipline, in any meaningful way, members who are doing it. Part of this is the Left’s obsession with the Palestinian cause as a touchstone of Socialist authenticity, but it's also a reflection on the confusion in many in the party which condemns racial prejudice whilst considering Judaism to be a religion rather than a race.. I certainly think this is why Labour members and supporters spouting anti semitic views get away with it. It doesn’t feel like a racist incident to many in the party so it does not get taken seriously. Even though it goes against the core values of the Labour Party.
The Labour Party, and the left in general, needs to re-categorise Antisemitism as Racism and root it out before it does even more damage.
BrexitIn the immediate aftermath of Brexit there was a recorded increase in the number of racial incidents as many people believed we were rebooting the UK to 1974. A world when Love thy Neighbour and the Black and White Minstrel Show was on TV. Where jolly Golliwogs appeared on Jam jars and in children’s books. The toxic European referendum created an atmosphere where open prejudice against minority groups became more acceptable.
Now that we are leaving the EU a lot of people are looking for other bogeymen to blame for the world’s ills. This is another reason why racism and Antisemitism is on the rise.
Islamist TerrorismWhich is where we come to Islamist terrorism and the situation of British muslims. Islamophobia has been on the rise too, with ordinary muslims in the UK being blamed for terrorist actions coordinated from overseas that have nothing to do with them.
People tend to blame the rise in Islamist terrorism on the United States and UK governments interventions in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. This connects into a belief that the USA is a proxy for Israel in some way so it must be “all part of a zionist conspiracy”.
The Palestine/Israel situationJust like British Muslims being blamed for Islamic terrorism British Jews get blamed for the actions of the Israeli government. Yet, anyone looking at this objectively would realise that there is not a single Jew living in the UK who has any say in the policies of the Israeli government. There is not even any correlation between being an Israeli citizen and supporting particular types of political policy. Israel has had left and right wing governments and is usually governed by a coalition. David Ben Gurion was leader of the Israeli Labor Party. It is hard to see how anything other than prejudice can correlate the real political spectrum in Israel with “Zionist Jews” in the UK.
Christianity: The evangelical rightPro Israel evangelicals may appear to be friends with the Jews, but in reality they have a fairly low view of Judaism. In their eschatological scheme Jews mainly exist to die en-masse in order to fulfill biblical prophecy and bring in a thousand years when Christ will reign with his faithful. This sounds awfully like a second holocaust. Not really that friendly after all.
Christianity: The traditionalist middleUnfortunately there are still a lot of Christians, mainly catholic and orthodox backgrounds, who don’t read the bible much and believe that the Jews killed Jesus. Yet, anybody who has actually read the four gospels knows that he was actually killed by the Romans. Jesus was questioned by the Sanhedrin (the court of its time in Jerusalem) and this is roughly how it went:
Sanhedrin: Jesus, you have been working on the sabbath!
Jesus: Not really I was healing people which must by its nature be the work of God.
Sanhedrin: Ah ok, that basically makes sense. You haven’t done anything wrong, but we are in a difficult situation under Roman occupation and you have claimed to be a king, which just makes everything worse.
So Jesus is taken into Roman custody for sedition, is questioned by Pontius Pilate and executed - by the Romans. The claim that the Jews killed Jesus has no foundation in historical fact or in the Christian bible. It has been used historically by churches to justify campaigns against Jews in their own communities and forced conversions. Often amongst churches that were very closely connected to the state apparatus of their time. This is how it got embedded in some parts of the church and it is very hard to get rid of it even in the 21st century.
Christianity: The liberal leftThe mainstream liberal churches believe that the church has to be on the side of the poor or oppressed as a first priority in any situation. So identifying who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor, or who is rich and who is poor in any situation, becomes the way of deciding which side you will take.
The Israel situation has become this simplistic choice and the churches have overwhelmingly chosen to support the Palestinian cause. This conveniently ignores all the Israeli Jews living in fear of rocket attacks and suicide bombings, or Jews living in Palestinian areas who are possibly quite poor themselves. Most mainstream churches have diluted a complex geopolitical situation down to two words “Israel Bad”. The demonisation of Israel as oppressors of the Palestinians inevitably makes it easier for people to transfer those feelings to Jews in general. The church has to be more careful about this because no matter how benign they think their message is, it can reinforce antisemitic ideas that church members are hearing from other sources. There needs to be a lot more balance in the message that is being put out by churches.
The rise of the “New Atheists” in the early 2000s made criticism of religious belief more socially acceptable. It also made it easier for people to condemn Islam or Judaism or Isis and Israel as a cover for prejudice against Asians and Jews. Religion became seen as a choice rather than a more complex cultural arrangement so getting at people because of their religion became quite popular.
The New Atheists
9/11 TruthersTheir theory seems to be that a number of financial institutions with Jewish sounding names (although they are in reality public companies) conspired with the US government to fake 9/11 as a way of making money and provoking regime changes in the middle east to reinforce Israel. In other words, American Jews were behind 9/11. This is simply a rehash of 1930’s antisemitic tropes of Jewish bankers pulling the strings behind the scenes to control world events.
There seems to be a strong correlation between people involved in the 9/11 “truth” movement, belief in this “Zionist” conspiracy and holocaust denial. The same people who are always asking “where did the towers go” seem incapable of answering the question “where did all the Jews go” and will often question the historicity of the holocaust.
As the number of survivors, and the number of British soldiers who witnessed the concentration camp aftermath dwindles it becomes easier and easier to question if it all really happened. One example I saw this week was someone sharing pages from pre war and post war gazetteers showing the estimated number of Jews in Europe as the same before and after the war. Unable to understand the possibility that the losses of life had not been fully calculated or that there might be an error or omission this was held out as categorical proof that no Jews died in the war.
The other common claim is that the Jews milk the holocaust to get away with doing bad things in Israel. Who and how? This doesn’t make any logical sense. Some of the former concentration camps are kept open by the governments of the countries they are in as a memorial to those who died in order to educate the public, not by some sort of Jewish cabal. Holocaust deniers seem to be saying is that we don’t need education, there is no objective truth and it's all down to what you choose to believe. Well, unfortunately for them we don’t have to rely on their alternative theories. You can find out all about the holocaust here.
The holocaust left a deep wound through the whole Jewish community and the whole of Europe, yet many people are choosing to deny it because this fits their simplistic view of the world.
In my own city of Edinburgh there have even been meetings with leading holocaust deniers as featured speakers where they received rousing ovations. Yes, even in liberal Scotland, the land of Robert Burns, municipal Socialism, Nicola Sturgeon and the 7:84 Theatre Company. Often the people attending these events are people who started off questioning “the official story of 9/11” which led them to a conspiracy for which they then need to find conspirators.
Conspiracy theoristsMost of the overarching conspiracy theories can be summarised like this:
Have you ever noticed that some people seem to have an easier, more successful life? Have you ever noticed that the same kind of people seem to be in charge no matter who you vote for? We can explain this. There is a secret cabal of people known as the [delete as applicable: Illuminati, Freemasons, Common Purpose, Zionists, Metropolitan Elite, Jews, Lizard People, Alien Entities, Jesuits, Muslims, Queers, Catholics, The Rothschilds] who are conspiring to take over the world and run it for their own ends. This explains every bad thing that has ever happened to you. Now that you know this you are “awake” and will “rebel”.
Rather than trying to explain the complex workings of the world its back to the same old process of finding someone to blame for your own ills. Jews are usually at the front of the queue as we have a long history of picking on them in Europe.
The mediaThe print and broadcast media are usually quite vigilant about antisemitism, but during the 2015 general election campaign there were two stories about Ed Milliband which seemed to me like a “nudge nudge, wink wink” reference to his Jewish heritage. These were the “Ed can’t eat a bacon sandwich” and the “Ed has two kitchens” stories. These stories seemed to be saying “Ed is not like ordinary people, he has enough money for two kitchens and doesn’t eat normal food” but for those in the know both stories had sinister antisemitic undertones. Jews don’t eat bacon and orthodox households sometimes have separate milk and meat kitchens. The message against Jews often starts with “they are not like us” and this was the subtle subtext of these stories.
We also see conflation of Israel with Jews from time to time. Most recently when Donald Trump visited Jerusalem.
The alternative mediaThe so called “alternative” media dances around between the soft edge of the right wing, the conspiracy theorists and the 9/11 truthers. All of these groups are a willing audience for the latest “research” into what is really going on behind the news. And guess what, a lot of it is to do with the unseen hand of “Zionism” which is out to control and subvert western democracy.
The alternative media are also very interested in free speech, but usually only when it is them speaking. A number of alternative media outlets didn’t like it when various venues cancelled a leading conspiracy theorist's speaking events last year. Apparently freedom only extends to them and not to people who disagree with them.
Social mediaUndoubtedly one of the biggest factors in the rise of Antisemitism is the echo chamber effect of social media. If someone posts a link to something, even if it is not true, it gains gravitas if it has been shared by a friend whom you trust. As these things get shared and repeated they sound louder and louder in an echo chamber that reinforces those false beliefs by simple volume and repetition. This is why groups like Britain First have flourished online. All of the causes of Antisemitism I have described here are spread and amplified by social media.
Postings on conspiracy forums and Facebook groups seem to carry more weight than something someone told you down the pub. People become “leading experts” very quickly and the unsuspecting can find their opinions about Jews and others groups changing without realising. It is a slow poisoning and if you question people about why they have changed the most common response is something like “I am not against Jews per-se, its just all those bad Zionist ones”.
Misunderstanding of recent changes to the definition of AntisemitismWhen the British Government adopted the International Definition of Antisemitism a number of right and left wing groups felt that this was an attempt to prevent criticism of the government of Israel. However, according to expert legal opinion published by the Campaign Against Antisemitism:
“Criticism of Israel, even in robust terms, cannot be regarded as antisemitic per se and such criticism is not captured by the Definition. However, criticisms of Israel in terms which are channels of expression for hatred towards Jewish people (such as by particular invocations of the Holocaust or Nazism) will in all likelihood be antisemitic.”
You can read this full legal opinion here.
The reason why we needed to clarify the definition of Antisemitism is that there had been new ways developed of expressing prejudice against Jews. Some of these are:
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour).
- Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
- Using the symbols and images associated with classic Antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterise Israel or Israelis.
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
These have come about for the reasons I have given in this article and they require to be addressed. You really do need to read the whole definition. It is quite straightforward:
All of this is a perfect stormThe combination of all these factors has made questioning the rights of Jewish people possible in a way it has never been during my lifetime. There is a creeping acceptability of Antisemitism because so many people are doing it. The problem is that it is has crept in so slowly a lot of people have not realised they are doing it and many more are just going with the flow.
Why this mattersAntisemitism matters because it is a form of racial prejudice, has no basis in facts and is used to oppress a minority. This should be enough on its own, but Antisemitism is also the canary of prejudice. The history of Europe has shown us that periods of mass oppression usually start with discrimination against Jews. We have a duty to help Jewish people protect themselves and stand up when we come across antisemitic activities.
What we can do about itThe Jewish community is very good at defending itself, and I feel uneasy about trying to speak for them. At the same time I am very concerned about the spread of Antisemitism so I think it is only right and proper that all decent people remain vigilant and do what we can to counter this terrible persecution.
There are two practical things we can all do about Antisemitism:
Firstly, in our personal lives we can challenge antisemitic thinking when it comes up in conversation in real life (family, work, organisations we belong to and our social circle) or when we see it on social media.
Secondly, we can support organisations that are campaigning against Antisemitism like the Community Security Trust and the Campaign Against Antisemitism. The second of these pursues private prosecutions against people for Antisemitism and reports other cases to the Police.
At the very least, we need to start talking about Antisemitism and stop brushing it under the carpet.
And finallyAfter writing this article a friend referred me to a speech made by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which talks about the mutation of the antisemitism "virus" following 9/11. He comes to similar conclusions:
"So I end where I began. The hate that begins with Jews never ends with Jews. Antisemitism is only secondarily about Jews. Primarily it is about the failure of groups to accept responsibility for their own failures, and to build their own future by their own endeavours. No society that has fostered antisemitism has ever sustained liberty or human rights or religious freedom. Every society driven by hate begins by seeking to destroy its enemies, but ends by destroying itself." (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)