Is Antisemitism a Real Problem in the UK?
I have been reading this article by Barnaby Raine:
which makes me feel concerned that there is too much left-wing capitulation to the anti-Corbyn hysteria campaign. The main message of Barnaby’s piece is contained in this sentence: “it can be true both that antisemitism is a real problem in British society and that it is handled cynically by opponents of Corbyn”.
But is antisemitism a real problem in British society? Towards the end, Barnaby mentions his personal experiences of antisemitism. I have been reflecting on my own memories in this regard.
Of course there has always been and probably always will be anti-Semitism in Britain. I have heard upper-class people talking about “Jewish arrivistes”. I have heard working-class people talking about Jews as stingy, tight-fisted, obsessed with making profits out of their employees. I remember an Indian friend telling me how shocked and bewildered she was when she emigrated from India — where there is no antisemitism — to England and heard people describing Jews as mean and stingy. She told these people that all the Jews she had known in India were very generous.
I even once had a flatmate who told me that, when he was a young boy in rural Yorkshire, an old Yorkshire peasant-type man warned him: “You’ve got to watch out for the Jews — they’re kiddie-killers. They kill children”. My flatmate told me he had never made the slightest sense out of this — it was just an inexplicable memory from his childhood. He was fascinated when I explained that this went right back to the Middle Ages and told him about the blood libel, about which he knew nothing. Neither of us regarded this as a threat to modern-day Jews — we both saw it as a fascinating vestige of the Middle Ages, showing how folk-memories can survive over centuries in remote rural areas. The “trope” about Jews being mean with money also goes back to medieval Jewish usurers.
Antisemitism in UK society is vestigial, low-level — almost never threatening. It is probably ineradicable and I don’t see much point in trying to eliminate it — this would probably be counter-productive. Trying to eradicate prejudices runs the risk of curtailing freedom of speech and thought and of creating resentment that only fans the bigotry one is trying to eliminate. All we can do is keep UK anti-Semitism the way it is — vestigial, marginalised and low-level. Getting hysterical about it for political reasons and grossly inflating it can only increase it and run the risk of turning it into a real danger, as Robert Cohen has pointed out in an excellent article.
My personal experience is borne out by the statistics. A 2015 YouGov survey into European attitudes towards minorities recorded that among Brits 58 per cent have a negative impression of Roma; 40 per cent regard Muslims in an unfavourable light; nine per cent have similar views of gay people; and only seven per cent have a negative impression of Jews.
There were notable spikes in anti-Semitic incidents in January 2009 and in July 2014. In a speech given at a Board of Deputies “Town Hall” community meeting in July 2014, David Delew, Chief Executive of the Community Security Trust (CST) reported:
“There were over 200 antisemitic incidents in July. This is over four times what could be expected. It is the second highest monthly total since CST started recording antisemitic incidents in 1984 — the first highest monthly total being in January 2009, under similar circumstances.”
If a state that defines itself as “the Nation-State of the Jewish People” perpetrates cold-blooded massacres, as in 2008–9 (Operation Cast Lead) and 2014 (Operation Protective Edge) and if Jewish leaders and communal organisations loudly defend the massacres, is it really cause for wonder that non-Jews would associate this bloodthirsty conduct with Jews, causing a spike in anti-Semitism? As Norman Finkelstein has written: “An efficacious method to fight anti-Semitism would appear to be for Israel to stop committing massacres”.
In 2016, the CST’s David Delew blamed the increase in anti-Semitic incidents partly on the general increase in racism as a result of Brexit, partly on the hysteria about anti-Semitism that was actually exciting and encouraging anti-Semites and partly on increased reporting (the last factor casts doubt on whether there actually is a significant increase):
“Close analysis of the 2016 perpetrators and their language shows that the most probable single cause of today’s high level of antisemitism is the general rise in racism and division within society….Part of the explanation may well lie in the sheer amount of news headlines in May and June, concerning antisemitism and sections of the Labour Party. This is the kind of media situation that excites anti-Semites and also causes people to report antisemitism.”
And most recently (July 27, 2018), Mark Gardner, the CST’s Director of Communications, wrote of CST’s latest anti-Semitism figures (which have actually dropped this year but are “still the second highest on record”):
“The worst months? April and May. Why? Because that was when both Labour and Israel were in the news for all the wrong reasons.”
We see here how a rise in anti-Semitic incidents — as well as being attributable to the general rise in racism and to increased reporting — resulted 1) from Israel’s massacre of Gaza civilians protesting against unliveable conditions and for their legitimate rights and 2) the hysteria about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party — a hysteria which, as David Delew wrote: “is the kind of media situation that excites anti-Semites”.
As for antisemitism on the UK left, my only personal experience of it has been an encounter with a small group of people — mostly Jews influenced by the mysterious Russian-Israeli writer Israel Shamir — who have been trying to use the Palestinian solidarity movement to advance an anti-Semitic agenda. Their main aim seems to be to attract attention and — though of course at first their agenda needed to be exposed — the best reaction to them now is probably to ignore them, denying them the oxygen of publicity that they crave. The largest pro-Palestinian group in the UK, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, has completely repudiated them and has expelled members for Holocaust denial.
I joined the Labour Party in 2015 and in three years have never encountered the slightest anti-Semitism. The mere idea that the groups of people with whom I went door-knocking for weeks during the May/June 2017 election campaign could be anti-Semitic is just risible.
In an Evening Standard article apologising to the Jewish community for anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn pointed out that the cases of anti-Semitism being investigated by the Labour Party amount to less than 0.1 per cent of the membership. He wrote that even one instance of anti-Semitism was too much and pledged to eliminate antisemitism altogether in the Labour Party (an achievable aim, since the Labour Party is a voluntary organisation). Surely this does amount to “marginal cases of a few bad apples whose presence is overstated by zealots” — rather than this hypothetical claim, for which Barnaby presents no evidence:
“antisemitism is not less common than the anti-Corbyn crusaders imagine; it is likely to be more widespread than they realise, and across a much broader political spectrum…antisemitism is a conservative way of thinking probably attractive to millions besides the most open bigots. Labour is just as likely to be institutionally antisemitic, then, as institutionally misogynistic and homophobic; anti-capitalists should be the first to read these malaises as produced by and embedded in hierarchical societies rather than as marginal cases of a few bad apples whose presence is overstated by zealots”. (Italics in original)
Barnaby criticises the left’s tendency “to make this all about Israel” (italics in original). But in fact this is all about Israel. The anti-Semitism hysteria campaign began in the summer of 2014, in response to the massive London marches protesting against Operation Protective Edge. This was when the so-called “grassroots” Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) emerged out of nowhere and organised a Rally Against Antisemitism. The CAA kept up the momentum in early 2015 with hysterical, alarmist reports. Then in the summer of 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, who was well-known for being a supporter of the Palestinian cause, became a candidate for the Labour leadership. When it became clear that he could win, the defamatory campaign against him began that has continued ever since, expanding to attacks on the Labour Party under his leadership. The Jewish Establishment has in the past often criticised the CAA for being hysterical, but has now adopted the CAA agenda — the JC, Jewish News and Jewish Telegraph are now out-CAAing the CAA with their notorious front-page editorial about “the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government”.
This major escalation seems to have two causes. First, there is the current political situation: the instability of the government because of Brexit negotiations, with the possibility that there could soon be a general election, resulting in a Corbyn-led government. Second: the current row is not just a confusing debate about definition clauses but goes to the heart of the matter, which is all about Israel. Corbyn has gone as far as he possibly can in trying to conciliate the Jewish Establishment leaders and their allies in the Labour Party (for which he has taken some flak from his supporters); but clauses deliberately intended to shut down debate on Israel/Palestine constitute a red line. This is a showdown in which the real causes of the controversy — Corbyn’s support for the Palestinian cause and the attempt by the Jewish Establishment, acting as Israel’s apologists, to dictate the limits of the debate on Israel-Palestine — are laid bare.
Here’s what the UK delegate, Karen Pierce, had to say during the recent UN debate on Israel’s massacre in Gaza:
“The United Kingdom remains extremely concerned by the situation in Gaza. We condemn the violent activities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organisations, and we condemn them unreservedly. We have recently witnessed unacceptable mortar and rockets attacks from Gaza into Israel. Such acts of terror are destructive to peace efforts, and they need to stop. In the past weeks, we have seen violence, Hamas’ exploitation of peaceful protests and a disturbing volume of live fire. Hamas’ military wing has been proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the United Kingdom since 2001, and the United Kingdom has sanctions in place against senior Hamas officials.”
Is it really cause for wonder that Israel’s UK apologists prefer the current government and dread a Corbyn ascendancy?
If a lie is repeated loudly enough and often enough, many people will start to believe it. So intimidating has the atmosphere become that some on the left are beginning to accept the fiction that there is a “crisis” of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the British left and wider UK society. Now is not the time to appease the Jewish Establishment leaders. Instead we need to confront them.
 In her absorbing memoir In Search of Fatima, Ghada Karmi, who came to Britain as a child from Palestine after the 1948 Nakba, describes a similar experience of British antisemitism: “That gut anti-Semitism which had become so embedded in European culture over the centuries was quite alien to us” (Verso, 2004, p.189).
 Norman Finkelstein, “This Time We Went Too Far”, Or Books 2010, p.118
 Mark Gardner, “Bigger Picture is a Concern”, JC 27.07.18. https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-jewish-chronicle/20180727/281612421198311
 See, for instance, this piece, which refers to a joint Board of Deputies/Jewish Leadership Council statement criticising the January 2015 CAA reports for “methodological flaws”: