Traditionally, the Jewish leadership in Britain has been noted for its timidity in the face of antisemitism. When the fascists were on the rise in the 1970s, the Jewish left wanted to confront them while the apparently all-powerful Jewish troika, the Board of Deputies, the Chief Rabbi and the Jewish Chronicle, seemed to prefer the ‘keep your heads down strategy’.
A section of this Jewish left has now adopted the timid conservatism against which it used to rebel. The fire of 1968 has become a yearning to conform to those sections of the intelligentsia that understand Israel, and the Jews that ‘support’ it, as constituting a unique evil in the world and the greatest obstacle to world peace. It is a milieu that is increasingly ambivalent about the ‘legitimacy’ of Israel.
Our grandmothers used to tell us ‘be an English gentleman, use your knife and fork properly, don’t be gauche or tasteless’ and the antisemites will have no reason to hate you. But the new conservatives put adverts in The Times and the Telegraph in a desperate attempt to distance themselves from the bad behaviour of the country cousins in Israel.
I am in favour of good manners and good taste as I am in favour of criticizing the often aggressive, violent and counterproductive stance of successive Israeli governments. But neither of these is a strategy to prevent antisemitism.
When Ken Livingstone was caught late at night using trivial racial abuse against a Jew, and when he engineered the resulting publicity to display his anti-Zionist credentials, the new conservatives insisted that he should not be confronted openly for fear of provoking a backlash. Much better to seek contact with him behind closed doors.
When academics seek to blacklist Israeli colleagues, the new conservatives go silent. When a political test is proposed to weed out supporters of ‘Israel’s apartheid policies’ they sympathise. When Republican professors claim that ‘The Lobby’ forces America to go to war for Israel, they call for a serious discussion about Zionist influence over governments and the media. When the EU tries to find ways of funnelling aid to Palestine that by-pass Hamas, they claim this is undemocratic. When the straight-arm Jew-haters of Hezbollah pepper Israel with Iranian missiles they blame Olmert for provoking them. When the Independent prints the US flag with stars of David, when it portrays Sharon eating babies, when the Guardian pictures a pustuled Jewish fist smashing a child’s face or a huge Magen David dominating Europe, when the New Statesman talks about ‘Kosher conspiracy’, when Tam Dalyell blames Jewish influence for Tony Blair’s wrongs, when Jenny Tonge defends suicide bombing, when George Galloway glorifies Hassan Nasrallah, when Ken Livingstone fetes an antisemitic cleric, the new conservatives have nothing to say. Except to accuse Jews of paranoia and of faking concern over antisemitism in order to hide the crimes of Israel. They reply sagely, criticising Israeli policy is not antisemitic. As if anyone thought that it was. The pose is one of mature, measured and detached wisdom; they have themselves adopted the very pose that so embarrassed them in their own fathers.
The central message of the new conservatives is that if people are hostile to Jews, it is because they have good reason to be. If intellectuals stumble into antisemitism then it is an understandable over-reaction to their righteous hatred of Israel. If students, in the name of socialism or of jihad, come to loathe ‘Zionists’, who can blame them? It is Israel that claims to speak and act for all Jews, they say, so holding Jews collectively responsible for its ‘crimes against humanity’ is not unreasonable.
How do the formerly militant anti-racists, the ex 1968 New Lefters suggest that we fight antisemitism? Firstly, Jews must distance themselves from Israel, so those who loathe ‘Zionists’ will not also hate Jews in general. Secondly, make Israel behave better in order to remove the reason for hating Jews. The new conservatives blame Jews in the Middle East for antisemitism in Europe. And they propose a strategy that won’t work because Israel isn’t about to ‘behave better’. The conflict in the Middle East is getting worse, the hateful rhetoric is ratcheting up, there will be more and bigger terrorist outrages around the world, more futile and violent responses under the brand name of the ‘war against terror’. In truth, Israel and Jews will be increasingly blamed for the violence and instability of the world in which we live.
Antisemites have rarely expressed their hatred of Jews in the absolutist Zoological rhetoric of the Hitlerites; rarely have they hated Jews purely ‘as Jews’. Jews have been hated as Christ-killers, as capitalists, as Bolsheviks, as pornographers, cosmopolitans. A wise political response to these threats never involved tutting at the evil of deicide, exposing Jewish capitalists, denouncing Trotsky and Zinoviev, rooting out Jewish pornographers and pledging our allegiance to the Union Jack.
Jews responded to the racist threat first, and discussed religion, politics and morality later. And when a man walks into a Jewish community centre and starts shooting because he hates Jews as ‘Zionists’, we must learn similarly to separate issues. We need to organise politically against Jew-hatred, to deconstruct the language of contemporary antisemitism, to defend ourselves politically against racism. The fight for freedom in Palestine, the fight for a secure Israel, the hope for a democratic Lebanon – these are no less important but they are not part of the fight against antisemitism in London, Manchester or Seattle.