This piece, by Jonathan Freedland, is from Comment is Free
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on September 11 2001 and July 7 2005, a noble impulse seized the British liberal left. Politicians, commentators and activists united to say to their fellow citizens that, no matter how outraged they felt at the loss of civilian life they had just witnessed, they should under no circumstances take out that anger on the Muslim community. Progressive voices insisted that Muslims were not to be branded as guilty by association, just because the killers of 9/11 and 7/7 had been Muslims and had claimed to act in the name of all Muslims.
They urged Britons to be careful in their language, not to generalise from a few individuals to an entire community, to make clear to Britain’s Muslims that they were a welcome part of the national life. One week after the 7/7 London attacks, a vast crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear a call for unity led by then mayor Ken Livingstone, who said Londoners should not start looking for “who to blame and who to hate”.
It was the right reaction and I am glad that, writing on these pages, I shared it, denouncing the surge in Islamophobia that greeted either a terrorist attack or the revelation of a terror plot. Yet there’s been a curious silence in the last few weeks. Once again many are outraged by the loss of civilian life they have witnessed – this time in Gaza. Yet there has been no chorus of liberal voices insisting that, no matter how intense their fury, people must not take out that anger on Britain’s Jewish community.
It’s worth stating the obvious – that Operation Cast Lead is not 9/11 or 7/7, that Israel is not al-Qaida – and noting that the silence has not been absolute. In a very welcome move, a group of leading Muslims wrote an open letter condemning apparent Gaza-related attacks on Jews. Meanwhile, Labour’s Denis MacShane, in a passionate article for Progress magazine, urged those on the left not “to turn criticism of Israel into a condemnation of Jews”.
Otherwise, it has been eerily quiet. Those who in 2001 or 2005 rapidly spoke out against guilt by association have been mute this time. Yet this is no abstract concern. For British Jews have indeed come under attack.
According to the Community Security Trust, the body that monitors anti-Jewish racism, the four weeks after Cast Lead began saw an eightfold increase in antisemitic incidents in Britain compared with the same period a year earlier. It reports 250 incidents – nearly 10 a day – the highest number since it began its work 25 years ago. Among them are attacks on synagogues, including arson, and physical assaults on Jews. One man was set upon in Golders Green, north London, by two men who shouted, “This is for Gaza”, as they punched and kicked him to the ground.
Blood-curding graffiti has appeared in Jewish areas across the country, slogans ranging from “Slay the Jewish pigs”, and “Kill the Jews”, to “Jewish bastardz.” Jewish schools have been advised to be on high alert against attack. Most now have security guards on the door; some have a police presence.
The threat is real, and yet barely a word has been heard from those who pride themselves on their vigilance against racism. But there is more than a sin of omission here.
Take last month’s demonstrations against Israel. Riazat Butt, the Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent, describes in a joint edition of the Guardian’s Islamophonic and Sounds Jewish podcasts how at one demo she heard the cry not only of “Down with Israel” but “Kill Jews”. An anti-war protest in Amsterdam witnessed chants of: “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas.”
At the London events, there were multiple placards deploying what has now become a commonplace image: the Jewish Star of David equated with the swastika. From the podium George Galloway declared: “Today, the Palestinian people in Gaza are the new Warsaw ghetto, and those who are murdering them are the equivalent of those who murdered the Jews in Warsaw in 1943.”
Now what, do you imagine, is the effect of repeating, again and again, that Israel is a Nazi state? Even those with the scantest historical knowledge know that the Nazis are the embodiment of evil to which the only appropriate response is hate. How surprising is it if a young man, already appalled by events in Gaza, walks home from a demo and glimpses the Star of David – which he now sees as a latter-day swastika – outside a synagogue and decides to torch the building, or at least desecrate it? Yet Galloway, along with Livingstone, who was so careful in July 2005, did not hesitate to make the comparison (joined by a clutch of Jewish anti-Israel activists who should know better).
The counter-arguments here are predictable. Some will say they take pains to distinguish between Zionists and Jews. Intellectually, that’s fine; in the seminar room, it holds water. The trouble is, it doesn’t mean much on the street – at least not to the man who saw a group of Manchester Jews leaving synagogue on January 17 and shouted “Free Palestine, you motherfuckers,” before giving them the Nazi salute.
The liberal left should know this already. After all, when Jack Straw wrote his notorious piece about the hijab, full of qualifications, progressives understood that none of that would matter: it would be read as an attack on all Muslims. And so it was. For all Straw’s careful phrasing, Muslim women whose heads were covered were attacked. Liberals warned Straw that he was playing with fire. Today’s anti-Israel activists need to realise they are doing the same.
Besides, this business of distinguishing between good and bad Jews has a long history. Anthony Julius, author of a definitive study of English antisemitism, says that, with the exception of the Nazis, Jew-haters have always made distinctions. Christian antisemites accepted Jews who were ready to convert and rejected those who refused. A century ago, Winston Churchill drew a line between homegrown British Jews and those spreading Bolshevism. Now the dividing line is affinity for Israel.
But the logical corollary of this is that, if Jews refuse to dissociate themselves from Israel, then they are fair game for abuse and attack until they publicly recant. Liberals rightly recoil from the constant pressure on Muslims to explain themselves and denounce jihadism or even islamism. Yet they make the same implicit demand when they suggest Jews are OK, unless they are Zionists. The effect is to make Jews’ place in British society contingent on their distance from their fellow Jews, in this case, Israelis.
Nor is it good enough to say that most Jews support Israel. Yes, most have a strong affinity and family ties to the Jewish state. But that doesn’t mean they support every policy, including the one that led to such mayhem in Gaza. And do we think that those who kicked the man in Golders Green first stopped to ask his opinion of the merits of Cast Lead?
I know that some will say that even raising this is an attempt to divert attention from the real and larger issue, Israel’s brutality in Gaza and the colossal number of civilian deaths that entailed. I won’t accept that. Regular readers know that I denounced Cast Lead from the beginning. But I shouldn’t have to say that. These two matters are separate. It is perfectly possible to condemn Israel’s current conduct and to stand firmly against anti-Jewish prejudice. And it’s about time liberals and the left said so.