Dealing with Anti-Semitism in Britain – Shalom Lappin – Engage Journal Issue 4 – February 2007

I. Description of the Problem:

The rhetoric of anti-Zionism and hatred of Israel has been successfully used to encode a new strain of anti-Semitism. This involves portraying Israel in mythic terms, casting it in the role of a demonic state which is the focus of a criminal international Zionist conspiracy to control the international political and economic order. This is a recasting of traditional anti-Jewish mythology in quasi-political terms that substitute Zionists for Jews. It turns on a view of Israel as the expression of malicious properties that are essential to it and its people, rather than on criticism of its policies or its actions. This pattern has been present in both neo-Nazi and Stalinist Soviet propaganda for decades. However, it occupied the fringes of political debate in the West until fairly recently. Since the second intifada erupted after the break down of the Oslo process in September 2000, these themes have increasingly filtered into large sections of mainstream public discourse on Israel and the Middle East. They are no longer the stock and trade only of extremists, but they have achieved widespread acceptance, often in a subtler formulation, across the political spectrum and the media, particularly in Europe. They are frequently mixed in with legitimate criticism of objectionable Israeli government policies and behaviour, which lends them credibility and frequently confers the appearance of rationality upon them.

It is important to recognize that anti-Semitism rarely, if ever, emerges as a stand- alone phenomenon. It is invariably a symptom of deeper social, economic, and political upheavals, and it serves as a lightning rod for the tensions that these upheavals generate. In the current outbreak, the rise of virulent anti-Semitism throughout the Muslim world co-occurs with the failure of secular nationalism and third world ideologies, particularly Arab nationalism, the economic and political stagnation of much of the Arab world, and the associated rise of Islamist movements. In western Europe it emerges in a time of acute political disorientation due to the end of the Cold War and the apparent failure of both the Marxist and the non-Marxist left to provide effective alternatives to the rampantly market driven model of neo-liberalism, which has come to dominate the policies of all mainstream political parties. These events have taken place in a period of rapid economic and social change promoted by integrated global financial markets and the growth of large scale immigration from the developing world, and, more recently, from Eastern Europe. These conditions give rise to the sort of profound sense of collective uncertaintly and instability in the established social order that have provided a fruitful context for anti-Semitism and political extremism in the past.

II. How Dangerous is the New Anti-Semitism?

It is clearly acutely dangerous for Israel’s existence as a country, and for Israeli civilians. It legitimizes mass murder and terrorism, and it is used to trivialize the significance of Iran’s genocidal threats, where these would, in a normal political environment, be clearly recognized and stigmatized by western opinion.

The threat that the new anti-Semitism poses for Jews in Europe, and in particular in the UK, is of a different and more complex kind. It is unlikely to translate into large-scale popular physical violence of the sort experienced in the past, given the robustness of democratic institutions and constraints in most western European countries. However, European Jews and Jewish institutions are a major target for Islamist terrorist attacks, and these are being treated with considerable “understanding” by large elements of public opinion that are increasingly prepared to construe them as unfortunate side effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The more immediate and realistic danger consists in the steady erosion of the legitimacy that the Jewish Community enjoys as a collective component of British and European society. As the campaign for academic and cultural boycotts continue to acquire momentum and acceptance, it is likely that these sanctions will be extended to stigmatize Jewish institutions and individual Jews who sustain even non-political connections with Israel. The constant stream of hostile propaganda and vilification of Israel as a country could spill over into large scale anti-Jewish attitudes by association, where these are packaged as the natural generalization of an “anti-Zionist” campaign. To some extent this process has already begun with the new respectability accorded to discourse about Jewish/Zionist lobbies controlling the press and manipulating government decision making in Britain and America. This process of marginalizing Jews as a collectivity will be radically corrosive for robust organized Jewish life in Britain, and it could render it virtually untenable if it is not effectively confronted.

Unfortunately, the Jewish Community in Britain is thoroughly vulnerable and exposed to this campaign. It has a long history of dealing with hostility by means of accommodationism and discrete political lobbying through its elite. It has rarely, if ever, engaged in political activism or asserted itself as a political constituency demanding its rights. Its traditional methods for coping with exclusion are tokenism and gradual entry into circles of influence through cooption. These are of no use in dealing with an ongoing popular campaign of collective defamation. Its vulnerability in the current situation is greatly aggravated by the active participation in the campaign of a small but highly visible group of Jewish public figures, academics, and political actors. As has occurred many times throughout Jewish history, Jewish “critics” posing as prophets to their people, or moral authorities against it, provide effective instruments for anti-Semites seeking credibility for their ideologies.

III. How do We Respond to the New Anti-Semitism?

From a strategic perspective, if it is, in fact, the case that the new anti-Semitism, like its historical predecessors, is a symptom of deeper social conflicts, then it should not be approached as an isolated phenomenon. Instead, it should be understood and opposed as part of a more general pattern of political perversion that threatens liberal values and democratic institutions in Britain and abroad. To pursue such an approach requires building coalitions with other communities and political groups who are responding to the threat that anti-democratic movements pose. The Euston Manifesto, of which Engage is a constituent, is a paradigm of such an integrated view of the current political scene. It is also necessary to develop alliances with other immigrant communities and social groups who are directly threatened by the (pseudo-) left/Islamicist axis. We will not succeed if we focus exclusively on the defence of Jewish concerns without addressing the larger political and social issues in which the new anti-Semitism is embedded.

Tactically, it is a mistake to waste precious, limited resources on fruitless (and often obsessive) debates with fringe groups and peripheral political figures. We need to concentrate our concern on dealing with the diffusion of extremist ideas within the political mainstream.

It is also important to choose our own terms of engagement, which will permit us to maximize the effectiveness of our activities, rather than permitting our adversaries to define the terms of discussion for us. Specifically, it is a serious mistake to run to debates organized by proponents of extreme anti-Israel views, in front of hostile audiences, where one is placed in an exposed and defensive position. This is a replay of the scenario in which the Jew is summoned to the steps of the cathedral by the inquisition to answer the Church’s charges against his people. We must take the initiative by creating our own forums and platforms for presenting our views.

Finally, an important part of the struggle of an ethnic/cultural minority that is struggling against bigotry is its capacity to assert its own legitimacy and its refusal to accept the view of itself that its detractors seek to promote. This provides the basis for a healthy collective resistance to the hostility that the minority finds itself confronting. Such a culture is essential for providing members of the community with the psychological resources needed to deal with the toxic atmosphere with which they are attempting to cope. This culture of resistance and the collective assertion of self-worth has long been a part of the historical Jewish response to anti-Semitism. It has also played a crucial role in sustaining other groups in their struggles against racism. It is not a luxury but an indispensable tool for survival. Unfortunately it has been noticeably absent to date in the Anglo-Jewish response to the new anti-Semitism. It is now necessary to cultivate it.

Shalom Lappin

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