I am grateful to Anthony Julius, Rory Miller, and Colin Shindler for helpful discussion of some of the ideas presented here. I am solely responsible for the views expressed in this paper and for any mistakes that it may contain.
Department of Philosophy
King’s College, London
With the breakdown of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the second Intafada the Israeli-Palestinian conflict became a dominant theme of political discourse in British public life. Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians is of longstanding historical importance in a volatile region of major strategic significance to both the West and the Islamic world at a time of mounting tension between them. The rising casualties, particularly among innocent civilians, on both sides of the conflict produce justified indignation at what has become a bloody, grinding, exasperatingly intractable struggle with no rational solution in sight. Since the 1967 war Israel has pursued an increasingly repressive occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and, until July, 2005, Gaza. Under successive governments its relentless expansion of Jewish settlements has cut deeply into Palestinian land and threatened the prospects of a two-state solution. The occupation has inspired violent resistance and a large scale terrorist campaign, which in turn has provoked a sharp military response that involves systematic human rights abuses.
It is to be expected that these events should be an important topic of public conversation in Britain. It is also entirely reasonable that the actions of the Israeli government should be subjected to scrutiny and vigorous criticism.
It is, however, neither natural nor reasonable that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should enjoy ongoing saturation news coverage in the British media, not a little of it in the form of advocacy journalism for the Palestinian cause, and relentless editorial comment, most of it unremittingly hostile to any Israeli interest or concern, to the virtual exclusion of much larger and deadlier conflicts in other parts of the world. The calmness and even handedness with which most of the British press and forums of public discussion have received the Sudanese government’s campaign of mass murder and ethnic cleansing of non-Arab Muslims in Darfur stands in stark contrast to the growing frenzy that attends Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories. A similar detachment attends Russia’s extended assault on Muslim separatists in Chechnya, the continuing ethnic tensions in Bosnia and Kosovo, massive religious and political repression in Iran, Saudia Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, violence between the Indian military and Islamic insurgents in Kashmir, and a host of other wars and occupations, most of which involve far higher casualty figures, greater numbers of refugees, and significantly more widespread human rights violations than the war between Israel and the Palestinians(1).
Unlike these other crises, the Israel-Palestinian encounter has been largely denaturalised and removed from its political and regional context. It is no longer seen as a political and military struggle between two nations with a long and complex history in which each side has sought to subordinate and remove the other from territory that it claims as its own. Instead, it has been endowed with the peculiar status of an iconic clash between the forces of good and evil. Israel has increasingly come to be construed as the purest embodiment of imperialism, racism, and oppression whose sole national purpose is to dispossess the Palestinians. The latter have been transformed into the image of innocent suffering at the hands of the powerful. Instead of participants in a bloody regional conflict, similar in kind to many others that afflict the Middle East and other regions, Israel and the Palestinians have become actors in a modern morality play that is defining large segments of public discourse in Britain.
The dynamic driving this morality play has become increasingly detached from events in the Middle East, and it has assumed a life of its own, shaped, in no small part, by local social and political factors in Britain, some of which are also active in other European countries. The growing seepage of the Manichean assumptions encoded in this morality play into the mainstream of British public life is having a profound impact on the Jewish Community and on the lives of many British Jews. It is important to explore the nature of this phenomenon in relation to those forces in the British social scene that condition it in order to understand its possible consequences for Jewish life in Britain, as well as for Britain as a free and open society. Much is at stake for both domains in the way that this process develops in the future.
2. The Criminalization of Israel as a Mainstream View
In the course of his press conference on July 19, 2005 The Mayor of London, Ken Livingston clearly distinguished between terrorist attacks on population centres in Europe and America, most notably the London tube and bus bombings of July 7, and Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. He condemned the former without reservation, but expressed considerable understanding and sympathy for the latter. While stopping short of explicitly endorsing Palestinian attacks and voicing vacuous opposition to all violence against innocent people, he invoked the traditional justification for terrorism as the only weapon available to the weak against the powerful. His statement on this point was unambiguous. “Palestinians don’t have jet fighters, they only have their bodies to use as weapons. In that unfair balance, that’s what people use”. Setting aside the existence of substantial Palestinian paramilitary forces and armed political militias, and granting the enormous imbalance in military power between Israel and the Palestinians, it is important to recognise that Livingstone expressed understanding not for guerrilla warfare against the military infrastructure of the occupation, but for operations intended to inflict maximal casualties on Israeli civilians within the 1967 borders.
Livingstone’s remarks were neither casual nor accidental. They were expressions of a systematic policy on Israel that he has been promoting for some time. This policy is an element of a more general strategy that involves his embrace of Sheik Yusuf al- Qaradawi, an influential cleric affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and resident in Qatar. Qaradawi has issued religious rulings in support of suicide attacks on Israelis. He justifies these on the grounds that there is no distinction between Israeli civilians and the military. Livingstone has declined to criticise Qaradawi’s views on this and other issues (in particular his commitment to the establishment of Shaaria law through a universal Caliphate, and all that this entails). Instead, he has hailed him as a leading progressive religious figure in the Islamic world. He has pursued this stance in order to curry favour with radical Islamist groups(2). The apparent motivation for this campaign is his desire to court electoral support within the various British Muslim communities in London.
Several features of Livingstone’s apologetic for Palestinian terror are worthy of note. First, it treats ordinary Israelis as unique in excluding them from the status of non-combatants accorded to civilians in any other conflict. But if the obvious asymmetry between the Israeli army and Palestinian irregulars is the basis for this move, then why are British and American civilians exempt from being construed as legitimate targets of terror attacks launched by opponents of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, where powerful armies battle militarily weak insurgency forces? In short, what basis is there for Livingstone’s resolute condemnation of Islamist terror in London, which can be excused and understood on grounds similar to those invoked in the case of Palestinian suicide bombing?
Passing over the fact that political expediency (more accurately, political survival) would prevent the Mayor from applying his views consistently, even if he chose to do so, the effect of his exceptionalist treatment of Israeli civilians is to reinforce the idea that it is not simply Israel’s policies which are worthy of opposition, but its existence as a country that is intolerable. The behaviour of the Israeli government has deprived its people of any collective legitimacy. Hence they are understandable (and so, ultimately, acceptable) targets of violence.
To appreciate the significance of this view it is worth comparing it to current liberal and progressive thinking on the Allied bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan during the Second World War. It is now widely accepted that the fire bombing of Dresden and the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes against humanity that cannot be accepted even in the context of a war of survival against Nazi and fascist regimes that threatened international domination. George Galloway, in an interview with the Bolton Evening News in March 7, 2003, cited the bombing of Dresden as a template of barbarism in warning against the forthcoming American air attack on Iraq. “The carpet bombing will be devastating. This will essentially be another Dresden of Iraqi towns and cities so that when Iraq is invaded there will be as few people as possible left to resist.” Similarly, opponents of the American and British air campaign against Serbia in the context of Milosevic’s assault on Kosovo in 1999 objected to it in no small measure on the grounds that it harmed innocent Serbians. It seems then, that Israeli civilians no longer enjoy the considerations that are routinely extended even to populations whose governments are recognised as involved in genocide, imperialism, and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. This bizarre conclusion could only be sustained on the basis of the idea that taken collectively they are irredeemably evil.
A second point to make with respect to Livingstone’s repeated comments on Palestinian suicide bombing is that they miss the distinction between tactical and strategic terrorism. In the first case a group uses limited violence against civilian targets to achieve clearly stated political objectives, and in order to coerce a stronger adversary into negotiations over these objectives. Irish Republican and Basque separatist terror campaigns are classic instances of tactical terrorism. By contrast, strategic terrorism does not seek to impose limited political goals on an enemy. It uses violence for the purpose of destroying its adversary, at least as a viable political entity. The desired end is not a negotiated settlement or an arrangement that liberates the occupied population while leaving the occupying power intact in its own recognised domain. It is the complete defeat and subordination of the population against which violence is waged. Most Islamist terrorism, and Palestinian suicide bombing within Israel’s 1967 borders in particular, is strategic in this sense.
A third point worth noting is that while Livingstone’s pronouncements have generated controversy, they have met with nothing more than muted public disagreement from government figures. They also do not appear to have significantly eroded his popularity among voters in London. The press has, for the most part, not regarded Livingstone’s conduct as seriously problematic, and his public career has not been adversely affected. He retains the image of a plucky political maverick not afraid to pursue provocative and interesting positions, while working for the well being of his city. Serious concern over his actions remains limited to Jews, Gay activists, and a small number of civil libertarians, all of whom feel directly threatened by it. The rest of the country sees no great problem here, and not a few purveyors of liberal opinion applaud his “courage and independence”. One wonders what reaction such behaviour on the part of a mayor would have evoked in other major European or North American cities.
Finally, it is important to recognise that Livingstone’s views are in no sense marginal or eccentric within British public discussion of the Middle East. A growing body of opinion, particularly on the left and in the liberal centre, is coming to see Palestinian suicide bombing as a legitimate means of resistance to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. The issue is a topic for debate on radio and television discussion programs in a way that would be inconceivable if the terrorist actions in question were those of Irish Republicans seeking an end to British control of Northern Ireland. Ted Honderich, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at University College, argues in his book After the Terror (University of Edinburgh Press, 2003) that Palestinian suicide bombing of Israeli civilians is a morally justified means of pursuing a liberation struggle(3). In an article in Counterpunch summarizing his argument he insists on the moral value of suicide bombing even if it proves ineffective, and he compares the suicide bombers to the Jewish resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
“To this can be added something else. Jews in the Warsaw ghetto fought to the end — hopelessly, it was said. They bring to mind that there can be a realism in what is hopeless. You can fight, not for yourself or your time, but for those who come after you. The Palestinians can do so.” (Obligations to the Future: Palestinian Terrorism, Morality, and Germany, Counterpunch, October 25, 2003).
In suggesting this analogy Honderich neglects the detail that the Jewish resistance fought the Wehrmacht rather than German civilians. His analogy also tramples on the difference between struggling against systematic genocide and resisting an oppressive military occupation. His underlying comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany reflects a common theme in the increasingly shrill portrayal of Israel as a unique pariah state. The Palestinians have supplanted the Jews as the ultimate victims of oppression, and Israelis have become the agents of a new Nazi regime.
In addition, Israel’s influence is inflated far beyond the Middle East. It is cast in the role of a major force in global affairs that, either directly, or in collusion with the United States and a dark international Zionist lobby, manipulates events and promotes conflict throughout the world. Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development in Tony Blair’s government from 1997 until May, 2003, contributed the following statement to the Skies are Weepingwebsite (set up to promote a cantata written in memory of Rachel Corrie, the peace activist killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza in 2003).
“I am supporting the World Premiere of the Cantata for Rachel Corrie because there has been the usual campaign to silence even a cantata to commemorate a young woman who gave her life in order to stand for justice. I also believe that US backing for Israeli policies of expansion of the Israeli state and oppression of the Palestinian people is the major cause of bitter division and violence in the world. Best wishes. Clare Short MP”
Short’s remarkable suggestion that Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories and American support for Israel are the primary cause of discord throughout the world attracted little if any criticism in the press. As far as I am aware, no major figure either in her party or in the government publicly objected to it.
It is, then, entirely common place, in British public discourse now, to regard Israel as a thoroughly demonic country of superpower proportions. This image carries with it increasing acceptance of the idea that Israel’s Palestinian victims can only resist its onslaught by committing terrorist acts of large scale murder against its civilians, who, by virtue of being citizens of this terrible state, have forfeited their right to be considered non-combatants. Regrettable as such actions may be, they remain the only means of self-defence open to an oppressed people.
The consequences of this situation for British Jewry have been severe. If Israel is irredeemably malicious and Israelis are untouchables who can no longer claim the normal protections accorded to other civilians, then Jews who identify with Israel and defend its right to exist will necessarily inherit this status in some form or other. This eventually applies even to those who strongly object to its policies while insisting on its legitimacy as a country.
3. Anti-Zionism as an Instrument of Collective Deligitimisation
Most extreme criticism of Israel is expressed as “anti-Zionism”. It is invariably accompanied by an insistence on the distinction between opposing Israel’s existence on one hand, and harbouring any ill will towards Jews as a religious or cultural minority on the other.
In historical terms Zionism was a movement devoted to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory of Israel/Palestine. It emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century in Central and Eastern Europe as part of the general political ferment that was affecting the Jewish communities in these areas. It was one of several ideological responses to the massive violence and large scale exclusion that Jews had endured for centuries throughout Europe. The alternatives to Zionism included, inter alia, Bundism (Jewish Diaspora socialism), liberal assimilationism, Territorialism (the movement to create a Jewish homeland in a territory other than Israel/Palestine), and Communism, as well as Orthodox religious opposition to secular political action of any kind. Zionism itself was a diverse movement involving Marxist and non-Marxist socialists, binationalists seeking a joint Jewish-Arab state, communitarian anarchists, liberal nationalists, religious Zionists, and right wing territorial maximalists. The intense debate between Zionists and their competitors on the best way to achieve Jewish liberation, as well as much of the ideological discussion within Zionism over issues like binationalism and the nature of the state to be achieved effectively ended with the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and the subsequent establishment of Israel. One of the historical ironies of Zionism is that while it managed to save only a small fraction of European Jewry from the Nazi genocide, in the first fifteen years of Israel’s existence it absorbed the bulk of Middle Eastern and North African Jews, who were forced from their host countries by the rise of Arab nationalist movements and the hostility of these movements to the Jewish state.
It certainly makes sense to evaluate the achievements, shortcomings, and flaws of Zionism as a historical movement. It is also not unreasonable to question whether its objectives were well motivated, given subsequent events in the region. The sanitised account of the Palestinian refugee problem that initially dominated the official Israeli version of the 1948 War has been widely challenged and revised over the past twenty years, most prominently by mainstream Israeli historians. Unfortunately, a critical re-evaluation of the not less partisan Palestinian narrative of the conflict has yet to be attempted.
Regardless of what one thinks of Zionism and the creation of Israel in historical terms, Israel is a country that has existed for close to sixty years, and it now has a population of 6,869,500. Of these, 5,529,300 (80%) are Israeli Jews, who constitute a clearly recognizable national entity characterised by a language, shared culture, and common history. Using the rhetoric of anti-Zionism to criticise Israel’s repression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories is, in most cases, a device for rendering the call for Israel’s elimination palatable. By reducing an entire nation to an ideology, one gives the appearance of calling for a change of political regime when one is, in fact, advocating the destruction of one country and its replacement by another.
The radical uniqueness of this stance becomes apparent when one considers that no parallel movements exist for dismantling other countries, even when these were created by territorial partition in response to religio-ethnic strife, as in the case of Pakistan and India (established at the same time as Israel), or through colonial conquest and ethnic cleansing, like Australia, Canada, the United States, and most Latin American countries. The fact that, in general, the damage done to the indigenous populations of these countries remains unaddressed has not undermined their international legitimacy, which is never brought into serious question.
Anti-Zionism is also widely used in the current debate as a means of criticising the overwhelming majority of Jews who support Israel’s existence, while avoiding direct reference to Jews as such. In this context “Zionist” has been emptied of its original historical and political content, and turned into a term of abuse that is used as a rough paraphrase of expressions like “racist” and “colonialist”.
In a more sinister vein, it is employed to suggest a powerful, quasi criminal political and financial lobby working from within the Jewish Community, in league with the Unites States, to promote Israeli and Jewish interests by controlling the press and pulling levers of international power. It is in this mode that current anti-Zionism blossoms into full blown anti-Semitism.
These distinct strands of anti-Zionism frequently blend into each other, and they often become closely intertwined in extreme anti-Israel discourse, despite their conceptual differences. The effect of this toxic mixture is that a line of discussion that may start out as reasonable, if forceful criticism of Israeli policy can quickly escalate into an assault on Israel as a country, and then graduate into transparently racist charges of Zionist control of the press and the political process.
Underlying most of these versions of anti-Zionism is the idea that, considered as a collective historical entity, Jews are an illicit people except when characterised in the manageable terms of a small, well behaved religious denomination, or as a remnant community celebrated through nostalgic cultural exhibits, comedy routines, and klezmer festivals. It is this theme of an illicit people which figures most potently in the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy as a nation.(4)
Neo-Nazis propaganda has traditionally packaged anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism in order to acquire a façade of political respectability. It is alarming to see organizations and individuals on the radical left developing an anti-Zionist idiom that is increasingly difficult to distinguish in form and implication from its neo-Nazi counterpart. The fact that many of them have sought alliances with extreme Islamist groups that regularly deal in traditional anti-Jewish imagery has facilitated this trend.
The Socialist Workers Party invited Gilad Atzmon to speak at one of its events on Friday, June 17, 2005. Atzmon is a jazz musician (and former Israeli) living in London. He is well known as an extreme anti-Zionist activist, and he has recently been embraced by elements of the radical left in Britain. The following quote from his piece Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Verse 2), posted on his website, echoes the claim, promoted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, that “Zionists” control America.
“This time it is America that is about to lose its sovereignty. Now, it looks as if Zionist lobbies control American foreign politics. After so many years of independence, the United States of America is becoming a remote colony of an apparently far greater state, the Jewish state. …The idea that Zionists have taken over America might sound bizarre in the first instance but we must remember that this kind of strange scenario does happen. Last month I heard Israel Shamir’s observation regarding this very issue. In a very open manner he said that no one would be surprised to hear that during different phases of the British Empire the world was governed by a very close group of ‘Eton’ graduates. “Some times” he added, “great empires are taken over by very marginal groups”. We might have to acknowledge that this is the case with America. American foreign policy is dictated by a very marginal group of Zionist activists, even by the state of Israel itself. Good news for Israel, quite an amazing achievement for a microscopic state. But is it good news for the American people? Is it good news for the world?” (http://www.gilad.co.uk/html%20files/politics.html)
It is important to recognise that references to Zionist and Jewish lobbies in discussions of the Middle East are no longer restricted to the fringes of the political spectrum. The first sentence of Clare Short’s comment, cited above (“I am supporting the World Premiere of the Cantata for Rachel Corrie because there has been the usual campaign to silence even a cantata to commemorate a young woman who gave her life in order to stand for justice.”) hints at the orchestration of a nefarious action to suppress the cantata that she endorses. Mainstream journalists frequently invoke the activities of a powerful Zionist or pro-Israel lobby attempting to control the media’s handling of news on Israel(5). Strikingly, advocacy of Palestinian, Arab, or Muslim interests is not generally treated as illegitimate lobbying, even when pursued in a systematic and professional manner by well funded political organizations or by Middle Eastern governments. Of course, there is no reason why it should be, given that it is part of normal public debate and political action. The obvious question is why activity on behalf of Israeli concerns, even when limited to protesting boycotts or objecting to imbalanced reporting in the press, is so often stigmatised in this way. The affect of this stigma is to deligitimise not only Israel but large sections of the Jewish Community and its institutions.
4. Islamism and the Jews
There are currently between 1.6 and 2 million Muslims in Britain. They come originally from a variety of Asian and African countries, with immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India forming the largest group. Like non-Muslim immigrants they have encountered racism and exclusion. This has produced social deprivation and given rise to a widespread sense of marginalization. Radical Islamist movements have flourished in this environment, and they have become an increasingly influential force within Britain’s Muslim communities over the past fifteen years.
These movements represent a broad cross section of views within the framework of Islamist politics, ranging from non-violent organizations identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, like the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) to groups that openly endorse terrorist actions within Britain. The London bombings of July 7 and the abortive attacks of July 21 were the work of a small jihadist fringe in the Islamist movement. Most Islamists do not endorse violent political action within Britain, and the overwhelming majority of British Muslims have no connection of any kind with terrorism.
It is important to recognise that while the majority of Islamists oppose jihadist violence within Britain, the complete rejection of Israel’s right to exist and strong support for Palestinian suicide bombing extend across the spectrum of Islamist opinion. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen not as a political dispute, but one of the focal points of a cosmic religious struggle between the forces of Islam and its adversaries. On this view Israel is a Crusader outpost in the heart of Muslim territory. The liberation of this territory can only be achieved by returning it to Islamic rule, with the Jewish inhabitants of the country either deported or subordinated to the status of Dhimmi (a religious minority protected under Islamic law).
Traditional anti-Jewish themes have frequently figured in Islamist campaigns against Israel. However, more sophisticated and mainstream organizations are substituting the rhetoric of anti-Zionism for overtly anti-Semitic images. Propaganda originating from the Middle East and Pakistan will use the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as Holocaust denial. Local groups replace this incendiary material with claims about Zionists and arguments concerning the non-uniqueness of the Holocaust. This move is largely motivated by the serious embarrassment that anti-Jewish propaganda has caused British Islamist organizations in the past.
Over the past ten years significant parts of the British left have developed open political alliances with Islamist movements. George Galloway’s Respect Party consists, in large part, of an electoral coalition of the Socialist Workers Party and the MAB, and these two organizations dominate the Stop the War Coalition. As noted earlier, Ken Livingstone has actively cultivated Islamist connections to improve his standing in London’s Muslim immigrant communities.
In pursuing this route, the radical left has largely abandoned progressive working class politics in favour of a politics of culture and identity focussed on the anti-Western agenda of Islamism(6). Rather than supporting democrats, labour unionists, feminists, and anti-racists within the Muslim communities of Britain this part of the left has chosen to embrace Islamism as a potent form of anti-imperialism. In so doing they have produced a new socialism of fools. They do not address the causes of exclusion from mainstream British society that have blighted Muslim and other immigrant communities, but collaborate with the diversion of anger that this exclusion has generated into the anti-Western rage of Islamist politics. Given the lack of credibility currently enjoyed by secular leftwing ideologies in most of the Islamic world, this appears to be a clear case of political opportunism driven by ideological bankruptcy.
In the context of its alliance with Islamism the radical left has appropriated its eliminationist variety of anti-Zionism and begun to deal in Zionist conspiracy theories on a regular basis. It has also remained largely silent in the face of the ventures in Holocaust denial emanating from Islamist figures abroad. There was, for example, little if any serious criticism on the radical left of the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement, on December 14, 2005, that the Nazi genocide was a myth.
A large swath of what presents itself as the liberal left in Britain has adopted a more nuanced version of the approach taken up by the radical left. Putatively liberal commentators have engaged in apologetics for Islamism as a misplaced protest against British and American aggression against the Islamic world. They have sought to explain the London bombings as a misconceived but “understandable” expression of anger over British involvement in Iraq and western support for Israel.
So, for example, Madeleine Bunting writing in the Guardian of July 14, 2005 (The heavy mob will get us nowhere) makes the following statement in approving summary of what she takes to be a view widely held by young British Muslims:
“But alongside the heartfelt self-criticism, another issue repeatedly cited is just as important; British foreign policy is a cancer in our community, corroding trust in the British political system and poisoning our youth: “You cannot ask us to contain the anger within our community caused by this country’s foreign policy.” The honesty and new thinking required by us, say Muslims, must be mirrored by the government; it cannot pretend Iraq and Palestine are irrelevant.”
Bunting also offers a highly sympathetic interview with Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Friendly fire) in the Guardian on October 29, 2005. In the course of this interview she presents the following assertion by Qaradawi, foregoing any critical comment of her own.
“But he draws a distinction between suicide bombing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its use in London or New York. “The difference is huge. What happens in Palestine is self-defence. But in 9/11 they were not fighting an invasion; they didn’t just use their own bodies but those of all the others in the planes. These young men attacked non combatants – even other Muslims and Arabs – going about their daily lives. Because of this I have condemned what happened in London, Sharm El Sheikh [the Egyptian resort] and Madrid both in my personal capacity and as chair of the International Union of Muslim Scholars.””
This component of the liberal left has been singularly restrained in the face of Holocaust denial among Islamists. Its relative silence on this issue appears to reflect growing acceptance of the view in “progressive” circles that concern with the Holocaust is a prop used to promote Zionist interests.
It is also important to note that the rise of Islamism in Britain has provoked a racist backlash that threatens Jews, as well as Muslims and other immigrant minorities. Anti-immigrant sentiment invariably strengthens far right groups that are not less dangerous than Islamism to Jewish concerns. However, while progressive opinion is actively mobilised against the far right, it is, at best, passive in response to Islamist anti-Semitism, which appears to be have achieved some measure of political correctness as an “expected” reaction to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The Jewish Community is seriously threatened by the growth of Islamist influence among British Muslims, and the active promotion of this influence by significant elements of what passes for leftwing opinion in contemporary Britain. The response of the Government to this threat has, in general, been either ineffective or unhelpful. It has oscillated sharply between draconian anti-terror legislation and appeasement of Islamist organizations. It has carefully refrained from taking on the issue of Islamist anti-Semitism in public for fear of aggravating tensions with Muslim communities. It also wishes to avoid appearing under Jewish influence. The result is that the Jewish Community is largely on its own in the face of an increasingly hostile coalition of forces.
5. The Historical Roots of the New Anti-Semitism
The developments discussed here correspond to patterns now in evidence across most of Europe, particularly in France, which hosts Western Europe’s largest and most active Jewish Community(7). However, there are features of the British situation that are strongly determined by historical factors specific to Britain. In particular, the general lack of interest across the political spectrum in the sharp increase of extreme anti-Israel and anti-Jewish opinion in public discourse has clear roots in the historical role of Jews in Britain.
From the time that Cromwell re-admitted Jews to England in 1656 until the second half of the nineteenth century, they were socially marginalised and politically disenfranchised. The issue of Jewish political emancipation enjoyed very limited popular support in Britain, and it aroused little enthusiasm among the rank and file of the Jewish Community(8). From 1830 until 1836 four bills for Jewish emancipation were introduced into Parliament, but none of them passed. The first two were defeated in the House of Commons, while the latter two were blocked in the House of Lords. A Jewish Disabilities Bill was defeated in the House of Lords twice in 1848, and again in 1849, 1851, and each year from 1853 to 1857. After an eleven year struggle, Lionel Rothschild was finally allowed to take his seat in the House of Commons when Disraeli succeeded in passing a law that permitted each House to determine its conditions for membership independently. This law resulted in the Commons suspending the traditional Christian oath for MP’s. Contrary to a widespread impression, no general act of Jewish political emancipation was adopted. Rothschild established a precedent that permitted Jews to enter Parliament.
Jewish enfranchisement throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century was a slow, incremental process of sponsored entry for members of an economic and social elite into an expanding range of professions and selected areas of public life. It was not the result of a large popular movement that struggled against Jewish exclusion. In this respect it stands in sharp contrast to the major causes that defined progressive politics in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain.
The passage of the Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1829 was, in large part, the result of seven years of political protest and agitation by the Catholic Association throughout Britain. A large abolitionist movement produced the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. A militant, well organised campaign for women’s suffrage achieved the right to vote for women over 30 in 1918, and for women over 21 in 1928. The British labour movement and its supporters waged an ongoing struggle for workers rights and the welfare state throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There were prominent supporters of Jewish political rights among liberals, dissenting Protestants, and evangelicals. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s speech “Jewish Disabilities”, delivered to the House of Commons on April 17, 1833, provides one of the more compelling statements of liberal principle in the nineteenth century. However, there was no genuine political movement supporting Jewish emancipation in Britain, either in the general public domain or within the Jewish Community, of the kind that generated the great reforms of British public life. As a result, Jewish issues have remained of fairly marginal interest to the left, as well as to other constituencies of political opinion in the country. Moreover the Jewish Community has tended to rely primarily on prominent members of its elite to communicate its concerns to the government through discrete channels of diplomacy, rather than organizing community based political action to press its needs.
When European Jewry was threatened by the emergence of Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s there was little support on the left, or elsewhere for the absorption of large numbers of Jewish refugees in Britain. In fact, there was considerable antipathy to Jews among several prominent members of the democratic British left before and during that time. Colin Shindler quotes Beatrice Webb as asking “why is it that everyone who has dealings with Jewry ends by being prejudiced against the Jew”.(9)
George Orwell provides a particularly revealing description of attitudes towards Jewish refugees during the Second World War.
Thanks to Hitler, therefore, you had a situation in which the press was in effect censored in favour of the Jews while in private antisemitism was on the up-grade, even, to some extent, among sensitive and intelligent people. This was particularly noticeable in 1940 at the time of the internment of the refugees. Naturally, every thinking person felt that it was his duty to protest against the wholesale locking-up of unfortunate foreigners who for the most part were only in England because they were opponents of Hitler. Privately, however, one heard very different sentiments expressed. A minority of the refugees behaved in an exceedingly tactless way, and the feeling against them necessarily had an antisemitic undercurrent, since they were largely Jews. A very eminent figure in the Labour Party — I won’t name him, but he is one of the most respected people in England — said to me quite violently: “We never asked these people to come to this country. If they choose to come here, let them take the consequences.” Yet this man would as a matter of course have associated himself with any kind of petition or manifesto against the internment of aliens. This feeling that antisemitism is something sinful and disgraceful, something that a civilised person does not suffer from, is unfavourable to a scientific approach, and indeed many people will admit that they are frightened of probing too deeply into the subject. They are frightened, that is to say, of discovering not only that antisemitism is spreading, but that they themselves are infected by it.(10)
In light of this history it should not be surprising that there is, in general, little concern over the expansion of anti-Jewish attitudes in contemporary political discourse in Britain. This indifference has a long and well established tradition behind it. The view that raising the issue of anti-Semitism is an act of bad faith and a self-serving attempt to distract attention from genuine issues demanding progressive support is well established in the history of enlightened British opinion. The insistence of the organised Jewish Community on dealing with this situation by low profile expressions of concern channelled through its leadership is also very much in accord with its own history.
Consequences of the New Anti-Semitism for Jews in Britain
While there has been a worrying increase in the number of recorded anti-Jewish incidents in Britain over the past six years, British Jews remain, in general, secure and prosperous. They are considerably less at risk of violent racist attack or serious discrimination than members of more visible immigrant minorities. The thrust of the new anti-Semitism that is infecting public discussion in Britain is not an assault on Jews as individuals. Its focus is the delegitimatization of Israel as a country and, in the end, of Jews as a people.
This campaign does not, at present, pose a serious threat to Jewish security (at least not yet). It is however having devastating effects on Jewish life in Britain. University campuses have become a battleground where Jewish students face a continuing barrage of violent anti-Zionist rhetoric, boycott campaigns, and attempts to exclude Jewish student organizations from campus life because of their connections (often non-political) with Israel. The systematic criminalization of Israel as a unique pariah state is increasingly extended to the organised Jewish Community. With the recent merger of the two major higher education unions, the AUT and NATFHE, it is not unlikely that the current campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel will eventually succeed in some form. If this should happen, an obvious next step will be the targeting of Jewish Communal institutions that have Israeli connections, like Jewish schools in the state system that maintain study programs in Israel and include substantial Israeli content in their Jewish studies programs.
British Jews find themselves confronting a growing demand for loyalty oaths where the requirements that these oaths impose are constantly escalating. They now require opposition not simply to Israel’s policies, but to its continued existence as a condition for enjoying the status of a progressive Jew acceptable in civilized society.
A minority of Jews have eagerly taken up this demand and declare themselves courageous opponents of the Zionist lobby that seeks to suppress their bold criticisms of Israel. This pose is as amusing as it is disingenuous. Given the timidity of the Community’s response to the new anti-Semitism, the wide spread opposition to the occupation even among Israel’s supporters, and the celebration of self-proclaimed “anti-Zionist” Jews in the media, it is difficult to discern the cost that attaches to this heroic exercise in “dissent”. Quite the contrary, it seems to be the price of sustaining one’s position in fashionable circles. While most of these people are undoubtedly sincere in their opinions, they have adopted a role analogous to the one which the Jewish Fellowship defined for itself in the 1940’s.(11)
Perhaps the greatest difficulty that the Jewish Community encounters in the current situation is its comparative isolation. It has no obvious allies in the political domain. Much of the left now serves as an impresario for the hostility that it faces. The centre and the moderate conservatives are largely indifferent, and the far right is a deadly threat. Islamist groups are shaping opinion within Muslim communities, while non-Muslim immigrants that share common concerns with Jews, like Indian Hindus and Sikhs are not in a position to offer substantive assistance, given their own vulnerable position in the cross fire between Islamism and anti-immigrant racism. Jews continue to be seen as privileged, excessively influential, and so in no need of assistance on one side, but irreparably foreign on the other. The unwillingness of major public figures to take up the issue of rising hostility to collective Jewish concerns leaves the Community quietly under siege.
The Jewish Community is ill equipped to handle the situation in which it finds itself. It has virtually no tradition of democratic activism. It continues to rely on discrete diplomacy conducted from the top to deal with a public debate that requires an effective political response in which Jews assert themselves as an ethnic constituency that demands respect for its legitimacy on a par with other minority communities.
It would be unwise to attempt to predict the future. According to Rabbinic tradition, after the destruction of the Second Temple prophecy was left to fools and mad people. However, if the trends discussed here continue (and no obvious constraints on these trends are visible on the horizon at this time), it is not unreasonable to speculate that the environment will become increasingly unsupportive for organised Jewish life here. If this should be the case, the question of the long term viability of a robust collective Jewish presence in the country comes into question. As young British Jews have to cope with an escalating overhead of public hostility in negotiating their way through complex cultural roles, increasing numbers may well choose to immigrate to societies in which they are not subject to these pressures. Such a possibility should cause major concern to anyone committed both to Jewish life in Britain, and to sustaining Britain’s character as a richly textured, pluralist democracy.
(1) A particularly glaring instance of the obsessive focus on Israeli actions combined with a thoroughgoing lack of concern over similar behaviour in different regions is the intense criticism levelled at the security barrier which Israel is constructing in the West Bank in an effort to control terrorist incursions. There are certainly good grounds for objecting to the placement of those segments of the barrier that extend into Palestinian territory across the Green Line and cause serious disruption to the daily routines and livelihoods of Palestinians affected by its presence on their land. Israeli human rights and peace groups have been vocal in objecting to the route of the barrier, and the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered certain modifications in the plan to alleviate Palestinian suffering. In public debate in Britain the security barrier is not simply an objectionable government action. It has become “The Apartheid Wall” which confirms Israel’s identity as a racist state. At the same time that Israel has been constructing its security barrier India has been building a 2,500 mile steel fence around its entire border with Bengladesh in order to stem the tide of illegal Bengaladeshi migrants into India, and specifically to prevent Islamic militants from entering the country (See Raekha Prasad, “India builds a 2,500-mile barrier to rival the Great Wall of China”, The Times, December 28, 2005).The fence is located in the no man’s land between India and Bengaldesh. When completed, it will seal off Bengladesh on all its land borders. It will also divide 150 villages and cut off 200,000 villagers (most of them Indian) from access to their fields, jobs, and services. 1,367 miles of the fence have already been completed. With the exception of Prasad’s recent detailed report in The Times, the Indian security barrier has received virtually no coverage in the major British media, and it has attracted no protests from the political groups and commentators denouncing Israel’s fence with such enthusiasm.
(2) I take Islamism to be a political movement whose primary objective is the establishment of a social order whose central institutions are governed by Islamic religious law and practise.
(3) For an insightful critique of Honderich’s book see J. Pike, “Honderich on Terrorism”, Democratiya 2, November-December 2005 (http://www.democratiya.com/review.asp?reviews_id=11).
(4) See S. Lappin, “Israel and the New Anti-Semitism”, Dissent, winter, 2003 for a discussion of the roots of the view of Jews as an illicit people in both Europe and the Middle East.
(5) The following examples, cited originally in my 2003 Dissent article “Israel and the New Anti-Semitism”, illustrate this pattern. Robert Fisk (“I am Being Vilified for Telling the Truth About Palestinians,” Independent, December 13, 2000) and John Pilger (“Why My Film is under Fire,” Guardian, September 23, 2002) both claim that a powerful Zionist lobby operating in Britain but directed from America is attempting to suppress objective reporting and critical discussion of Israel. The January 14, 2002, issue of the New Statesman ran two articles on the Zionist lobby. The cover displayed a large golden Star of David piercing the centre of a British flag over the caption “A kosher conspiracy?” In the first piece, Dennis Sewell, concluded that the lobby, to the extent that it exists, is largely ineffective in stemming the tide of hostile reporting and comment on Israel. However, in the second article Pilger, repeated his claim of Zionist power in the British government and the press. He also commented that “Blair’s meeting with Arafat served to disguise his support for Sharon and the Zionist project.”
(6) See S. Lappin, “How Class Disappeared from Western Politics”, Dissent, Winter 2006, for a discussion offactors that have caused the British, and more generally the European left to adopt this approach.
(7) For an account of anti-Semitism in contemporary France see Pierre-André Taguieff, La Novuvelle Judéophobie, Mille et Une Nuits, Paris, 2002.
(8) See, for example, H. Enriques, “The Jewish Emancipation Controversy in Nineteenth-Century Britain”, Past and Present 40, 1968, pp. 226-246.
(9) Beatrice Webb in her diary, October 30, 1930 in N. Mackenzie (ed.), The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Vol 3, Pilgrimage 1912-1947, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 334, quoted in C. Shindler, The Triumph of Military Zionism: Nationalism and the Origins of the Israeli Right, I.B. Tauris, 2005.
(10) G. Orwell, “Anti-Semitism in Britain”, Contemporary Jewish Record, April, 1945.
(11) The Jewish Fellowship was established in 1942 to combat Zionism and to promote the idea that Jews are a religious group rather than a national community. Their leaders came from the highest economic and social echelons of the Jewish Community, and they were heavily influenced by members of the Progressive Movement. For a detailed and informative history of the Jewish Fellowship see R. Miller, “A Most Uncivil War: The Jewish Fellowship and the Battle over Zionism in Anglo Jewry, 1944-1948”, The Jewish Journal of Sociology, vol. 42, 2000, pp. 37-72. The Fellowship compared Zionism to Nazism as early as 1944, just as the nature of the Nazi genocide was becoming known in the West. One of its leaders, Colonel Louis Gluckstein said in testimony to the Anglo-American Committee on Palestine that “to believe this [Jewish suffering] is a justification for Jewish separatism and Jewish nationalism seems to me the adoption of the Hitler doctrine.” (quoted in Miller (2000), p. 49) The Jewish Fellowship was the antithesis of a leftwing organization. Its members represented a largely conservative elite of Jews who were concerned to protect their precarious position as charter, if sponsored members of the British power structure. They saw in Zionism and the creation of Israel a threat to their own investment. They also seem to have been more than a little embarrassed by the Holocaust and its implications for their idea of a comfortable de-national Jewish life in Europe.