Britain’s New Anti-Semitism | Alexander Masir

Where anti-Semitism persists, the well being of all people is at risk /Paul Sarbanes

Coming to Britain and encountering anti-Semitism has been one of the most surprising experiences in my life. I originate from a Hungarian town that has seen its two synagogues deconsecrated, their congregation forced into a ghetto or deported, with only 70 of them to return. There, when we spoke of the West, we thought of countries with no Holocaust-denial, no anti-Semitism, so I was rather surprised at the kind of views and beliefs that are propagated here by figures known nation-wide – be it the President of the National Union of Students or senior Labour politicians. Unlike far-right extremists, who are alienated, condemned, uprooted and jailed, a special kind of anti-Semitism has been allowed to develop and spread, which needs close examination, honesty and condemnation from all involved.

The fundamental problem is clearly the extremely complicated situation surrounding the State of Israel, and Jews’ relation to it – next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, maintaining that “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object […]”, a statement which has been seen as imperial and colonialist, not observing that while Britons can be told to “go home” in India or Kenya, Jews cannot go anywhere. The Roma and the Jews are in many regards the two most historically unfortunate groups in Europe, and form a people, a language, a culture without a state or even region to call home. This is why “Zionism” (which used to be a neutral word for a political movement) is a matter of Wilsonian self-determination, a universally cherished concept.

Today, however, the word is obsolete. “Zionism” serves no purpose, as the State of Israel is a fact – a country, with a government, its own currency, capital city, media and army. Anti-Zionists therefore call into question more than 6.5 million Israeli Jews’ right to exist, now that Israel and its Jewish majority population is a fact. Ideas have been and will be debated – but the lives of any country’s citizens ought not to be. The State is responsible for questionable military actions – with that anyone will agree – but little can be expected of a country that has been at war, civil or otherwise, in an outnumbered position, from the very second of its establishment, and the people of Israel (many of whom are Palestinians) cannot be blamed for its actions either. In such cases of attacks devoid of nuance, tolerance or humanity, like Naz Shah Labour MP’s calls for all Israelis to be deported to the United States, attacks on “Zionism” clearly amount to anti-Semitism.

We also must, regardless of the military situation, not forget that Israel, unlike quite a few dictatorships we ally ourselves with or don’t much care about, is a law-governed, democratic country. As Peter Hitchens explained almost 13 years ago, “Israel’s people are European by culture and law, imposing that culture and law on a region where cousin marriage and tribal loyalty are normal, while pluralism, tolerance, party politics, and the rule of law are abnormal… This makes Israel the permanent ally, in the Middle East, of the world’s lawful and free countries. This alliance is based on cultural and political kinship, factors that cannot be altered by a tyrant’s death or a coup d’état. Washington may be able to buy the friendship of one Arab or Muslim regime or another with arms and cash. But as soon as that regime falls, the investment of years is wasted if the new rulers are hostile.”

The situation in Britain ultimately stems from this, Middle-Eastern problem. Before the conflicts, Britain was the country to resettle the Jews after a mediaeval expulsion, elect a Jewish Prime Minister in 1868 and 1874 (a period during and even after which Jews were expelled from several European countries), and welcome more than 70,000 Jewish refugees in the Second World War. What changed then?

Lloyd George recalls that the Balfour-declaration was opposed by some members the assimilated Jewish aristocracy in Britain, because they felt they would not be able to call Britain their home if a Jewish State were established. Some of them went to Israel to find a new home, but a considerable number of Jews continued their life in Europe and elsewhere. While the two groups can generally be seen as separate, a lot of anti-Zionists see European or British Jews as suspect – and this is where anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism. It betrays a deep lack of nuance – for example, when in NUS President Malia Bouattia’s mind, the University of Birmingham becomes a “Zionist outpost” by virtue of having the largest Jewish Student Society in the country. Recently, a man was arrested in Croydon for asking a British Muslim woman to “explain [the terrorist attacks in] Brussels”. Ulster Scots aren’t held responsible for Scottish election results. So what, if not racism, is the fact that Jews are not allowed the benefit of doubt, or aren’t accepted without a self-flagellatory and cringing attitude, like the oldest Westminster MP, Sir Gerard Kaufman, himself a son of Polish Jews, accusing the Conservative party of being influenced by “Jewish money”? Is Holocaust-denial more legitimate and scholarly if they can quote a Jewish son of Holocaust-survivors, Norman Finkelstein?

This is why the history of the Second World War should entirely be abandoned in contemporary discussions on Israel. When Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel does it for his own advancement, it is hardly more tasteful than when Ken Livingstone, former Mayor of London, uses Hitler to make a point while apologising for anti-Semitic colleagues. Hitler is generally someone not to be brought up in modern politics – it cheapens the example of the worst humans may do, and can make any argument hard to trust.

So what can be a good solution? The traditional British answer of having a national conversation may be the key to this. It is us who need to make the case for Israel; to argue, disprove, and try our best not to silence. On the European mainland, where Holocaust-denial is illegal, anti-Semitism thrives underground. Unlike the corrigible, generally anti-Israel hatred found here, they are ready to harm anyone who practices the Jewish faith or is a descendant of Jews. But all this is included in the price we pay for civilisation. As J. S. Mill said, “[…] We no longer put heretics to death; and the amount of penal infliction […] is not sufficient to extirpate them.” If anti-Semitism cannot be silenced through law, it can be laughed at, disproved and corrected through exposure. We must make this clear: no one is under any obligation to look at anti-Semites with a straight face, or offer them a comfortable seat and a nice cup of tea – but if I could choose, I would rather have racists in front of me, under supervision, than organising and conspiring behind my back
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2 thoughts on “Britain’s New Anti-Semitism | Alexander Masir”

  1. “While Britons can be told to “go home” in India or Kenya, Jews cannot go anywhere.”

    I’m not sure this is a helpful comparison, since ‘British’ is a form of nationality whereas ‘Jewish’ is not. I may be wrong but I suspect a great deal of anti-Semitism arises from opposition to Israel (not to its existence but to its government’s actions, such as the occupation of Palestinian territory) rather than any ideological antipathy towards Judaism itself. Conflating the two arguably exacerbates the situation.

    1. “Conflating the two arguably exacerbates the situation.” That is certainly true for the situation with people of Jewish fate or descent in Europe or elsewhere, and that is what I argue in the article when I say that “… While the two groups (i.e. Israeli Jews and the Jewish diaspora across the world) can generally be seen as separate, a lot of anti-Zionists see European or British Jews as suspect – and this is where anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism.[…] What, if not racism, is the fact that Jews are not allowed the benefit of doubt…”. However, when people migrate somewhere together and establish a government, we can think of them as a singular performative entity, their citizenship binding them together. When I mention “going home”, I am talking about people proposing the resettlement of Israeli Jews, who cannot now be told to leave the place that has become their home.

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