British Jews Should Not Play the Anti-Semitism Card

Once again the conflict in Gaza has generated an outburst of anti-Semitism across Europe. Some of the stories coming out of France are horrific. As for Germany, even the faintest whiff of anti-Semitism is an outrage; clearly those responsible for assuaging that country’s collective guilt still have much to do.

The picture in the United Kingdom is different though. The level of anti-Semitism is nowhere near that of France or Germany. Yet, reading some of the press articles over the past week one could be excused for thinking that the country was on the verge of an outbreak of pogroms against the Jews.

A major feature in the Sunday Times, the UK’s most popular weekend broadsheet screamed “Anti-Semitic attacks scar British cities”. The editor of the once-respected Jewish Chronicle contributed a piece headed “Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head”. Most of the article was devoted to detailing outrages in Europe. And it did make the point that the situation in the UK is nothing like as bad as in France. But it also cited a march on the Israeli Embassy by 15,000 Israel protesters, implying that anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel’s policies are one and the same thing. They are not.

The history of the Jewish community in the UK has been relatively benign. It is now the most stable Jewish community in Europe, a position it achieved by default following the slaughter of the Shoah. Other than a period in the 1930s, when pro-Nazi agitators led by Oswald Mosley marched through Jewish areas, there has been relatively little organised anti-Semitism in the UK.

Even now, when the nation is currently going through one of its periodic bouts of anti-immigrant grumbling, fuelled by the 15 minutes of fame granted to a right-wing fringe party, the targets of abuse are not Jews. Yes, there have been a number of anti-Semitic incidents in recent weeks, 100 have been reported in London since the beginning of July. But the vast majority of these are little more than verbal abuse. It is almost certainly far more frightening to be a Muslim in modern Britain than a Jew.

Jews in Britain are far more fortunate than in most other countries. Our contribution to British society, to business, the arts, culture and science is significant, and widely acclaimed. The next election may even produce a Jewish Prime Minister. We have also contributed, not just through our activities but also through our very presence, towards Britain becoming a successful multi-cultural society, possibly the most diverse and vibrant in the world. London is a polyglot society and Jews are just as much at home on its streets as any other race.

Yes, British Jews do have a problem with some Muslims in the UK, whose anti-Semitism is fuelled by propaganda from the Middle East. But this is a specific, clearly defined issue. It is not an example of British anti-Semitism.

There is a danger in exaggerating the impact of anti-Semitism in Britain. Not just because it frightens people unnecessarily. It diminishes the national culture. Every religious, ethnic or racial group receives adverse attention from time to time; Jews no more than any other. To suggest that we are somehow more discriminated against is to turn ourselves into victims, to stoke the self-fulfilling fires of anti-Jewish hatred. Playing the anti-Semitism card may sell newspapers. But more importantly, it encourages British Jews to lose sight of just how privileged and fortunate we are to live in a relatively tolerant and open society.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books