Antisemitism in the UK
Many minorities are said to be ‘the new Jews’ because of the hate and bigotry they face. But this can sometimes ignore how Jews are still ‘the new Jews’. Antisemitism has become a serious problem in the UK since 2008. This article will attempt to analyse the reasons why.
The rise in antisemitism cannot be separated from the consequences of the 2008 crisis, which legitimized every form of racism and bigotry in British society, and the all-out assault on minorities since 2016. The weak, unstable and short-lived governments which imposed austerity also introduced and strengthened punitive anti-immigrant policies. Xenophobia and racism surged even more in 2016 following Brexit and the US election. While Brexit cannot purely be explained by racism, the referendum outcome legitimised existing anti-immigrant policies, stoking extreme nationalism and myths of going ‘forward to the past’. A common sentiment was ‘we voted for you to go home’.
2018 saw a ‘scandal’ involving the deportation of thousands of people who came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s from the Commonwealth and held British passports – or had the ‘right to remain’ – a ‘right’ which means nothing for those chewed up and spat out by the UK state. The Home Office even produced a ‘guide to Jamaica’ for long-term residents who had not been there in decades, advising deportees to ‘adopt a Jamaican accent’. Disability hate crimes have soared in the years following 2008, due to marginalization and lack of support, social stigma and years of tabloid and state rhetoric about ‘scroungers’. With the housing crisis, soaring homelessness and extortionate rental costs, lack of job security and ability to save, the ripping out of the social safety net and the terrifying speed of climate change, we are all looking at a ‘cancelled future’.
Antisemites too are increasingly organised, confident and empowered.
The Community Security Trust, which monitors and records antisemitic incidents, recorded its worst ever number in 2017 at 1,382 (see p.4 of link), beating 2016 and 2015, which were both also ‘the highest on record’. Most of these incidents involve verbal harassment and abuse in the street, but also include property damage and violence. The recorded number for January to June 2018 is down on 2017, making it ‘only’ the second worst year ever, with around a hundred incidents recorded every month. A 2013 EU report showed 21% of Jews in the UK suffered harassment in the last 12 months (p. 6). Most hate crimes in the UK go unreported, suggesting the true incidence is far higher. The CST reported 145 violent assaults in 2017 (p.6) – with charges brought in less than a tenth of cases.
It is impossible to believe the incessant claims of antisemites to ‘just be criticizing Israel’, when one considers that antisemitism has returned with such viciousness as a political force when Jews are more critical of Israel than ever. Even the Board of Deputies of British Jews, notorious for being a conservative and slow-moving body, was among those criticizing Netanyahu’s new law enshrining religious discrimination into the constitution. This would have been unthinkable twelve years ago, when they organized poorly attended demos supporting Israeli stances. The Movement for Reform Judaism have criticised Israel’s prohibition on non-orthodox and secular marriages and ban on women praying at the Wall, and have taken part in protests against religious discrimination. Groups such as Jewdas are vocal in criticizing Israel’s policies against the Palestinians. Any view of Jews as ‘zionists’ unable to handle criticism of Israel has no basis in reality.
As the pro-Corbyn left enjoy pointing out, antisemitism exists in all political parties. Examples include Tory MP Aidan Burley who dressed up as an SS officer at a dinner party, and members of a Conservative Association at Oxford University singing Nazi songs and making ‘gas chamber jokes’. Lib Dems who have made antisemitic statements include Jenny Tonge and David Ward. David Icke was a Green Party spokesman in the 1990s; other ex-members have included Tony Gosling and the Holocaust denier Nick Kollerstrom. UKIP has shed its previous attempts at respectability politics to embrace the extreme right. Yet Labour under Corbyn has been hit by more accusations of enabling and covering up antisemitism than any other party. Corbyn supporters, with some justification, ask why he is being singled out for this criticism. Many, but not all internal critics of Corbyn have views substantially to the right of the leadership, and suspicion has arisen that these accusations are part of a ‘Blairite coup’.
Corbyn is not entirely responsible for how this situation has developed. His widespread popularity has ensured people on the fringes of anti-capitalist scenes, often attracted to conspiratorial views, have drifted into supporting or joining Labour. Any popular left-wing leader in the UK would have attracted the support of antisemites and would have struggled to tackle this problem, let alone one with Corbyn’s long history of questionable acquaintances. The organized far left in Britain has suffered defeat after defeat, and is largely invisible outside student activism and the public sector. When a popular leader finally achieves mainstream success with something resembling ideas they’ve devoted their lives to, some people see the mildest criticism as ‘sabotage’. This is exacerbated by the authoritarian, cult-like atmosphere common on the left, with party leaders using ‘democratic centralism’ to stay in power forever. The exposure of previous ‘scandals’ such as the ‘Comrade Delta’ rape case, was met with outrage and desperate attempts at a cover-up, with the SWP holding a ‘trial’ by themselves rather than facing exposure in the ‘bourgeois courts’. Now the stakes are higher, with the possibility of real political power for the first time in decades and the chance to ‘make the left great again’.
The nearest parallel to leftist antisemitism is probably leftist transphobia and ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminism’ (TERF ideology). TERFs use feminist language combined with conspiratorial rhetoric about a ‘trans lobby’ controlling the medical establishment and media. They claim ‘women and girls’, especially lesbians, are oppressed by ‘privileged’ trans women who ‘force their way into women’s spaces’ such as bathrooms. TERFs say they are ‘gender critical’, often proclaiming a ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’ ideology, and have won support among trade unionists, anarchists and the extra-parliamentary left, despite the well-documented links of TERF groups to the US far right. The furious denials from ‘moderate, reasonable’ people with ‘good politics’ that TERF arguments are based on bigotry, and their demands trans people take part in dishonest ‘debates’, should be familiar to anyone who has experienced antisemitism.
Leftists sometimes assume ‘fascist’ ideas are ‘far right’ economically, and socialists cannot be bigoted by definition. But most modern European antisemitism views Jews as powerful, rich, and evil. These beliefs can coexist with opposition to capitalism, believing there should be more money for the poor, investment in the health service, and so on; you can oppose and campaign against injustice while believing ‘the Jews did it’. There are only around 200,000 Jews in the UK, meaning many people have never met one, making stereotypes hard to challenge. Slogans associated with ‘the left’ are routinely employed by neo-Nazis, with banned terrorist group National Action vandalising a Jewish memorial in 2015 with slogans such as ‘1%’ and ‘bankers’. The NSDAP itself produced pamphlets encouraging a vote for Hitler to ‘bring down the system’ so the working class could take control.
Conspiracy theories are often seen as harmless and fun, and have gained mainstream popularity through being packaged as entertainment. However, they are an insidious way of spreading hate, fake history and pseudoscience. Conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds and the Illuminati proliferate on social media, often spread by professionals like David Icke, who has promoted the Tsarist-era forgery the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As described in Norman Cohn’s book ‘Warrant for Genocide’, the Protocols purports to show a Jewish conspiracy and helped provide Hitler and the NSDAP with a justification for the Holocaust. Icke has worked with celebrities such as Russell Brand and hosted debates with the Canary editor Kerry Anne Mendoza, performed at music festivals around the world and been given sympathetic interviews on popular internet news outlets. Antisemitic conspiracy theorists deliberately present an image of themselves as being harmless cranks, thus avoiding serious opposition.
Discussions of antisemitism in the UK often overlook English nationalist mythology regarding World War II and the British Empire. English nationalism centres around WWII, Churchill and ‘Britain standing alone’ against ‘the Germans’, which often ‘stand in’ for modern-day Germany and the EU. This attitude trivialises the Holocaust and contrasts with state and media glorification of the British Empire and refusal to acknowledge the UK’s crimes, including against Jews. These include the infamous ‘blood libel’ myth of Jews drinking children’s blood, originating with the death of William of Norwich in 1144, and the ‘Edict of Expulsion’ by Edward I in 1290. This WWII obsession goes with a myth that the UK is more ‘generous’ towards immigrants, ‘less racist’ and ‘less antisemitic’ than other countries. The English nationalist attitude to Germany can be summed up in the phrase ‘two world wars and one world cup’, and Germans in the UK themselves face xenophobia.
As the last generation of Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans die out, post-Nazi social taboos about open antisemitism have lessened. In the world of ‘alternative facts’ online, deniers can easily portray the Holocaust as a myth. The UK’s failure to face up to its past, its glorification of the war, and the impression given by popular culture that the UK went to war to protect Jews against Hitler, fuels accusations that Jews are distorting and exaggerating the Holocaust, perhaps even starting it themselves. The SWP once did a ‘Sean Spicer’ on the Holocaust, mentioning every group to be killed except Jews. Jews are accused of ignoring Hitler’s other victims and those of other genocides, although it is not ‘Jews’ doing this, but nationalist British politicians. Holocaust memorial events organised by Jews, while being religious commemorations, emphasise non-Jews killed by the Nazis, other genocides in history and the importance placed in Judaism on resisting hate.
International developments also influence conditions in the UK. The 2008 crisis and the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ since the outbreak of war in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East have acted as a catalyst for the extreme right across Europe. Many far-right parties are now in coalition governments. Hungarian and Polish neo-Nazis are active in the UK and leading figures from Hungary’s Jobbik such as Gabor Vona have spoken at events in London. Hungary and Poland are examples of authoritarian right-wing governments who discriminate against Jews and promote antisemitic campaigns on social media, and politicians from Ukraine and Romania have also made bigoted remarks. The Polish government made a law forbidding criticism of the country’s war record or stating Poles participated in the Holocaust, and Hungary has passed ‘Stop Soros’ laws preventing citizens from helping refugees, with George Soros depicted in a stereotypical Jewish way. Recently, Soros was blamed by the Telegraph for a ‘plot to stop Brexit’.
Mainstream and far-left groups in Europe have also embraced anti-migrant, islamophobic and antisemitic sentiments; this often comes with pro-Assad stances on Syria and the idea Syrian rebels are all ‘jihadis funded by Saudi Arabia and Israel’. Iran’s Press-TV has promoted Holocaust denial and ideas of a Jewish conspiracy as it uses Israeli state racism as a cudgel to attack Jews; Corbyn has been criticised for his repeated appearances on the channel. Russian disinformation campaigns to support Assad and Western ‘populist’ candidates have been covered in depth and do not need to be mentioned in detail here, but RT is popular and has employed antisemitic conspiracy theorists such as Tony Gosling. But Putin’s opponents sometimes play into such tropes by exaggerating Russian influence and ascribing dissent in British society to ‘foreign money’ and a ‘Russian conspiracy’ to undermine our society and values. The Economist’s depiction of Putin as an octopus tightening its grip around the world is an example of how these ideas are unthinkingly repeated.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 provided a beacon and an inspiration for the extreme right. It’s hard to see accusations of bigotry as a ‘nuclear bomb’, when the president of the world’s most powerful country, and the UK’s most important ally, tweets racist things every day and rants about ‘shithole countries’. Trump has rarely (!) been openly antisemitic, despite using antisemitic dog-whistles in his campaign, and the Trump administration includes Jews such as Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner. But in 2017, neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’, killed one anti-fascist protester and threatened worshippers at a synagogue, while Trump criticised anti-fascists and talked about ‘right and wrong on many, many sides’. Trump has made the unacceptable acceptable even for his leftist opponents, none of whom are immune to prejudice. His constant incitements to hatred, instantly visible on social media, create a ‘hostile environment’ for every minority and embolden fascists and white supremacists worldwide.
Antisemitism in the UK is now an extremely serious social problem. It has been enabled by both the far right and left, as well as sections of the media and political establishment. Inaction on the left and a willingness to ignore and cover for antisemitic discourse has resulted in its widespread acceptance, as a resurgent far right takes power across Europe. Rather than concerning prosecco-sipping socialites earning more than 70k a year, antisemitism kills and hurts vulnerable people. In this it resembles transphobia, also dismissed as something only ‘millennials’ with ‘first world problems’ care about.
Many Jewish people have now lost all faith in the organised left and view socialist movements with mistrust. The left must not just cry about being ‘smeared’ and close ranks around their political leaders, but do something. They can start by challenging hate from ‘comrades’, examining their own behaviour, listening to people and believing their experiences, instead of saying, ‘Well actually, it’s about Israel,’ while ignoring naked antisemitism. If they really want to ‘condemn all forms of racism’, they must drive out bigotry and hate from their own ranks. Until then they are just another set of lying politicians.