Cruel Britannia

By Robert S. Wistrich

Anti-Semitism in Britain has gone mainstream.

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n January 13, 2005, the London Sun published a photograph of Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, dressed in Nazi regalia at a birthday party. Expressions of dismay came from many quarters, including Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative Party, and the heads of many British Jewish communal organizations, who widely expected a full-throated public apology.
The response was not what they expected. The prince, a twenty-year-old raised in the reserve of royalty and acutely aware of the resonance of public symbols in the media, chose the most limited of apologies—a brief statement read by his spokesman, declaring only that “Prince Harry has apologized for any offense or embarrassment he has caused. He realizes it was a poor choice of costume.”1 No mention of the Holocaust, nor even any indication of whether his apology was directed at Jews, or—equally plausibly—at the memory of fallen British servicemen. Moreover, when Jewish leaders called upon the prince to make a more sincere effort, such as a public appearance explicitly acknowledging his insensitivity, they were swiftly drowned out by British elites saying that the poor fellow ought to be left alone. “I don’t think he needs to make a public apology,” said Lord Falconer, who holds the title of lord chancellor, one of the senior positions in the House of Lords, and is a close adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “I think already he must understand what has happened and I think that should be the end of it.”2 According to one poll, more than half of British adults ages 18 to 24 “could see no problem with the outfit.”3
Taken in isolation, one could find reasons to ignore both the incident itself and the general reluctance of the British establishment to condemn it. Yet it comes at a time when anti-Semitism has emerged as a serious problem in Britain, turning in just a few years from a public nuisance into something of a crisis. According to the annual report of the Community Security Trust, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, 2004 was the worst year of anti-Semitic violence, vandalism, and harassment since the group began keeping statistics in 1996. These numbers include 83 physical assaults (up from 54 in 2003, or a 54-percent increase) and 365 acts of abusive or threatening behavior (up from 233 in 2003, or a 57-percent increase). All told, the group recorded 532 serious anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in 2004—more than double the 228 recorded in 1996, and a rise of over 40 percent from the previous year. In absolute numbers, Great Britain is today second only to France in serious anti-Semitic incidents reported among European countries—with Russia a distant third.4
Yet Britain is unusual not simply in the frequency and severity of anti-Semitic incidents. While many European countries have come to associate anti-Semitism with the forces of either the extreme Right, radical Left, or the increasingly vocal Muslim minorities, in Britain anti-Semitic sentiment is a part of mainstream discourse, continually resurfacing among the academic, political, and media elites. Indeed, while a great deal of attention has been focused on anti-Semitism—often masquerading under the banner of anti-Zionism—across Western Europe in the past few years, and especially in France, in some ways British anti-Semitism is more prevalent, and enjoys greater tolerance in public life, than in any other country in Europe. While the French state, for example, has marshaled its resources to fighting anti-Semitic words and actions, with greater or lesser success, in Britain the response has been far less decisive, its public denunciations frequently unsupported by institutional or government sanction.
There are many possible explanations for the unusual quarter that anti-Semitism in Britain enjoys. Whereas the efforts to combat anti-Semitism in France and Germany are intimately connected with the memory of the Holocaust that took place on their soil, Britain has never had to undergo a similar kind of soul-searching. At the same time, London has become a world center for Muslim anti-Semitism and the demonization of Jews and Israel that accompanies it. As Melanie Phillips, the Daily Mail columnist, wrote two years ago, “It is not an exaggeration to say that in Britain at present it is open season on both Israel and the Jews… I no longer feel comfortable in my own country because of the poison that has welled up toward… the Jews.”5 In a country such as Britain, with its proud history of tolerance, moderation, and multi-culturalism, this is indeed a damning indictment. Unless something significant changes, the United Kingdom risks becoming the country where anti-Semitism has the freest rein, and where Jews feel the least secure, in all of Europe.

Robert S. Wistrich holds the Neuberger Chair in Modern European History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is director of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism.

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