Cruel Britannia

By Robert S. Wistrich

Anti-Semitism in Britain has gone mainstream.

No less disturbing was the account given by the journalist Julie Burchill in an opinion piece published November 29, 2003, which explained why she was leaving the Guardian: Burchill, who is not Jewish, was dismayed by the British press’ “quite striking bias against the State of Israel.” (For all its faults, she retorted, Israel was still the “only country in that barren region that you or I, or any feminist, atheist, homosexual or trade unionist, could bear to live under.”)40 Burchill’s critique went beyond her own paper; she was particularly scathing about Richard Ingrams, a columnist for the Observer, who demanded that Jewish journalists declare their racial origins when writing about the Middle East. Ingrams told his readers: “I have developed a habit when confronted by letters to the editor to look at the signature to see if the writer has a Jewish name. If so, I tend not to read it.”41
This is not to say that the press makes no room for the occasional defense of the Israeli position—as the Guardian’s willingness to publish Burchill’s letter attests. Rather, the problem lies more in the perception that anti-Semitic canards, demonization of Israel, and the implicit endorsement of terrorism against Israeli civilians are considered legitimate in British reporting and commentary. This past May, for example, a new British play opened called My Name is Rachel Corrie, glorifying the young American activist who was killed in the Gaza Strip in 2003 while attempting to prevent a bulldozer from destroying a home used to supply Palestinian terror networks. Instead of challenging the play’s outright bias or raising the debate surrounding the play’s controversial moral perspective, theater critics hailed the play, comparing it with dramatizations of the lives of Primo Levi and Anne Frank.42
In the wholesale adoption of the Palestinian perspective and its anti-Semitic motifs, relatively little attention is paid to the extremist ideology, the culture of martyrdom, or the virulent anti-Semitism endemic in contemporary Islamism. Instead, suicide bombings against civilian targets are explained away as a product of the general misery induced by Israel’s policies. Such beliefs, for example, led the prime minister’s wife, Cherie Blair, to remark at a charitable event in London in June 2002 that young Palestinians “feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up.”43 She made the comment only hours after a Hamas suicide bomber blew up a bus packed full of Israelis, including schoolchildren—killing 19 and injuring dozens. And more recently, Jenny Tonge, a British legislator who was back-benched last year after expressing sympathies for Palestinian suicide bombers and comparing Arabs in Gaza to Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, was nominated to serve in the House of Lords.44 With major public figures in Britain expressing such opinions, it seems only natural that this country has even begun producing its own homegrown bombers—such as Asif Mohammed Hanif, a Briton who blew himself up in a Tel Aviv seaside bar in May 2003, killing three civilians and wounding scores of others.45
The mainstreaming of anti-Semitism and demonization of Israel is felt most acutely, however, in the public culture of the capital city of London. In the past decade, the United Kingdom’s undisputed political, economic, and cultural center has also become a major world center of political Islam and anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, and anti-American activism. Through its Arabic-language newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses, not to mention its flourishing network of bookshops, mosques, and community centers, radical Islam has taken full advantage of what British democracy has to offer for its anti-Western goals, reaping the benefits of London’s significance as a hub of global finance, electronic media, and mass communications technology.46 The effect of this with regard to anti-Semitism and virulent anti-Zionism has therefore been quite different from that found elsewhere in Europe: Although Britain’s Muslim population of about 1.5 million is only a quarter of that of France, the growing influence of London’s Muslims has given the most inflammatory of ideas a greater legitimacy in the capital’s political and cultural discourse than they enjoy virtually anywhere else.
Much of this energy has been directed at mobilizing Muslims to fight against Israel and America. The impassioned calls of Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, a leading Muslim cleric in London, to “celebrate” the September 11 attacks as a great moment in history and recruit Muslim youth for “holy war” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, have struck an emotional chord in the Muslim ghettos.47 This is less surprising when one recalls that 40 percent of British Muslims surveyed in a Sunday Times poll after 9-11 believed Osama bin Laden was “justified” in his war against America. They even supported those of their coreligionists from Britain who volunteered to fight with the Taliban against the Western allies.48 At the same time, Islamists like Al-Muhajiroun (“the Exiles”) spokesman Anjem Choudary regard Britain and the West as mere pawns, controlled by the “Zionists.” Israel is invariably portrayed as a “cancer in the heart of the Muslim world” to be eliminated only by radical surgery.49 Sheikh Bakri himself has warned Jews in Britain to avoid any support for Israel lest they “become targets for Muslims.”50 Al-Muhajiroun combines calls for “the black flag of Islam to fly over Downing Street” with demands for the liberation of Palestine and the jihadistdemand to “dejudaize the West.”51
This highly inflammable cocktail embracing Palestine, jihad, the dream of a worldwide caliphate, Koranic indoctrination, and classical Judeophobia, was exposed by the Old Bailey trial of Sheikh Abdallah el-Faisal, in February 2003. The cleric, a Jamaican convert to Islam educated in Saudi Arabia, was found guilty of inciting to murder and racial hatred on the basis of his lectures and videocassettes—some of them on sale at specialty bookshops in Britain—and sentenced to nine years in prison. Overwhelming evidence was produced at the trial to demonstrate his encouragement for a violent jihadto kill non-believers. Particular venom was reserved for the “filthy Jews.”52 In a spine-chilling speech which seemed to anticipate the May 2003 suicide mission of Hanif to Tel Aviv, el-Faisal ranted:
People with British passports, if you fly into Israel it is easy…. Fly into Israel and do whatever you can. If you die, you are up in Paradise. How do you fight a Jew? You kill a Jew.53
Such sentiments have long ceased to be limited to Muslim self-expression; the politics of London have begun to internalize the discourse of hate. In February of this year, the city’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, angrily compared a Jewish reporter for the Evening Standard to a concentration camp guard. Instead of later apologizing, Livingstone criticized the reporter’s employer for what he said was its history of racism, scare-mongering, and, oddly enough, anti-Semitism. Shortly thereafter, Livingstone published a piece in the Guardian claiming that Ariel Sharon “is a war criminal who should be in prison, not in office,” adding that “Israel’s own expansion has included ethnic cleansing.” Subsequently, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, responding to Jewish critics of the mayor, published an article on its web site entitled “Zionists Want Their Pound of Flesh.”54
Passions in London were further stirred by the recent election contest in the city’s Bethnal Green district, the second-most Muslim in Britain. The highly charged race pitted sitting Labor MP Oona King, a black Jewish woman, against George Galloway, a former Labor MP now representing the anti-war Respect Party, a blend of far-Left and Islamist politics (Galloway is currently under investigation by the United States government for involvement in the UN Oil-for-Food scandal).55 After youths threw eggs at King as she honored East End Jews killed in Nazi bombing raids, one young Muslim told the Daily Telegraph: “We all hate her. She comes here with her Jewish friends who are killing our people and then they come to our back-yards.”56 King lost by 823 votes.
Since the election, the climate in London has only grown more hostile. On May 21 of this year, a major rally was held in Trafalgar Square, with a crowd waving Palestinian flags and anti-Israel banners despite the heavy rain. Speakers included Palestinian representatives and local Muslim leaders, but most notable was the presence of non-Muslim public figures. Jeremy Corbyn, a backbench Labor MP, called for the British government to “cease all trade with Israel,” while Tony Benn, a former Labor MP and veteran of the British political scene, called George Bush and Ariel Sharon the “two most dangerous men in the world.” Paul Mackney, president of the country’s second-largest union of teachers, called for the widespread boycott of Israel by British academia, while Andrew Birgin of the Stop the War coalition demanded the dismantling of the Jewish state. “The South African apartheid state never inflicted the sort of repression that Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians,” he said to cries of allahu akbar! from the audience. “When there is real democracy, there will be no more Israel.”57
The rally’s most prominent speaker, however, was George Galloway, fresh from his election victory over Oona King. Galloway used the rally as an opportunity to launch an international boycott of Israel. “We will join them,” he said, referring to the Palestinians, “by boycotting Israel. By boycotting Israeli goods. By picketing the stores that are selling Israeli goods.” To cheers and applause, Galloway added, “It’s about time that the British government made some reparations for the Balfour Declaration.”58

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