Cruel Britannia

By Robert S. Wistrich

Anti-Semitism in Britain has gone mainstream.

Given the legitimacy that such rhetoric enjoys in Britain today, it should not surprise us to discover the emergence of efforts among the intellectual elites to convert their rhetoric of hate into action—principally through the boycotting of Jewish and Israeli products and people. It is these which have turned the public atmosphere in Britain into perhaps the most uncomfortable for Jews in all of Europe.
These include the much-publicized Mona Baker affair, which involved her removal of two Israeli colleagues from the board of a scientific publication. Baker claimed to have been inspired by the boycott initiative of two Anglo-Jewish academics, Steven Rose and his wife, Hilary. Supporters of the petition included the AUT, natfhe (the lecturers’ union), and over 700 academics. Matters escalated when Andrew Wilkie, a professor of pathology at Oxford University, flatly rejected the application of an Israeli student simply because of his nationality. On June 23, 2003, Wilkie told the student that he had “a huge problem with the way that Israelis take the moral high ground from their appalling treatment in the Holocaust, and then inflict gross human rights abuses on the Palestinians.”59 Oxford promptly slapped him with two months of unpaid leave, although the same institution has failed to take any action against Tom Paulin, a lecturer at Hertford College, who published a poem last year that likened the Israeli army to a “Zionist SS.”60
Matters only worsened this April, when the AUT, which has some 40,000 members, voted by sizable majorities to impose a boycott on two Israeli universities, Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa, in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. According to the AUT secretary general, this ban would “take the form described in the Palestinian call for academic boycott of Israeli institutions.” The rushed vote was held on Passover eve, preventing most Jewish members from taking part, and opponents of the motions were denied right of reply due to “lack of time.” Just before the vote, speakers addressing the AUT’s executive union meeting declared Israel a “colonial apartheid state, more insidious than South Africa,” and called for the “removal of this regime.” While some British institutions, such as Oxford, considered action to override the ban, in general it was international pressure, rather than repercussions within British society, that made the boycott a matter of serious controversy and ultimately led to its reversal a month later.61
Boycotts against Jews arouse painful associations. Attempts to remove Israeli products from Selfridges, Harrods, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, and other British chains, under the slogan “Isolate the Racist Zionist State,” are both a symptom and a rallying point for the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Britain.62 Demonstrators collect money and signatures, sell pamphlets comparing Ariel Sharon to Hitler, and shout slogans at passersby. One woman, Carol Gould, offered a telling example of her own experience of a demonstration outside the Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street, London, in November 2003. Gould described how the Moroccan conductor of her double-decker bus harangued his passengers about “all Marks & Spencer money that goes to the ‘Zionist murderers.’”63 Once outside the store, she encountered “an hysterical crowd of hate-filled people,” in which non-Arabs easily outnumbered those of Middle Eastern origin. One woman in religious Muslim attire was screaming, “You Jews destroyed my country, Iraq.” Others shouted, “You people invented terrorism in Palestine!”; “Israel is expanding every day and will soon own the whole Middle East!”; “Israel is slaughtering thousands of Palestinians every day!”64 An elegantly dressed English businessman told Gould: “I love and revere the suicide bombers. Every time I hear of a suicide bomb going off I wish it had been eighty or ninety Jews instead of a pitiful handful.”65
With this sort of sentiment polluting the refined British air, it is only natural that Great Britain has become a leading center of old-fashioned anti-Semitic violence as well. Violent assaults in the last two years increased by 77 percent (from 47 in 2002 to 83 in 2004) and the number of synagogue desecrations leapt as well, with serious attacks in Finsbury Park, Swansea, and Edinburgh.66 A near-tripling in anti-Semitic incidents in British schools prompted the National Union of Teachers to issue new guidelines in July 2003 for combating anti-Semitism.67 There were also acts of vandalism in the months following the American invasion of Iraq, such as the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in the East End of London, where more than 400 graves were smashed.68 More recently, in June of this year, particularly ugly desecrations took place in Manchester and London cemeteries. In both cases, nearly 100 gravestones were broken, toppled, or daubed with anti-Jewish slogans. And whereas Britain’s overall total of reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2004 was fewer than those in France by more than a third (532 compared with 970), the country’s much smaller Muslim population could suggest a far greater involvement in anti-Semitic violence on the part of non-Muslims.
All this is accompanied by a deterioration in British attitudes to Jews in the past decade. According to a poll conducted in September 1993, negative feelings towards Gypsies, Pakistanis, and other groups were markedly higher than they were towards Jews.69 Anti-Semitism in the early 1990s seemed like a negligible factor in British society. In 2005, much has changed for the worse. Between 15 and 20 percent of Britons might be defined as anti-Semitic according to a recent sampling by the Jewish Chronicle. As many as one in five Britons believe the Holocaust is “exaggerated”; a similar percentage would not vote for a Jewish prime minister, and a much higher number hold conventional anti-Semitic stereotypes about the link between Jews and money. As elsewhere in Western Europe, over 50 percent of Britons think Israel is the greatest danger to world peace.70
It needs to be emphasized that the old-new anti-Semitism in Britain is not the kind of hatred which prevailed in Europe sixty years ago. The emerging multi-cultural society of Great Britain will not tolerate cries of Sieg Heil, jackboots, or the openly racist mythology that was irrevocably stained by the Holocaust. Nor is British anti-Semitism “with the boots off” quite what it used to be. The classic blend of British aristocratic hauteur, bourgeois snobbery, and working-class dislike of “bloody foreigners” is no longer politically correct.
Still, anti-Semitism in Great Britain is especially worrisome. Whereas in other European countries, expressions of anti-Semitism tend to be relegated to the political extremes and the mostly Muslim immigrant communities, in Britain they seem to echo throughout the central corridors of society, turning classical myths of Jewish power and the demonization of Israel into a mainstay of polite discourse, permeating the political, cultural, academic, and media elites. In practice, increasingly virulent criticism of Israel has steadily converged with Jew-hatred; Sharon-bashing has led to the vilification of Jews and incitement to violence, even where no such goal was intended. Loathing for America and the West has provided its own poisonous additive. In this overheated atmosphere, occult myths of Jewish power have clearly revived. At the same time, anti-Semitism itself has mutated. As Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has judiciously observed, this mutation consists of attributing to Jews and the State of Israel the worst sins of anti-Semitism: Racism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and “crimes against humanity.” This attempt to “Nazify” Judaism, Zionism, and Israel may reasonably be considered, Sacks writes, as “one of the most blasphemous inversions in the history of the world’s oldest hate.”71
None of this is to say that British culture is inherently or overwhelmingly hostile to Jews. Great Britain, which was the birthplace of liberalism in its modern political and economic senses, continues to be a liberal society today, with a healthy democracy, a free press, and an independent judiciary dedicated to protecting individual liberties. Indeed, in the last several centuries, and through World War II, Great Britain was, relative to the rest of Europe at least, a model of tolerance. Nor does it follow that the Jews of the United Kingdom are about to enter a dark era of persecution or the curtailment of basic individual rights.
What it does suggest, however, is that the widely held image of Britain as a realm uniquely hospitable to its Jewish citizens—similar in this regard to the United States, Canada, and other English-speaking countries—no longer seems accurate. In dry numbers, Great Britain has become home to a wave of anti-Semitic violence second only to France in all of Europe. Considered more substantively, anti-Semitic sentiments, motifs, symbols, and methods have gained a legitimacy in British public discourse that enjoys little parallel in the Western world.
Today the United Kingdom stands at a crossroads. Great ideological battles—over European unification, the effort to reassert elements of sovereignty in Scotland and Wales, and the future of long-standing traditions such as hunting and the monarchy—have brought about a profound erosion of the very idea of Britain. But when nations are so deeply unsure of the stability of their values and the security of their future, anti-Semitic sentiment often bubbles to the surface, as people deflect blame for a nation’s problems instead of addressing them head-on. For this reason, it is often said that the way a nation treats its Jews is a litmus test for its true character. As Britain’s subjects ponder their future among the community of nations, they would do well to keep these lessons of the past in mind.

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.
1. “Harry Sorry for Nazi Uniform Stunt,” CNN.com, January 13, 2005, www.cnn.com/2005/world/europe/01/12/harry.nazi/.
2. “Harry Public Apology ‘Not Needed,’” BBC online, January 14, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4170623.stm.
3. “Young Brits Back Harry’s Costume, Although They Learn About Holocaust,” JTA, January 17, 2005, www.jta.org/page_view_story.asp?intarticleid=14933&intcategoryid=2.
4. See “Anti-Semitic Attacks Up 50 Percent,” Jerusalem Post Online, January 24, 2005, www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/Printer&cid=1106450585777&p=1078113566627; Community Security Trust Anti-Semitic Incidents Report (CST) 2004. In 2004, there were 970 serious anti-Semitic incidents in France, 532 in the United Kingdom, and just 295 in Russia and Ukraine combined. (See eumc report entitled “Racist Violence in 15 EU Member States,” April 2005, pp. 97, 148; “Report: Anti-Semitic Incidents Up in UK and France,” Haaretz online edition, January 21, 2005, www.haaretz.com/hasen/objects/pages/PrintArticleEn.jhtml?itemNo=530887.)
5. Melanie Phillips, “London: A Leftist Axis of Anti-Semitism,” Hadassah Magazine, September 4, 2003.
6. Colin Holmes, Anti-Semitism in British Society 1876-1939 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1979).
7. See the report by the Center Genealogy Institute, a branch of the Center for Jewish History, www.cjh.org/family/pdf/GreatBritain.pdf#search=’an%20introduction%20to%20jewish%20genealogy %20in%20great%20britain’.
8. See Claire Hirschfeld, “The British Left and the ‘Jewish Conspiracy’: A Case Study of Modern Anti-Semitism,” Jewish Social Studies (Spring 1981), pp. 105-107.
9. Sharman Kadish, Bolsheviks and British Jews: The Anglo-Jewish Community, Britain and the Russian Revolution (London: Frank Cass, 1992).
10. Gisela Lebzelter, Political Anti-Semitism in England 1918-1939 (London: Holmes & Meier, 1978), pp. 13-28. The London Times took the Protocols very seriously until its correspondent in Istanbul, Philip Graves, exposed it as a forgery in August 1921. See Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide (London: Penguin, 1970), pp. 78, 166-171.
11. See Henry Defries, Conservative Party Attitudes to Jews, 1900-1950 (London: Frank Cass, 2001). See also the review by Rory Miller in The Jewish Journal of Sociology, vol. 45, nos. 1 and 2 (2003), pp. 51-63.
12. See W.F. Mandle, Anti-Semitism and the British Union of Fascists (London: Longmans Green, 1968). See also Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918-1985 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987).
13. Tony Kushner, The Persistence of Prejudice: Anti-Semitism in British Society During the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester, 1989), pp. 78-133.
14. James G. McDonald, My Mission in Israel, 1948-1951 (London: Gollanz, 1951), pp. 22-24.
15. Richard Crossman, A Nation Reborn (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1960), pp. 69-72.
16. Crossman, A Nation Reborn, pp. 69-72.
17. Jewish Chronicle, August 8, 1947; see also August 15, 22, and 29 reports. Most of the British press did deplore the weekend violence.
18. See Benny Morris, The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, Palestine, and the Jews (London: Tauris, 2002), p. 23.
19. From a Glubb speech of May 6, 1949, quoted by Morris, The Road to Jerusalem, p. 23.
20. Morris, The Road to Jerusalem, pp. 81-82.
21. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), vol. 8 and vol. 12, p. 290. See also Yaacov Herzog, A People That Dwells Alone (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), pp. 21-47. Herzog convincingly refuted Toynbee’s claims in a 1961 debate at McGill University, Montreal.
22. Robert S. Wistrich, Hitler’s Apocalypse (New York: St. Martin’s, 1985), p. 228.
23. The News Line, June 11, 18, and 30, 1982; July 10, 1982.
24. Labor Herald, June 25, 1982, p. 7.
25. Roald Dahl, Literary Review (August 1983). The article was reprinted in the mass circulation Time Out (August 18-24, 1983).
26. Dahl, Literary Review.
27. New Statesman, August 26, 1983.
28. See the twenty-eight-page critical study by Trevor Asserson and Elisheva Mironi, The BBC and the Middle East, www.bbcwatch.com/old.html; and a thirty-nine-page BBC Watch report on the Iraq war, also by Asserson, at www.bbcwatch.com/fullReport3.htm. Both reports indicated a marked and consistent pro-Palestinian bias.
29. See “Friends Survive Bomb Terror,” www.bbc.co.uk, October 14, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/2328233.stm; “U.S. Urges Tunisia to Pursue Reform,” www.bbc.co.uk, December 2, 2003, http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/
; and “Mood of Defiance in Istanbul,” www.bbc.co.uk, November 21, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/3228422.stm.
30. See Bret Stephens, “Anti-Semitism in Three Steps,” Jerusalem Post, July 3, 2003.
31. Tzvi Fleischer, “Beeb Outdoes Itself,” The Review, September 2003, p. 8.
32. A.N. Wilson, “A Demon We Can’t Afford to Ignore,” Evening Standard, April 15, 2002. See also A.N. Wilson, “The Tragic Reality of Israel,” Evening Standard, October 22, 2001. In this article he basically repudiated Israel’s “right to exist,” called it an aggressor, and claimed that “it never was a state” and was in any case doomed to failure.
33. “The Battle for the Truth,” Guardian, April 17, 2002, lead editorial. After the release of the UN report, the Guardian pretended that its findings confirmed “what we said last April”—namely, that “the destruction in Jenin looked and smelled like a crime.” This is quite untrue. See the issue of August 2, 2002 for the paper’s self-justification.
34. Janine di Giovanni, “Inside the Camp of the Dead,” Times, April 16, 2002.
35. Phil Reeves, “Amid the Ruins, the Grisly Evidence of a War Crime,” Independent, April 16, 2002. The absurdity of this comparison can be easily exposed by a few basic facts: At least 100,000 Chechens have died in Russia’s brutal suppression of their fight for independence since the mid-1990s. In Bosnia between 1991 and 1995, 250,000 people were killed. The documented death toll in Jenin on both sides was about 80.
36. See Greg Barrow, “Jenin Report Reflects UN Dilemma,” BBC Online, August 1, 2003, http://.news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2166871.stm.
37. See Independent, January 27, 2003 (which is National Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain). The newspaper’s editor, Simon Kelner, is Jewish.
38. “Independent Cartoon Sparks Protests Over ‘Anti-Semitism,’” Jewish Chronicle, January 31, 2003.
39. Editorial, “Cartoon Jews,” Jerusalem Post, December 1, 2003.
40. Julie Burchill, “Good, Bad and Ugly,” Guardian, November 29, 2003. Burchill made it clear she did not swallow “the modern libel line that anti-Zionism is entirely different from anti-Semitism.”
41. Burchill, “Good, Bad and Ugly.”
42. Yaakov Lappin, “Corrie Compared to Anne Frank,” Jerusalem Post, May 9, 2005. Writing in The British Theater Guide, Philip Fisher compared the Corrie play to Anthony Sher’s dramatization of the life of Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1944: “Like Sir Antony Sher’s ‘Primo,’ ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ is a remarkably moving 90-minute solo piece about human dignity and suffering. Corrie was little more than a girl and while she could be naïve, she also had a saintly aspect, meeting death with the beatific happiness of a martyr.”
43. The Independent, June 19, 2002 and the Guardian, June 19, 2002, predictably defended Mrs. Blair. See Jonathan Freedland, Mirror, June 20, 2003, for a more nuanced view; also Trevor Kavanagh, Sun, June 20, 2003, who rubbished Mrs. Blair’s remarks and denounced “the brainwashed suicide zombies [who] want to wipe the State of Israel off the map of the Middle East….” See also “Cherie Blair’s Suicide Bomb Blunder,” Times, June 19, 2002; and “What Cherie Really Thinks,” Daily Telegraph, June 19, 2002, which reminded Mrs. Blair that “hope” rather than “despair” motivated the martyrs; first, the hope they would go to heaven if they murdered Jews; second, the hope they would destroy Israel; and third, the hope that their families would receive a $25,000 reward from the Iraqi and Saudi governments.
44. Michael Freund, “Fired MP Nominated to House of Lords,” Jerusalem Post, May 10, 2005.
45. Another example is the case of Omar Sheikh, a young Anglo-Pakistani terrorist and former London School of Economics student who masterminded the gruesome beheading of the American-Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi in February 2002. Sheikh, a well-educated “Englishman” from a comfortable middle-class immigrant family, is as much the child of British culture as of radical Islam. Once he had metamorphosed into a Muslim militant, hating Jews, reading Mein Kampf, and quoting the Koran fused into a seamless web. Omar Sheikh was radicalized in the mid-1990s by the Bosnian massacres in Europe. His militancy was reinforced by a spell in the Afghan training camps of al-Qaida and by his return to Pakistan—a major ferment of Islamic fundamentalism and a hotbed of “anti-Semitism without Jews.” Currently, he is on death row in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. For a compelling portrait of Omar Sheikh’s passage from “perfect Englishman” to Islamist architect of a barbaric murder (in which Pearl’s Jewishness played a key role), see Bernard-Henri Lévy, Who Killed Daniel Pearl? (Hoboken, NJ: Melville, 2003), pp. 101-210.
46. See Dominique Thomas, Londistan: The Voice of Jihad (Paris: Éditions Michalon, 2003), pp. 129-146. [French] See also Alexandre Del Valle, The Assault of Islamist Totalitarianism on Democracy (Paris: Éditions des Syrtes, 2002), pp. 227-247. [French]
47. For Omar Bakri’s Salafist (fundamentalist) ideology, see Thomas, Londistan, pp. 187-197. For his position on Israel and Jews, see Robert S. Wistrich, “Muslims, Jews, and 9/11,” in Paul Iganski and Barry Kosmin, eds., A New Anti-Semitism? Debating Judeophobia in Twenty-First-Century Britain (London: Profile, 2003), pp. 169ff. Al-Muhajiroun’s ultimate goal is global hegemony for Islam after the defeat of the West and the establishment of a single, unified Islamic Caliphate under Muslim law.
48. Farrukh Dhondy, “An Islamic Fifth Column,” Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2001.
49. BBC Online, October 14, 2000.
50. Message of October 2, 2000 on Palestine and the Islamic ruling to Muslims. See Wistrich, “Muslims, Jews, and 9/11,” p. 181.
51. See Del Valle, The Assault, pp. 243-245. For the rage of young British Muslims over the “Jewish conquerors” in Palestine, see Fuad Nahdi, Guardian, May 2, 2003. Nahdi lists “the expansion of illegal Jewish settlements,” “colonial-era racism,” “apartheid-style zoning laws,” Jewish control of Islam holy places and the plight of the refugees. Typical of this distorted litany is the refusal to acknowledge any Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian responsibility.
52. See Wistrich, “Muslims, Jews and 9/11,” pp. 178-179. I was able to see transcripts of the interviews el-Faisal and his wife gave in the course of acting as historical adviser to the Channel 4 documentary Blaming the Jews (June 27, 2003). I also viewed some of the cassettes and other material relating to the trial. My thanks to the film’s executive producer, Roger Bolton, for making this material available to me.
53. “Muslim Cleric Guilty of Soliciting Murder,” Guardian, February 24, 2003.
54. See Ken Livingstone, “This Is About Israel, Not Anti-Semitism,” Guardian, March 4, 2005; and “Zionists Want Their Pound of Flesh,” February 24, 2005, www.mpacuk.org/content/view/369.
55. David Leigh and David Pallister, “Iraq Oil Cash Funded MPs’ Campaigns,” Guardian, February 17, 2004.
56. Richard Alleyne, “Jewish MP Pelted with Eggs at War Memorial,” Daily Telegraph, April 11, 2005.
57. Yaakov Lappin, “Speakers at London Rally Call for Israel’s Destruction,” Jerusalem Post, May 22, 2005. Birgin later clarified that he was referring to Israel “in the sense that it exists now,” which in his view should be replaced with a “democratic secular state in which peace can move forward.”
58. Lappin, “Call for Israel’s Destruction.”
59. Robin Shepherd, “Blind Hatred,” Jerusalem Post, September 29, 2004.
60. See Neil Tweedie, “Oxford Poet ‘Wants US Jews Shot,’” April 13, 2002, www.telegraph.co.uk, http://news.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2002/04/13/npauli13.xml&sSheet=/news/2002/04/13/ixnewstop.
61. Yaakov Lappin and Talya Halkin, “Israel Fumes at UK Academics’ Boycott,” Jerusalem Post, April 22, 2005; Fania Oz-Salzberger, “Israelis Need Not Apply,” Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2005.
62. Anat Koren, “Israeli Hate Campaign Hits London’s Streets,” Supplement, London Jewish News, September 2002. Slogans like “Do not buy from Marks & Spencer” recall the Nazi catchwords of 1933, “Don’t buy from Jews.”
63. “I wish Eighty or Ninety Jews Would Die with Each Bomb,” editorial, jewishcomment.com, November 30, 2003, www.jewishcomment.com/cgibin/news.cgi?id=11&command=shownews&newsid=569.
64. “I Wish Eighty or Ninety Jews Would Die with Each Bomb.”
65. “I Wish Eighty or Ninety Jews Would Die with Each Bomb.” A policewoman finally booked this individual after he screamed: “You people have been trying to acquire land across the entire globe and will soon own every nation if you are not stopped!”
66. “The New Anti-Semitism,” in CST (London, 2002), pp. 12-13. See also CST (London, 2005), which indicated a sharp and alarming rise to 532 anti-Semitic incidents in 2004, the highest number ever recorded.
67. “Teaching Union Responds to Rise in Anti-Semitism,” Jewish Chronicle, July 18, 2003.
68. Paul Callan, “Why Are Jews the Victims Once Again?” Daily Express, May 26, 2003.
69. See Jennifer Golub, British Attitudes Towards Jews and Other Minorities, Working Papers on Contemporary Anti-Semitism (New York: The American Jewish Committee, 1993). Only 7 percent of Britons at that time believed Jews had “too much” influence or behaved in a way that could provoke hostility to them.
70. See ICM Remembrance Day Poll, January 2004, www.icmresearch.co.uk/reviews/2004/jc-jewish-poll-jan-2004.asp. Also see Douglas Davis, “Poll: 18% of Britons ‘Moderately Anti-Semitic,’” Jerusalem Post Online, January 23, 2004, www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=JPost/JPArticle/Printer&cid=1074841785670; “British Consider Israel ‘Biggest Threat to World Peace,’” www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_835022.html.
71. Jonathan Sacks, “A New Anti-Semitism?” in Iganski and Kosmin, eds., A New Anti-Semitism? p. 46.

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