Jewish Angst in Albion

By David Landau

(C) reprinted with the permission of Haaretz Daily (English)

 

Signs of leftist and Islamist anti-Semitism are rife in Britain these days, and the Jewish community is worried. But many are equally concerned that fear isblurring the line between hatred of Jews and legitimate criticism of Israel.

"I would have stood up in a court of law and sworn these people did not have a racist bone in their bodies." Stephen Pollard, a well-known left-of-center writer and broadcaster, and a Jew, was describing a group of his closest, oldest Gentile friends sitting together recently at a dinner party.

"Suddenly, one of them said, 'I'm boycotting Israeli goods.' I challenged her: 'Do you mean Jewish goods?' 'No,' she replied, 'Israeli.' I asked: 'What about Dixon's [the high-street electronics chain owned by a prominent UK Jewish philanthropist and Zionist, Sir Stanley Kalms]?' ' Yes, she agreed, she would boycott Dixon's, too. And then it came pouring out. 'You all stick together - always going on about the Holocaust. Stephen, you're the same as the rest of them: You only defend Israel because you're Jewish.' The others all took her side. 'Why don't you leave her alone. She's only saying what we think.' I felt nauseated and shocked. I had been living in a dream world."

Anglo-Jewry's dream world has been jolted twice over: once by the intifada, and then by September 11. The left-liberal media (The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC, the New Statesman) are scathing in their criticism of Israel. Spokesmen for Britain' two million-strong Muslim community are virulent in their attacks on the Jewish state and on its supporters. London's chattering classes are reportedly making uninhibitedly anti-Semitic remarks at dinner parties. The Jews lump all thesetogether - and are worried.

"You can't always see [anti-Semitism]," Lord Greville Janner, the veteran Labour politician quotes his father, Barnett Janner - both were prominent leaders of British Jewry - "but you can always smell it." Lord Janner does not like the smell of some fellow members of the House of Lords addressing him as "you people." In his 27 years in the House of Commons, he says, "I don't remember anyone ever saying that. And it is spreading. The anti-Israel media have taken on board the Arab propaganda line that September 11 was partly due to Muslim suffering, caused by Israel."

To Lord Janner, it is "totally excellent" that Jewish journalists like Melanie Phillips of The Daily Mail and Barbara Amiel of The Daily Telegraph are aggressively fighting back, exposing instances of "salon anti-Semitism," pillorying Islamist Jew-hatred. To Anthony Julius, the lawyer who acted for Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books in the David Irving Holocaust-denial trial, it is absurdly exaggerated and misguided, an example of "Diaspora narcissism."

Between those parameters of Jewish angst, a well-ordered community of some 275,000 generally well-heeled and well-educated Jews is looking for a new equilibrium in a worrisomely changing Britain.

"What has been challenged is our comfort of having a foot in both worlds," says Jo Wagerman, the first woman president in the 240-year history of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Anglo-Jewry's quasi-parliament. "We had reached a kind of Golden Age: integration with the great British Protestant values without requiring assimilation on our part." Wagerman's own family dates back to the Jews' return to Britain under Oliver Cromwell, in 1656. [From 1290, when they were expelled, until 1656, Jews were barred from Britain.] "But one is very aware," she sighs, "that recently, Britain isn't the same."

Disproportionate Importance

Anglo-Jewry's battles with what has become known here as the "New Anti-Semitism" are more important for Jewry as a whole, and for Israel, than the relatively modest size of this community would warrant. This is because of the special resonance and significance of the British press, the relatively large size of the UK Muslim community, and because of a disturbing symbiosis that could easily develop between a crusading Anglo-Jewry, convinced it is taking up the cudgels on Israel's behalf - and Israel itself.

The facts, relating to both forms of the New Anti-Semitism - the leftist and the Islamist - are starkly incontrovertible. Any criticism or controversy focuses on interpretations and conclusions to be drawn from the evidence, not - except perhaps at the most perversely obtuse (and usually Jewish) margins - on the welter of evidence itself. Perhaps the most cogent, and in a way the saddest, adducers of the evidence are the unwavering doves who, despite what they read and see and hear - indeed, because of all that - refuse to suspend their critical faculties as Jews and as supporters of Israel.

Says Lady Ellen Dahrendorf, chair of the New Israel Fund's British branch: "Muslim anti-Semitism here is not a legend, nor is the traditional anti-Semitism of the extreme left. It's all true. We have all been shocked by statements of disaffection made by UK Muslims and by their failure to speak out against extremism. Plus, at the end of the day, the threat against Israel is real, too. But if I let A.N. Wilson determine what I say and think, then where will we be?!"

Wilson, an acclaimed novelist and historian, wrote baldly in The Evening Standard in October that "The logic of supporting the Palestinians is to question the very right of the State of Israel to exist. It is to that bitterly sad conclusion that the policy of [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon has driven so many of us. Of course, we do not want the Israelis to be 'driven into the sea.' But the 1948 experiment, claiming the 'Israelis' had the 'right' to exist as a state just because a few brave terrorists such as Menachem Begin killed some British army officers - this was lazy thinking."

Ellen Dahrendorf carefully clips and files such articles. They create fear in the community, she says, "and fear works against nuance." Crass anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel are blurred, indeed fused, together as a simplistic defensive mechanism kicks in.

"In large sections of the Jewish community, subtle distinctions are not made. It’s wrong to argue that our criticism [of Israel] feeds such people as Wilson. Extremists like him will always find their ammunition anyway. What might, however, actually feed anti-Semitism is an absolute defense of Israel-right-or-wrong, because Jews would be seen as defending the indefensible.

"I feel that people in the non-Jewish world are more prepared to listen to [Jews] who criticize Israel’s policies in the territories while defending Israel’s bottom line. We need to persist – first, because decent people in Israel need that kind of support, and second, because of our own moral duty to be honest."

Constructing a Defense

Linda Grant, a Jewish and Zionist writer on The Guardian, wrote in a similar vein last month. She meticulously chronicled the gruesome growth of Muslim anti-Semitism through the Durban conference, the post-September 11 calumnies and beyond, and she castigated the current fusion of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. "Many Jews now feel they are being made the scapegoats for a complex phenomenon combining globalization, the rise of fundamentalism, oil interests, anti-Americanism and Middle East politics – that if a third world war begins it will, as usual, be blamed on ‘the Jews.’"

But she continued: "As a British Jew, I can offer some ways in which some of us can begin to construct a defense against anti-Semitism. It would involve the left realigning itself, ceasing the demonization of the Jewish majority who defend Israel’s existence; making alliances with Jews, such as those who support Peace Now and Gush Shalom. Both the left and British Muslims would have to begin to recognize the massive rise of anti-Semitism in the Muslim and Arab worlds for what it is: anti-Semitism rather than any cogent analysis of the problems of the Middle East."

Jonathan Freedland, also of The Guardian, made the same argument in his column in the Jewish Chronicle. "The best possible support for Israel right now is not "solidarity’ but clear, vocal criticism. Such a stance may be essential for the Zionist cause itself [to persuade] fair-minded British citizens that Zionism and the occupation are not synonymous."

Perhaps the most passionate media depiction of the New Anti-Semitism, and of this line of nuanced defense, came from writer Howard Jacobson, writing in The Evening Standard in the wake of the disclosure that the French ambassador had spoken of Israel at a dinner party as "that shitty little country."

"Suddenly," Jacobson began, "it doesn’t feel safe to be a Jew again. Is Israel the problem or the pretext? Impossible to know, but once again the tape of historical consequences is being rewound, and once again it is being stopped, where it has stopped so many times before: at us. Or, at least in this instance, at Israel – a version of us, and the underlying cause, as some would have it, of the religious disturbances threatening us all."

Jacobson went on to describe "a certain grinding, low level of anti-Semitism you learn to live with. A few years ago my grandmother’s grave was defaced with swastikas." He ended with this chillingly powerful comment: "It reminds you of the sediment of hate and irrationality waiting at the bottom of society.

Activation of it will come from somewhere else. Someone ascribing the world's ills to that 'shitty little country,' or someone else wondering aloud whether Jews should ever have been allowed to found that shitty little country in the first place."

But Jacobson, too, stressed that "to be a friend of Israel is to want her to survive, yes, but to want her to survive honorably. To see settlers pointing to the Bible with their rifle butts, finding justification for what they have stolen in holy writ, is to despair for Israelis no less than for Palestinians."

Zionism was never meant to look like this. And it is not anti-Jewish to say so. In fact, nearly all the Jews of my acquaintance say nothing else." Peter Mandelson, the former minister and still Tony Blair's close confidant, also strives to strike that balance. "Yes, we have been shaken by the young Muslims siding with extreme expressions of their faith," he says. "We assumed they shared our norms. It's unsettling. And yes, there probably are less inhibited comments about Jews at dinner parties. I don't myself attend many. But to what extent is all criticism [of Israel] anti-Semitism? I, for instance, have praised Suzanne Goldenberg [The Guardian correspondent in Israel, often attacked by UK Jews as anti-Israel]. She is not an anti-Semite. I, too, say the Israeli policy of closures is a disaster. And I have written it in The Guardian."

Mandelson, whose father was Jewish, does not define himself as Jewish but says his Jewish-sounding name may have drawn down on him some particularly nasty-sounding slurs during his various past personal and political battles. Mandelson says he is not conscious of any sense among politicians that UK Islam could be growing into a political force, with the voter-clout to swing a not-insignificant number of constituencies. He does recall, though, having vaguely heard or read of a senior minister pointedly mentioning the fact that he has 49 mosques in his constituency. Lord Janner believes Muslim political influence will grow quickly. "This is still a new community and therefore not, yet, so influential." Prof. David Cesarani, a leading Anglo-Jewish academic, also speaks of the "growing voting power" of the Muslims.

In-Your-Face Media

As against the nuanced, "No, but" approach toward the New Anti-Semitism, some British journalists and public figures are taking a much tougher, in-your-face approach. "That ‘shitty little country,’ Israel," writes Andrew Sullivan in The Sunday Times, "has become, among many European elites, the object of hate that dare not speak its name. Not since the 1930s has such blithe hatred of Jews gained this much acceptability. The left is particularly complicit in this evil."

Sullivan concedes that "there are, of course, completely legitimate criticisms of Israel and Israeli policy that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism – the settlements policy of Ariel Sharon." But, Sullivan insists, "these valid arguments are light-years away from the Jew-hating that has been fomented by Arab governments for years and tolerated by Western elites for far too long. Such anti-Semitism is the fundamental reason why no peace is possible in the Middle East, because it has so infected every possible Arab interlocutor that Israel simply has nobody to make peace with ..." And he concludes: "How much more do we need to know about the nature of Israel’s enemies to know whose side we should truly be on?"

Barry Kosmin, head of the Jewish community think-tank, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), and a sociologist of Jewry with an international reputation, is just as sweeping. European opinion, he says, "is nowadays led by Belgium, that paragon of colonial benignity and, more recently, of domestic morality. Society here in Britain is split three ways.

"There is Blair and Blunkett (the home secretary) and Hoon (the defense secretary) and Mandelson, and Lady Thatcher – people with morals, people who would fit into Gladstone’s cabinet. And then there are the effete appeaser-elites of the left, concentrated inside the M-25 [a ring-road around Greater London] which is like our Beltway. They extend through academia and the press, from Trotskyites to the BBC. They’re writing ‘Jewish’ instead of ‘Israeli.’ They get it from the Arabs: ‘Itbah al-Yahud’ [‘Kill the Jews’]. This is Britanistan, after all. From the right, you still have ex-Palestine Police majors writing furious letters to The Times. And Foreign Office mandarins in the T.E. Lawrence mold, much attracted by Arab money."

Kosmin, ultra-sophisticated, admits that he is "deliberately laying it on." He continues: "The third group are the British masses, mainly outside the M-25, who don’t like Third World people in general, nor ones in flowing Arab robes in particular. They, unlike The Guardian and The Independent, do like America. I was talking to a businessman recently who volunteered how much support there was out there, among the general British public, for Israel and for America. It’s the post-modernist paradox: People live in a globalized world, yet they live separately, in their own bubbles."

Spirited Counterattack

Melanie Phillips, the prominent columnist with The Daily Mail, argued in the Jewish Chronicle that "criticisms of Israeli tactics [such as of the settlements, which criticisms she shares] are almost beside the point. For Israel, this is not a territorial war but an existential war."

Phillips was invited to write reflections on her experience a week before, when, as a panelist on the popular BBC television program "Question Time," she found herself having to defend Israel before a largely hostile studio audience in Cardiff, and also having to defend herself against a vicious, double loyalties charge leveled at her by a fellow-panelist (and fellow-Jew, though far to the left of her), Will Self.

She wrote: "When I said that Israel was a democracy, the audience did a horrible and astonishing thing. They laughed. That incredulous laugh was more shocking even than Self’s attack. I believe that the visceral hostility toward Israel and Jews displayed both on the panel and by the audience are representative now of much mainstream British opinion."

Phillips’ spirited counterattack on "Question Time" has made her a veritable heroine among many grass-roots UK Jews. "Good for her," is the word on the streets of Golders Green, Northwest London’s gilded ghetto. "She spoke for all of us." But lawyer Anthony Julius is dismissive. "She seems to see herself as a Hannah Senesh," he pooh-poohs Phillips’ televised teeth-gnashing, "parachuting into ‘Question Time’ to save Anglo-Jewry from the scourge of anti-Semitism."

Julius’ own national fame as a fighter against anti-Semitism is, of course, unrivaled, after the celebrated Irving trial. "Yes, of course you must confront it," he says expansively. "But then you must move on. What’s the big deal about a ‘double loyalties’ charge? We were debating ‘double loyalties’ at the City of London School 25 years ago. The Irving trial, too, was made too much of. It should be like shit on your shoes. You clean it off – and walk on."

Julius has provoked major literary controversy with a study of T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, ("T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form," Cambridge University Press, 1998). Now he is working on a sweeping literary and historical review of anti-Semitism in Britain from the Middle Ages to the present. He is intrigued by the coexistence in Britain of an essentially liberal accommodation toward Jews – "social anti-Semitism of the exclusionist golf-club variety is relatively mild, and in recent years receding," he says – alongside a strong literary tradition of much more virulent Jew-hatred which has flourished in Britain through the Expulsion in 1290, the Return in 1656, and the emancipation of the 19th century. Julius sees Dickens’ "Oliver Twist," for example, as clearly "a version of the blood libel."

Words of Caution

The South African-born Jewish writer and scholar Dan Jacobson, author of "The Rape of Tamar" and, most recently, of "Heshel’s Kingdom," and professor emeritus of English Literature at University College London, is subject neither to the pressures of daily journalism nor to those of Jewish communal activism.

Surveying London’s hurly-burly from the Elysian heights of Highgate Village, he allows himself a gentle dig at Ha’aretz readers [and, presumably, writers – D.L.] who are so particularly upset about The Guardian and The Independent. They feel bereft. After all, these are their people! Perhaps, therefore, they give disproportionate weight to that part of the press here.

"I agree there’s been a lowering of barriers [inhibiting anti-Semitism – D.L.], because of Holocaust fatigue, because Israeli policies are an irritant, because post-imperial Britain feels, with post-imperial self-righteousness, that someone else’s natives are being persecuted. But, on the other hand, [Palestinian leaderYasser] Arafat gets savagely criticized in large parts of the British media, but Israelis don’t seem to hear or read it. I would be cautious about how deep or how prevalent this purported growth of British anti-Semitism really is.

"What certainly is inspiring genuine feelings of heightened insecurity among Jews, particularly in the north, is the rise of Islamism in the UK. I was recently up in Leeds where there had been violence between young Muslims and members of the [neo-fascist] British National Party – both, significantly, disaffected elements in British society. Jews voiced real misgivings. They seem to feel somewhat besieged."

"If they could burn a church ...," one Jew mused aloud to Jacobson, in frightened awe, leaving the rest of the ominous sentence unspoken. "Jews are a very timid people. This was always the characteristic of the Jews as a minority. Look at American Jewry in the 1930s. I don’t say this with moral reprobation. Their timidity was a survival technique. Among British Muslims today, there is a very different spirit, a spirit of defiance. They burn Rushdie’s book. And it’s just a novel. The Jews didn’t even burn ‘Mein Kampf’!

"So, yes, I would be worried by the threat of the Islamists and by the strains they create in British society. But here, too, there is room for optimism, especially after the defeat of the Taliban. That may make the wave of radicalism pass."

Dan Jacobson demurs at the notion that UK Jews are misguidedly or unheedingly exacerbating the conflict with the Islamists. "It’s wrong to say they’re whipping it up," he says. "I see it as reactive, not pro-active. The Jews in Leeds weren’t about to ally with the BNP to have a go at the Muslims!"

They doubtless were not, and that is doubtless not the purpose of the chief rabbi, Prof. Jonathan Sacks. Nevertheless, he launches into a bitter and vehement attack on Muslims as the archetypal anti-Semites of the new millennium. Israel, in Rabbi Sacks’ analysis, plays the modern role of the classically persecuted Jew.

"In the second millennium, from the Crusades to the Shoah, the Jew sought a homeland, a space. Our own generation thought that the world had at last agreed to ‘never again.’ But we’re seeing it all over again. It’s moved: From Europe to the Middle East; from Christian culture to Islamic; from the individual Jew to the Jews as a sovereign nation. But essentially it remains the same: The inability, or at worst refusal, to grant Jews a space. We are seeing the vocabulary of the second millennium transferred to the third."

Is this, perhaps, part of the Divine order?

Rabbi Sacks: "No! Bloody hell! God forbid! ‘A people that dwelleth alone’ [Numbers 23:9] is Balaam’s curse. It is not something ordained. We failed in Europe for 1,000 years. Now we’ve got to fight to succeed. We – Israel and the Jewish People."

For Rabbi Sacks, Judaism is the only universalist faith among the three monotheistic religions, in that it teaches that you (the Gentile) need not be Jewish to be saved. At the same time, Judaism’s mission is to teach all of humanity "the dignity of difference. Abraham was to leave Mesopotamia, the greatest culture in the then-world. The Jews under Moses were to leave Egypt, the next great empire. Judaism is a sustained protest against empires and imperialism, which are in essence the attempt to impose uniformity on a pluralistic world. The Hanukkah uprising was the same paradigm: the Jews insisting on the right to be different. "Anti-Semitism is not some divine plan, God forbid. It is a divine challenge, to us and to humanity. Do we have the courage to be different? Our failure spells assimilation. Does humanity have the courage to give the Jews space?

"Israel is the medieval Jews. It is the only nation that has to argue and fight for its very right to exist. It finds that nothing – not the Balfour Declaration, not military prowess, not economic success – is enough to secure for it the minimum conditions of nationhood. I supported the peace process; I was among the few Orthodox rabbis who did. But I got it wrong. We weren’t listening to the internal rhetoric of the other side. [U.S. President Bill] Clinton and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair still think it was a near miss.

But they’re guilty of selective hearing. Clinton and Blair and I and Shimon Peres all bought into Fukuyama. "It was not dishonorable to put our faith in the belief that the search for trade and economic betterment would eventually prove stronger. But it is the Huntingdon theory that grows stronger. And this darker outlook affects the Palestinian leadership. It is grounded in an inability to acquiesce in Israel’s permanence. They see Israel as a Crusader state. Like Jonah’s gourd. ‘Let’s make life hell for them for 53 years, and they’ll go. The Jews don’t have the patience for the long haul.’ Now the Arabs are putting Israel through a spiritual crisis, by investing daily living with uncertainty. That is what terrorism is really about – spiritual destabilization."

Anthony Julius, the jurist and intellectual, is dismissive once again. And he adds a serious, cautionary note. The Anglo-Jewish leadership, he says, when confronting anti-Semitism, seems "to veer madly between complacency and hysteria. It is ridiculous to link the Israeli-Arab conflict to UK Muslim anti-Semitism. For one thing, UK Jews are not a sovereign state. For another, Israel’s conflict is with Christians as well as Muslims. UK Jews know nothing about Islam. It is very wrong for them to pick a war with it."


 

 

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13 Aug 2007 / 29 Av 5767 0