No room for complacency

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ALL over Europe, there is concern about an increase in anti-Semitism, and deliberation over how to respond. Earlier this month the Parisian home of a 78-year-old Jewish community leader was attacked by intruders who shouted: “You are Jews, where is the money?” Along with his wife and son, the man was taken hostage, beaten and robbed, in what the government acknowledged was “an act …directly related to their religion”. Around the same time, the former head of a school in Marseille made waves by saying that when he was in charge he would advise Jews against enrolling, for fear of harassment. 

Meanwhile the Vatican recently co-organised a symposium in Rome on anti-Semitism and minority rights in the Middle East, at which Tony Blair was the main speaker. The former British prime minister declared:  “There is anti-Semitism in the East, but also in the West. There are manifestations in European countries, and also in the United Kingdom.”

So how bad are things in Mr Blair’s homeland? On the face of things, Britain is a relatively good place to be Jewish. When anti-Semitic feelings across Europe are compared, the UK tends to do well. But a new study by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research gives an unusually nuanced picture of opinion in Britain. 

It found that hard-core anti-Semites, who “express multiple anti-Semitic attitudes readily and confidently”, amounted to 2.4% of the population, while a further 3% could be described as “softer” anti-Semites, expressing somewhat fewer negative views. To probe their opinions, respondents were invited to react to propositions like “Jews think they are better than other people” or “The interests of Jews in Britain are different from….the rest” or “Jews have too much power in Britain…” 

The study said that there was a “much larger number of people who believe a small number of negative ideas about Jews but…may not be consciously hostile or prejudiced towards them”. It found that 15% of Britons agreed at least in part to two or more anti-Semitic propositions, with a further 15% agreeing at least in part to one of them. The researchers’ interpretation was cautious:

“This emphatically does not mean that 30% of the population of Great Britain is anti-Semitic…Rather the 30% figure captures the current level of the diffusion of anti-Semitic ideas in British society, and offers an indication of the likelihood of British Jews encountering such ideas.”

The report also tackled the sensitive question of how far hostility towards Jews is linked with negative feelings towards Israel. It found the two mind-sets to be correlated, but not co-extensive. Thus 86% of those British people who hold no anti-Israel attitudes hold no anti-Semitic views either; but among those who hold a large number of anti-Israel attitudes, only 26% are completely free of anti-Semitic feelings.

Still, there clearly are people who are strongly critical of Israel, but not anti-Jewish, and a somewhat smaller contingent who harbour anti-Semitic sentiments but have no particular gripe with the Jewish state. As the report puts it, “anti-Semitism and anti-Israel attitudes exist both separately and together.”

Meanwhile Germany this week joined Britain, Austria and Romania in adopting a working definition of anti-Semitism drafted last year by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a Berlin-based body. It says:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. 

The definition is controversial. It has been criticised by some British Jews on the political left who argued that it could muzzle legitimate criticism of Israel, and by a leading British barrister who concluded after studying the text, and the accompanying guidelines, that it was both too narrow (it might fail to capture some anti-Jewish conduct) and too broad, in the sense that free speech over the Middle East, for example in universities, might be curtailed.

In its recommendation on how to apply the definition, the IHRA tries to give an idea of how far, in its view, disapproval of Israel can reasonably go. It says that “manifestations [of anti-Semitism] might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

The European Jewish Congress, which styles itself as the “sole political organisational representative of European Jewry”, hailed the German move as “vitally important”. It would help to change a state of affairs where “astonishingly, anti-Semitism used to be defined by the perpetrator not the victim”.

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