The boundary is being blurred between fair criticism and hatred in a thin disguise.
by the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
On Sunday a rally will take place in London to demand zero tolerance of antisemitism. Why is this necessary? On March 19 2012, a teacher and three pupils were killed in a terrorist attack at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish Day School in Toulouse. For days, speculation was rife about the identity and motivation of the perpetrator.
Initially, many presumed that the killer came from the extreme Right. After all, the strengthening of extremist elements in the midst of a faltering European economy has fuelled antisemitism. Or, we wondered, perhaps the attacker subscribed to neo-Nazi ideology, or was influenced by radical Islam. Whatever the motivation, it seemed sadly clear that, even in the 21st century, the old aims of Hitler had not vanished from the continent of Europe.
Then the perpetrator was identified as Mohammed Merah, a 23-year-old French petty criminal, of Algerian descent. Merah said that he attacked the Jewish school because “the Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine”. This transformation of the Israeli-Palestinian political conflict into something more sinister, and even religious in nature, has produced what some refer to as the new antisemitism.
Antisemitism may well be the oldest and most persistent social pathology, what historian Robert Wistrich calls “the longest hatred”. But this ancient enmity is now being expressed in new ways.
Whereas antisemitism in Europe was connected primarily to extreme Right-wing nationalist groups, today Jews are being hit from all sides.
Throughout my first year in office as Chief Rabbi I have been questioned about antisemitism during almost every interview I have given. For a number of reasons, however, antisemitism is not my favourite subject. Firstly, it is immensely painful, a record of thousands of years of hatred and persecution. Secondly, it is intensely emotive and is often confused with other issues, including anti-Zionism. Israel as a subject will always lead to impassioned debate.
Thirdly, while antisemitism is the darkest part of the Jewish experience, it does not define us as Jews, nor determine our relationship with others.
Judaism has contributed significantly to civilisation. Jewish history and tradition is rich and vibrant. This deserves attention, more than the negative stereotypes that have been applied to Jews. The analytical, self-critical, discursive and ethical traditions of Jewish thought have had much more to offer the world than the tragic story of antisemitism.
Finally, I am wary of alarmism. While we are understandably concerned about antisemitism now, it would be an exaggeration to draw comparisons with the past. Having said that, we need to acknowledge that the problem of antisemitism is today pronounced and causing deep anxiety among Jewish people across Britain and worldwide.
There is no doubt that the Hamas-Israel conflict has served as a significant trigger point for the current spike in incidents.
Impassioned criticism of Israel is not intrinsically antisemitic. In many cases, however, the current conflict has been used as a pseudo-legitimate medium for latent antisemitism to be expressed.
It is sometimes claimed that the antisemitism card is played to stifle debate about the Middle East. I am entirely in favour of debate, but to be credible, it must be open, honest, contextualised and untainted by irrational hatred or misinformation. After all, debate on Israeli government policy is the most popular national sport in the vibrant democracy that is Israel. Why? Israelis love a good argument, but more importantly, many Israeli government decisions are life-and-death choices with existential consequences for the tiny Jewish state.
However, in expressing strong views about Israel some people do not realise the extent to which they draw upon myths, images, fears and expressions that have a long and ugly history. Others knowingly and deliberately draw upon such rhetoric and upon the history of vile persecution. How can anyone attempt to justify disgraceful placards the like of which we have seen in pro-Gaza demonstrations in London proclaiming “Hitler should have finished the job”, or “Death to the Jews”?
What particularly saddens me is that, at present, it is not only Jews who are under attack because of their faith. Many forms of bigotry appear to be on the march at once. Our deep concerns and prayers are with the Christians and Yazidis in Iraq. Christians in Africa are also under threat. Minorities are being singled out and targeted, often receiving little coverage and attention, which is surprising given the nature and magnitude of the threat and suffering being faced.
The values of our free society are being challenged. The boundary between what is deemed acceptable criticism and what is essentially antisemitism is being blurred, serving only to accommodate the latter.
We are fortunate in Britain that the fight against antisemitism and all forms of racism has been led by successive governments, the police forces and other faith groups with the support of the overwhelming majority of the public. I have been heartened by the many messages of support I have received from non-Jewish members of the public, who have been horrified by the hatred that has reached our streets. These voices should not be drowned out by a loud and violent minority.
Antisemitism stigmatises innocent people, legitimises hatred, breeds intolerance and is an open invitation to “permissible persecution”. Jews have been described as the canaries in the coal mine for Western civilisation: when we begin to suffer from poisons in the atmosphere, others would be wise to take note.