Antisemitism in the UK – What to make of the news…

So I’ve resisted the urge to post about antisemitism until now. Partly because I’m on sabbatical and trying to have some space to think about other things and spend time with my family! But also partly because so much has been said already (I’m not even going to link to everything there’s been so much in national press, Jewish press, television, radio, sermons, blogs and everything in between).

The press has been awash with the stories of Jews seeking to leave the UK or thinking we’re living in an age equivalent to the 1930s. There have been numerous journalists writing numerous column inches after the horrific attacks in Paris. Then there have been the statisticians, scholars of our community, who have pointed out that the recent CAA report was wonderful for filling column inches but less wonderful in providing robust data. The biggest danger of course being that the survey becomes the basis on which policy (internal Jewish communal and national) is developed. And rabbis, well we’ve been everywhere really. I was on ITV London News and I’m quoted in the Ham and High this week too. But the number of rabbis who have had their moment to comment has been…well let’s just say we’ve been rather prolific. And you can tell the progressive voices because we’re the ones who say the survey is not an accurate reflection of the Jewish community and we feel that we’re good for Britain and Britain is good for us etc etc. And one or two voices might also have expressed disgust at Netanyahu for suggesting that Israel was always ready welcome to Jews to their historic homeland.

Now I feel there are some things I have to add to the conversation. Three things amongst others have fascinated me in this whole debate:

1) The role of the CAA – as a response to a part of the community who feel that existing organisations are not doing enough to respond to antisemitism. The survey (with its alarmist questions and tone) is just a part of the armoury in the fight against what they call a rising tide (according to their website) – so I suppose the more column inches the better. The experience and feeling of the respondents to the survey is real and important – whether their shouting loudly should be guiding our response I’m not sure. The somewhat fawning engagement of leaders, politicians and rabbis to their grassroots campaign in the Summer of 2014 (in light of the conflict between Israel and Hamas) shows that the leadership of our community doesn’t really know how to manage a vocal group who have garnered decent amounts of support in a relatively short space of time. And let’s not forget that anti-Zionism and antisemitism were a key part of the issue here – not just the spike in antisemitic incidents which we always experience when conflict in Israel occurs. The only serious reflection on this kind of group that I read was by Keith Kahn-Harris in the JC back in September 2014. My sense is that with the lack of intelligent engagement and serious work with the people feeling most vulnerable, we’ve (yes including me) helped create a sense that CAA is the authoritative voice on antisemitism and that has led to the need now to rapidly respond to the media attention of their survey and give voice to concerns over the validities of their results.

2) In some ways, what we see here is a spilling over of an internal Jewish political issue into the public sphere. The CAA was created in part because the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and others were seen as ineffective in dealing with the issue of antisemitism at a government and national level. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research had produced an extremely important report on antisemitism in the UK which was part of a major European research project that actually sheds much more light on the nuances of antisemitism and the issues for Jews. Antisemitism is real – as the report demonstrates. The report also shows that I’m not the most likely person to be worried about it, since I don’t wear external expressions of my Judaism in public (such as a head covering) – which makes me think I need to be a bit careful about the extent to which I downplay anxieties. But what’s happened is that the debate internally is now in the public domain and if I find it hard to parse the Jewish communal politics, never mind the statistics, imagine how hard it is for the politicians and journalists who are new to our world of infighting (remember the antagonism felt in the Summer with the war between Israel and Hamas). We can talk about the Battle of Cable Street as an earlier equivalent of grassroots Jewish groups ‘revolting’ against the esteemed leadership of the community but the problem is that then confuses the issue with Mosley’s fascists – also an issue of antisemitism. We need to be careful about these comparisons because they add to the confusion. Moreover, however we understand the expression of Islamism we should also not transplant from the British Union of Fascists to today. For today we need more than ever the collective data of JPR, police reporting, the important work of the CST and so on, along with the interpreters and policy makers – because the picture of antisemitism is complicated and our responses must be equally intelligent.

3) The last thing that has occurred to me on a number of occasions is how we see the experience of antisemitism in the ’round’ – the big picture of hate crime against religions, ethnicities and the LGBT community. Of course we should not allow ourselves to be the ‘forgotten’ group – the last to be thought of as experiencing hate crime (I did an interview with Rod Liddle for the Times a month or so ago on this very problem). It’s not just about immigration and refugees, but that is part of it too. If we really want to have a conversation about hate crime and rising levels of racism and antisemitism then we should really be developing this conversation in partnership (I know that Tell MAMA and the CST have worked together on reporting). I don’t even know the figures, but I do know there are communities, like members of the Jewish community, who are feeling very vulnerable. We have to come up with a public discourse that allows us to have proper conversations about issues without this fear and threat. It’s irresponsible to ignore the concerns that have led to the rise of parties like UKIP with regards to ideas of nationhood and national sovereignty, it’s also irresponsible to be too particularistic in our campaign about antisemitism (yes, it’s unique but also there are shared issues), and it’s our responsibility to create a different way of talking about difference, culture, identity that does not create an unhealthy political capital out of exploiting matters of identity.

It was not a coincidence that the Paris attack was in a Jewish supermarket and may have included plans for Jewish schools in Paris. This was antisemitism – of that there is no doubt. And we must not be complacent in tackling the radicalism that spawned these attacks and others. And our response must be informed and intelligent – otherwise it will either be ineffective or, even worse, have a negative effect.

On Identity Politics – here’s a previous post.

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