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Now I’m super-conscious that the previous post is controversial. But here’s one difficulty with it in particular. Supposing, then, that it is possible to criticise Israeli policy (as very distinct from the right of the State of Israel to exist) without being anti-semitic, could not such criticism actually be exploited as a mask or figleaf for a deeper hostility? In other words, shouldn’t we be careful not to take such criticism at face value? And the answer to both must be, ‘yes of course.’

And this is a factor in why so much hurt and fear has been aroused in the Jewish community. Because Israel criticism seems to have become a means of shielding the more offensive heart of what people are actually thinking too often. A kind of short-hand, if you will, that enables the speaker to avoid articulating the unacceptable.

In his perennially relevant essay Politics and the English Language, Orwell is clear.

Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” …

Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality. (p8)

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belong. (p20)

Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and Abp Justin Welby in 2017. Photograph: Darren Staples/Reuters

Why is this relevant? Because the kind of language that was used about Jewish people during the last UK General Election betrayed deeper hostility beyond the rhetoric about Israel. The obvious reluctance of Corbyn and others to offer clear, concise and emphatic retractions or apologies was astounding. Especially since they had consistently and explicitly voiced support for advocates of extreme and indiscriminate violence in pursuit of the Palestinian cause. This is what led to the extraordinary interventions by the Chief Rabbi and the Archbishop of Canterbury even though they didn’t explicitly mention names (unprecedented during a General Election campaign?).

Welby remarked that this was because of the “deep sense of insecurity and fear felt by many British Jews” (echoing precisely what my friend wrote to me as quoted in the first post). But was this a bolt from the blue? Or does it reflect an underlying problem in the UK?

Anti-semitism in the UK

There have been many surveys and analyses. But one 2018 study, by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, found that:

  • In the previous year, 25% of UK Jews had felt ‘offended or threatened, insulted or harassed’.
  • In the previous 5 years, the number increased to 33%.
  • In the previous year, 24% had witnessed other Jews being verbally and/or physically attacked (of whom 18% were family members).
  • Only about one-fifth of incidents were reported.

This is not Snowflake politics

So we should be clear. This is not a matter of paranoia. Nor is it remotely akin to what some (often unfairly) dismiss as snowflake student politics with its concern to create ‘safe spaces’. After all, as Lukianoff & Haidt powerfully observe in their recent The Coddling of the American Mind, ‘the meaning of “safety” underwent a process of “concept creep” and expanded to include emotional safety.’ (p24) He continues:

If students have been told that they can request gender-neutral pronouns and then a professor fails to use one, students may be disappointed or upset. But are these students unsafe? Are students in danger in the classroom if a professor uses the wrong pronoun? Professors should indeed be mindful of their students’ feelings, but how might it change […] students–and the nature of class discussions–when the community is told repeatedly that they should judge the speech of others in terms of safety and danger? (p25)

Don’t mishear this. I am not denying that there are people who wish certain minority groups harm because of their sexuality, race or status. But to resort to the loaded language of oppression, danger, or even hatred, too readily is counter-productive and therefore itself dangerous. That is one of the challenges of the Lukianoff & Haidt book.

A verifiable history

the memorial to the 1000s of Jews executed in Babi Yar

But when we talk of anti-semitism, we’re not talking about concept creep. We’re talking about a phenomenon with a chillingly proven track record, over centuries, of which the worst was the most recent. This was brought home last summer during our family holiday in Bavaria during which we visited Dachau; then forcibly during this Ukraine trip because Sergiy, my good friend and host, took me to Babi Yar.

I’d long heard of this haunting place, not least because of the remarkable musical memorial in Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony (a setting of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem, Babi Yar). Literally thousands were killed by being lined up along the sides of this ravine and then slaughtered by machine-gun. On just two days in September 1941, nearly 34,000 Jews were killed here. And this was just the start of what happened here in the subsequent months.

So it’s not hard to see why my friend’s grandparents advised her to have some jewellery ready. The past weighs very heavily.

This, then, is the context for this table outlining annual anti-semitic incidents in the UK:

If there is consistent and prevalent evidence for a rise in actual threats, rather than mere rudeness or offensiveness, unpleasant though they undoubtedly are, you are going to take stock. The fact of the matter is that many are nervous. And these statistics seem to suggest that this is not mere paranoia. Look at the huge jump in abusive behaviour in particular. And when you are afraid, you need reassurance.

That is why Labour’s apparent indifference was so alarming. Sympathy with Palestinians and concerns with specific Israeli government haven’t gone away. But within the UK, the fears and concerns of the Jewish minority (as my friend remarked, only 0.5% of the population) really needed addressing. Instead, they received mealy-mouthed and evasive remarks. When someone is scared, you can’t simply tell them, “don’t be scared”. [Incidentally, might we say that Labour then has a Judaism problem; the Conservatives have an Islam problem; so perhaps the Liberal Democrats have a Christianity problem?]

When someone is scared, you can’t simply tell them, “don’t be scared.”

But more still needs saying…

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