Don't panic, but prejudice remains

On the face of it, the report recently published by the Community Security Trust on Antisemitic Discourse in Britain in 2012 makes for reassuring reading. It stresses that “explicit antisemitism against Jews per se, simply for their being Jewish, is rare in British public life and within mainstream political media discourse.”

Jews in Britain today are extraordinarily well integrated into wider society. There is no shortage of politicians lining up to praise the contributions made by Jews to virtually everything from central government to the learned professions, business and commerce, medicine, the arts, literature, academia and even sports. British Jews enjoy equal rights with other citizens; what is more, their particular religious practices enjoy special legal protection, which politicians across the party spectrum never lose an opportunity to underscore. Jews who wish to live a Jewish life are free to do so. “Generally” (the report continues) “overt antisemitism is ...socially unacceptable.”

All this is undeniable, and encouraging. But – as the CST points out – it’s not the whole story.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the Israeli dimension to British public discourse, which can easily spill over into thinly disguised anti-Jewish prejudice, it is clear – and the report does not pull any punches in this regard – that a residual prejudice against Jews is in fact widespread.

As I pointed out in a short essay published in the current issue of the Jewish Journal of Sociology, the 2012 London mayoral election was characterised by a “Jewish question,” stemming not simply from Ken Livingstone’s perceived attitude towards Jews but from the reaction to this perception of large sections of Greater London’s non-Jewish electorate.

A Populus poll carried out for The Times at the end of April 2012 asked a sample of London voters how important was “the poor relationship between Ken Livingstone and the Jewish Community” as a factor in determining how they would vote. Of those respondents who declared themselves first-preference Boris Johnson supporters, 40 per cent specifically identified Livingstone’s attitude to Jews as either “very important” or “quite important” as a factor propelling them to vote for Johnson.

The very fact that a much-respected polling organisation could even consider asking such a question should give us all food for thought.

One would have to go back to the very raw politics of the London County Council a century and more ago to find comparable evidence of a “Jewish question” hanging over a London-wide electoral contest. While we might congratulate ourselves – purely from an ethnic point of view - that Boris Johnson prevailed over Red Ken, we do need to ask why a politician like Livingstone was ever nominated to fight Johnson a second time for the top job at City Hall.

Then there is the media to consider. It’s undeniable that during 2012 it became much less problematic for sections of the media to talk not just about the Zionist lobby but about the Jewish lobby in British public life. In principle I would not object to this. There is in fact a Jewish lobby – or rather a series of Jewish lobbies – and it would be amazing if this were not the case.

British Jews have every right to organise themselves as pressure groups. But there is much less restraint now than there used to be about referring to Jewish lobbies in a negative sense, as sinister and threatening.
Do Jews, I was asked during the 2012 mayoral contest, have a “hidden agenda?” It is but a short step from such a question to the construction of Jews – of British Jews – as an alien entity, subverting British values for their own private, sectarian ends.

And if we add into this volatile mix the visceral anti-Zionism propagated (as the CST report demonstrates) by “Islamist and leftist circles,” we can surely begin understand why some sections of the media, some trade unions, some church bodies and some politicians have come to experience little soul-searching as they propagate an anti-Zionism informed by base anti-Jewish prejudice.

There is no cause for panic. But we do need to face facts and devise strategies to counter these worrying trends.

Last updated: 11:30am, December 24 2013