A big blind eye to extremism

The failure of our normally sharp antisemitism sensors in the face of East European blandishments is shameful

By Jonathan Freedland, October 22, 2009

Here’s one accusation I never thought I’d have to make: I’m worried that we Jews are not sensitive enough about antisemitism. Oh, I know we’re super-vigilant about the threat from the Arab and Islamist extremes and I know, too, that we scour every sentence in the liberal media for the smallest hint of bias. Rightly so.

Yet when a menace looms so large it could blot out the sun, somehow we fail to see it — even when the source of the danger is that part of the world where antisemitism wreaked its most lethal havoc.

I am speaking of the nations of central and eastern Europe, now seen as fine, upstanding members of the European Union and Nato, where a combination of traditional Jew-hatred and a subtle brand of Holocaust denial runs rampant.

A perfect example came just this week when an MP for Hungary’s main opposition party accused the Jews of plotting to take over his country. Oszkar Molnar said he wanted to see Hungarian interests prevail “over those of global capital — Jewish capital, if you like -— which wants to devour the entire world, especially Hungary”. The leader of Mr Molnar’s Fidesz party — on course to form Hungary’s government next spring — refused to denounce the remarks, noting that they had not broken any of the party’s rules.

This is the context in which the current row over the Conservative party’s friendships in Europe is being played out. Some have mistakenly thought it no more than a party political spat between Labour and Tory. But it is much graver than that. It is about fighting an attempt to belittle and distort the memory of the Holocaust and it is about preventing the return to Europe of the spectre that haunted the continent for centuries: the spectre of vicious Jew-hatred.

It was once obvious that Waffen SS veterans' parades are repugnant

That this even needs explaining shows how far things have deteriorated. It would once have been obvious that parades that celebrate veterans of the Waffen SS are utterly repugnant. Yet those parades take place every year in Latvia, strongly supported by the For Fatherland and Freedom party, which now sits as the Tories’ ally in the European parliament.

Once, no one outside the goose-stepping right wing would have defended such a practice. We wouldn’t have cared that some of those Latvian veterans were conscripts. The fact that one third of them had eagerly volunteered to fight with Hitler — and that they included in their ranks many of the men who butchered Latvia’s 70,000 Jews — would have settled the matter. Yet now, Tory chairman Eric Pickles defends not just the party that organises the parades, but the Waffen SS veterans themselves, as men who simply “fought for their country”.

More astonishing still, those who can fire off thousands of words, blogging through the night, in condemnation of, say, Jeremy Bowen, suddenly come over all coy when faced with a true enemy. They don’t know enough about Latvia, they say. They haven’t seen all the details.

Or what of Michal Kaminski? Once Jews would have known what to make of a man who began his political career in a group the Polish Chief Rabbi calls “neo-Nazi”; a man who went on to serve on the Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne, site of a notorious 1941 pogrom; a man who recently confessed to the JC that he’d worn an infamous fascist symbol. We would have shunned him and expected the rest of respectable opinion to do the same. Instead, he is feted by Conservative Friends of Israel, our communal leaders sitting at his side, the ambassador of Israel smiling for the photographer — thereby giving Kaminski just the kashrut certificate he was after.

Perhaps the explanation for all this is that Kaminski and his ilk now make the right noises about Israel — admiring the country, as the BNP does, for standing as a bulwark against Islam.

But the real reason is simpler and shaming. The leaders of British Jewry are so desperate to keep in with what they believe is the next government that they will throw their principles into the gutter.

So let’s have no more lectures on the non-negotiability of antisemitism. The message we have sent over recent weeks is that antisemitism is unacceptable — unless you are friends with our friends. In which case, don’t worry, we’ll look the other way.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 5:23pm, December 10 2009


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