So, antisemitism is on the march again. Or so it seems according to a recent survey conducted for the EU by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. A fifth of respondents to their survey, which was carried out in nine EU countries, said they had experienced an antisemitic incident in the past year. Seventy-six per cent said they thought antisemitism had increased in the past five years.
These are worrying figures, particularly for Jews living in France or Hungary, where it appears to be increasingly endemic.
Unsurprisingly, Britain fared better than many other countries —- just 11 per cent of respondents thought antisemitism was a very big problem in this country, compared to more than half of those questioned in France. But, even here, 66 per cent of us think that antisemitism is on the rise. This is the perception, but does it reflect the reality?
To me, it demonstrates the outdated mentality of a post-war generation. Too many of us are trapped in an anachronistic mind-set, always looking out for examples of antisemitism, always trying to “catch it on the edge of a remark” (as Harold Abrahams put it in Chariots of Fire).
This mind-set keeps us thinking that Germany 1933 could happen again. We still have a metaphorical suitcase packed and are ready to leave at the drop of a swastika. But, in reality, being a Jew in 21st-century Britain is great. In fact, I wonder if we’ve ever had it better.
At some point, when no one was really watching, being Jewish became quite cool. I was as surprised as anyone to notice this, but it really happened. We have many people to thank, not least Sacha Baron Cohen and David Baddiel, Howard Jacobson, Larry David, Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman. But it’s also the rest of us, going out into the world and living our lives in a way that makes being Jewish a positive force, not a painful millstone of guilt and bitter history.
The rise of technology and geek chic has elevated the nerd in public life, which also suits Jews rather well. The business leaders of my generation are dorks like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin. The stars of the screen are actors like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill who have somehow contrived to make being fat, hairy and Semitic seem like a virtue — as long as you have the wit to back it up (all Jewish men should thank them for this).
Being Jewish today can be a lot of fun. I work and socialise primarily with non-Jews, so I milk the Jewish angle whenever possible. I wear a chai necklace, drop Yiddish words into conversation and grow a beard and a Jewfro during the winter months.
Jews could hardly be better-positioned in our multicultural society, part of the mainstream but retaining a crucial bit of edginess. It’s a good place to be. The same goes for America, where the pollster Mark Penn now uses the voter category, philosemite, to describe people who either wanted to marry a Jew or emulate Jewish values.
Of course I’m not suggesting antisemitism is dead. It is an ancient and insidious prejudice that will exist as long as we do. There is still plenty of antisemitism in Britain, whether it’s troglodyte football fans chanting about Auschwitz or belligerent anti-Zionists obsessing over Jewish media influence.
I also realise things might well feel a little different if I stopped working in the London media and hanging out with liberal university-educated friends.
Some might consider me insufferably complacent and ignorant of Jewish history. But it is exactly because of Jewish history that I’m so optimistic about life in Britain today.
When have we ever faced so few hurdles to success, so few threats to our wellbeing, so little antisemitic public discourse? And can anyone remember the last time being Jewish was cool?
Antisemitism will always be with us in some form or other — we only have to look over to Hungary and France to remind us of that. But right now, in Britain, being Jewish is a good thing. We should all take a moment to stop looking over our shoulders and celebrate this.