For years, antisemitism has been couched in the language of “anti-Zionism”, allowing its proponents to claim that they are only criticising Israel. Explicitly attacking Jews, whether rhetorically or physically, has been generally seen as unacceptable, even among those who dislike Israel and who are suspicious of its diaspora Jewish supporters.
Meanwhile Jews and their friends have become used to having to explain that saying “Zionists” control the media, or created Isis, or are the real perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Europe, doesn’t count as legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.
These are febrile times, though, with radical politics in the air, and it feels like the language of antisemitism is being set free from this politically correct straitjacket. Tahra Ahmed claims to campaign on behalf of Grenfell Tower survivors. She knows who is really to blame for that terrible fire: it was a “Jewish sacrifice”. Just for good measure, “Hitler and the Germans were the victims of the Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany.” No carefully calibrated language about “Zionists” there.
Daniel Harris is a Labour Party activist in Brighton and Hove. He thought it would be funny to superimpose the faces of his political opponents in the local Labour party onto a Chanukah video of three dancing Jews, complete with black hats and tallitot. Maybe he really meant it as a festive joke, but at best it showed a remarkable insensitivity; at worst, given the fractious arguments in Brighton and Hove Labour Party over antisemitism, it was a thinly-veiled dig based on the idea that being Jewish is, somehow, a bad thing to be.
Consider also the demonstrators outside the US embassy in London who protested against President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city by chanting for Jews to be killed. The Arabic chant in question goes “Khaybar, Khaybar, Ya Yahud! Jaish Mohammad sawf ya’ud!” and translates as “Khaybar, Khaybar, O Jews! The Army of Muhammad Will Return!”
This harks back to the Battle of Khaybar, in 628 CE, which resulted in the defeat and subjugation of the Jews of northern Arabia by their Muslim enemies. The chant is a familiar rallying cry on anti-Israel demonstrations in Arab countries. It evokes an existential conflict between Muslims and Jews and leaves little to the imagination about what this will involve. The enemy is clearly identified as “Jews”: not exactly a legitimate criticism of Israeli policy.
I’ve been struck in recent weeks by the number of people, Jewish and not, who have told me about antisemitic comments they have heard — or overheard — in normal conversations with friends, colleagues and strangers. What we see in politics is only the most public manifestation of a new confidence to express this prejudice, and to do so in the bluntest of language.
Some might think it is better this way: at least we know what people really think of us. But in years to come we might look back fondly on the days when antisemites felt they had to mask their views.