These are dark times but we mustn’t let fear cloud our judgment

The people on the marches may be naive or even wilfully blind, but that doesn’t mean they are all antisemites


Demonstrators take part in a protest inside Charing Cross station following the 'London Rally For Palestine', in central London on November 4, 2023, as they call for a ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Thousands of civilians, both Palestinians and Israelis, have died since October 7, 2023, after Palestinian Hamas militants based in the Gaza Strip entered southern Israel in an unprecedented attack triggering a war declared by Israel on Hamas with retaliatory bombings on Gaza. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

November 16, 2023 16:30

Does any of us under the age of, what, 80 remember a darker time to be a Jew? I’m from the generation who grew up with stories of the 1967 and 1973 wars, when the world’s Jews huddled around the radio or TV set, anxious for news from an Israel they believed was fighting for its life. I have my own childhood memories of the Yom Kippur war, exactly 50 years ago last month, and the angst that, young as I was, I sensed in my parents. But this is something different.

I now imagine future generations learning of the horror of 7 October 2023, when a shadow descended on every Jewish heart. They will hear not only of the atrocity — the details of the murder, torture and mutilation that get no easier to bear with the passing weeks — but also of the aftershocks felt many thousands of miles away, specifically the fear it generated in us, the Jews of the diaspora.

You don’t need me to tell you of the surge in antisemitic attacks of the last month, the abuse in the streets directed at visibly Jewish people, including schoolchildren; the red paint thrown at Jewish schools, the slogans daubed on the walls of some of our most sacred sites. Or of the decisions otherwise proudly Jewish people have taken to conceal their identity — to leave their kippa in an inside pocket, to tuck away the Magen David or chai they used to wear for all to see.

You’ve all heard the conversations, in which people admit they’re hardly sleeping, that they wake up with an unfamiliar sense of dread. And where some admit that they no longer know where they might feel truly safe. Surely not Israel, after what happened nearly six weeks ago. But not outside Israel either.

In this atmosphere, it can sound feeble to plea for calm or a sense of proportion. There are parents who know they should put on a brave face, if only for the sake of their young children — but who struggle to do it. And there are others who want to believe that this will pass, that all will be well, but then second-guess themselves because… well, we’ve heard that kind of talk before. Ingrained in us, and with good reason, is a history in which Jewish optimists have paid a heavy price. It was the pessimists, those who anticipated the worst, who survived. We are their descendants.

And yet, I think we may need to have a sense of proportion all the same. The presence of antisemitism on British streets — on buses, Tube trains and social media platforms — is appalling, but it does not mean that we should be telling ourselves to brace for another Kristallnacht, whose 85th anniversary came last week. This is not that. To state the obvious, we have a government and opposition both committed to Jewish safety. After October 7, the Conservative government gave extra funding to the Community Security Trust to protect Jewish schools and synagogues. Labour backed the decision without hesitation.

I know that people are repelled — and frightened — by the video footage, widely shared, of people tearing down those “Kidnapped” posters bearing the faces of the Israeli hostages now held in Gaza. Wherever you see one, close by you’ll see the shredded remains of a poster ripped away.

And we’ve all seen — virally shared on social media — the photos of the people dressed in Hamas garb at last weekend’s Gaza march through central London, along with shots of placards bearing vile slogans and antisemitic images, including a Star of David merging into a swastika and a “Zionist” snake encircling the globe. Those were real.

But they don’t tell the whole story. If everyone protesting last Saturday was dressed that way, or carrying those particular banners, then, yes, it would be right to call it a “hate march”. But social media is a distorting lens. Most of those on the streets were not hardcore antisemites, but rather people who think it’s wrong that thousands of Gazans had been killed in the space of a month. They were shocked by the images they’d seen on the TV news; they grieved especially for the children.

Now, we can tell those demonstrators they’re missing the wider context. That they fail to realise the murderous threat Hamas represents, or that Hamas has explicitly pledged to repeat the horror of October 7 again and again — and that therefore to demand a ceasefire is to demand Israel allow a lethal threat against its people to persist. We can accuse those protesters of a terrible naivety or a wilful blindness — but it doesn’t make every last one of them an antisemite.

I say all this not because I think antisemitism poses no danger, but because I think it does. And that danger is specific. It requires us to be vigilant, but also cool-headed and smart — not to panic and see peril everywhere, but to be discerning and focused.

In this effort, we have to resist the temptation to hug any apparent ally telling us what, in our desperation, we want to hear, even if what they’re really pushing is an agenda of their own. Whether that’s a now former home secretary or the polemicist Douglas Murray, the latter offering solidarity with Israel even as he says that the democratically elected Muslim first minister of Scotland has “infiltrated our system” and is in fact the “first minister of Gaza”. (If you don’t see the problem, imagine someone describing a British Jewish politician as having “infiltrated our system” and really being the “first minister of Israel”. We would call that antisemitism.)

So let’s combat the threat we face, but let’s also assess its size and scale accurately.
As Dave Rich, the Policy Director of the CST, who is currently working around the clock combating this menace, puts it: “Despite all our problems, Britain today is still not as antisemitic as the Britain that our great-grandparents fled to a century ago, never mind the Russia that they left behind.”

There is a rise in antisemitism, and it needs to be fought hard. But to talk of the 1930s, to say it’s time to go, is to let our fear overwhelm our judgment. It is to give up. And I’m not ready to do that.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist at the Guardian.

November 16, 2023 16:30

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