Antisemitism is a menace. Hatred of the Jewish people has persisted in European societies for two millennia, manifesting itself in blood libel, persecution, expulsions, pogroms and massacres. At various points in history it has been vigorously promoted by elites and absorbed by large swaths of the population. Living among us today remain survivors of the Holocaust, the only attempt to exterminate an entire people by industrialised, systematic means. This unparalleled atrocity certainly mobilised opinion against antisemitism, stripping it of the respectable status it had long enjoyed in many European countries, but that does not mean it vanished. Because it was allowed to course through the veins of European society for so long, even the utter horror of the Shoah was never going to fully expunge it. Far from being in retreat, the evidence suggests that anti-Jewish hatred is actually increasing again.
I write this because antisemitism needs to be treated very seriously indeed. Attempts to belittle it are dangerous, allowing the tumour to spread unchecked. But Israel’s assault on Gaza has highlighted another danger too. It has often been debated whether the charge of antisemitism is concocted against anyone who supports Palestinian justice or criticises the actions of the Israeli state. The principal objection is that such a tactic represents an attempt to silence critics of Israel’s occupation. Yet there are rather more dangerous potential consequences: not least that the meaning of antisemitism is lost, making it all the more difficult to identify and eliminate hatred against Jewish people at a time when it is rising.
The vast majority of pro-Palestinian sentiment is driven by a sense of solidarity with an oppressed people subjected to occupation, siege and a brutal military onslaught. The response of many supporters of Israel’s attack has been instructive. In a world where there is so much injustice and bloodshed, they say, why not march against the sectarian murderers of Islamic State (Isis) or Boko Haram? This is known as “whataboutery”: an attempt to deflect from one injustice by referring to the suffering of others. Some defenders of Israel’s governments believe the supposed special attention received by the conflict is itself evidence of antisemitism. But Israel’s atrocities attract this attention because the state is armed to the teeth and backed by western governments, rendering them directly complicit; IS and Boko Haram, on the other hand, are (quite rightly) opposed by our rulers. Demonstrations and protests are generally a means of exercising influence over supposedly democratically accountable governments.
That does not mean that the monstrosity of antisemitism has been absent in the backlash against Israel’s actions. Last month a synagogue and Jewish-owned businesses were attacked in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles. I have encountered sentiments that conflate the Jewish people and the Israeli government – though this is echoed by some staunch Zionists, and is no less antisemitic in implication. Threats and assaults have been directed at Jewish people in several European countries.
One sinister piece of pedantry that keeps cropping up is the claim that the term “antisemitism” is itself false, because Arabs are Semites too. Never mind that the term antisemitism has been popularly understood to mean hatred against Jews since the late 19th century – here is an attempt to make it impossible to identify this hatred by engaging in disingenuous wordplay.
One retort repeatedly offered is that Israel is itself the source of antisemitism; that its brutality towards the Palestinian people encourages hatred against the Jewish people. This is a nonsense, like rationalising anti-Muslim prejudice as the inevitable consequence of Islamist fundamentalist terror; responsibility for prejudice lies with the prejudiced. Most of us are quite capable of opposing brutality without turning into bigots. Racism needs to be eliminated, not excused.
To defeat all forms of antisemitism – including those that masquerade as solidarity with oppressed Palestinians – we need to be able to identify them. That becomes impossible when the very meaning of the word is abused and lost. Take Douglas Murray, a writer with a particular obsession with Islam. “Thousands of anti-Semites have today succeeded in bringing central London to an almost total standstill” was his reprehensible description of a Palestine solidarity demonstration last month. This is not simply an unforgivable libel against peace protestors – Jews among them – who simply object to their government’s complicity in the massacre of children. It makes it much harder to identify genuine antisemitism. The same goes for the Daily Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill, who recently suggested the left was becoming antisemitic. Bizarrely, his evidence included the left’s stance against the disproportionate influence of the Murdoch empire: ironic, given that the non-Jewish Rupert Murdoch once drew on a classic antisemitic trope when he tweeted: “Why is Jewish owned press so consistently anti-Israel in every crisis?”
Yet there really is plenty of antisemitism that must be confronted. Take Greece, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has thrived amid economic trauma. Back in May, 16% of Athenian voters opted for the Golden Dawn candidate for the city’s mayor.According to a recent study, 69% of Greeks had antisemitic views; in Poland – despite suffering some of the Nazis’ worst horrors – it was 48%, Spain 53%. In Hungary the antisemitic party Jobbik won a fifth of the vote in April’s parliamentary elections. Like most of Europe’s far right, France’s Front National focuses its bile against Muslims, but the party’s roots are deep in antisemitism; and a few months ago it topped the country’s European parliamentary elections. Hatred against Jews is a clear and present danger.
Antisemitic themes are depressingly constant: of Jews being aliens, lacking loyalty to their countries, acting as parasites, wielding disproportionate influence. Sometimes this hatred is overt, other times more subtle and pernicious. It needs the broadest possible coalition to defeat. Because it is so embedded– dating back as it does to Roman times – it requires special determination to challenge. That does not mean antisemitism is somehow biologically hardwired into the European mindset: it can and will be eliminated. But that means defending its meaning from abuse. It is not simply about defending supporters of the Palestinian cause from smear and slander, but preventing the seriousness of antisemitism being devalued, making it harder to confront wherever it emerges. This is no small matter. The future security of Europe’s Jews depends on it.