Paper presented at an international symposium on the “Resurgence of Antisemitism: Realities, Fictions and Uses”, Brussels 12/13 December 2018
I want to start with some personal biography. My grandparents came to Britain as Jewish child immigrants from Poland and Ukraine in the early 1900s. I grew up in an economically struggling Jewish family in inner London, that gradually became more comfortable.
My extended family were mostly Labour voters, plus some communist-supporting relatives. My family were traditional; not very religious, not actively Zionist. They had no family in Israel, but sympathised with Israel at a general level.,
I became involved in socialist politics and antifascist activism when I was around 16 years old. My first demonstration was against the National Front, a group formed in Britain in 1967 by convinced Nazis, who recruited a wider layer of supporters from all classes, by condemning black immigration and promoting British nationalism.
I went to that demonstration with several Jewish friends from a Zionist youth group. I had illusions then about Israel/Palestine that I discarded long ago. Perhaps only one or two of those Jewish friends I attended the demonstration with, would define themselves as Zionist now. People can be persuaded to rethink by convincing arguments and evidence. Today though, many leftists are better at condemning and proclaiming than persuading.
I broke with Zionism as a result of my deepening involvement in anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, alongside a more serious engagement with the realities in Israel/Palestine.
Today, there is little involvement of left-wing or liberal Zionists within the anti-racist and anti-fascist movement in Britain. Debates around Zionism and antisemitism have become more toxic within the left. Many Jews claim that the left does not take antisemitism seriously, that it trivialises the existence of antisemitism; or dismisses it as a few cranks holding old prejudices. Many leftists insist it cannot be compared with the institutional racism that blacks, Muslims, migrant workers, and refugees suffer every day. There is some truth in all these assertions but we cannot generalise. Many left-wing Zionists are quick to label people antisemites who make genuine observations about the impacts of different kinds of racism.
In the 1970s I was inspired by slogans: “Black and white, unite and fight”, “self-defence is no offence”, and especially by: “here to stay – here to fight!”, which argued that the struggle was not only against discrimination, but it was also a positive assertion of the right of minorities to live as equals and develop their distinctive identities and cultures.
Another slogan from that time disturbed me: “Yesterday the Jews, today the blacks”. at street level, the National Front targeted Caribbean and Asian communities, but fascists do not replace targets: they accumulate them. Antisemitism still played a significant role for the fascists then and now. Two publications from that period explained this well: Racism, Fascism and the Politics of the National Front: a pamphlet, by David Edgar, a left wing playwright; and a book called Fascists: by Michael Billig, a social-psychologist, based on interviews with middle-rank National Front activists.
Edgar argued that although most fascists surface campaigning directed itself against non-white immigrants, the ideology shared by the movement’s inner-core said immigrants themselves were merely pawns of more powerful forces who promoted multiculturalism to undermine the white race. Who were these forces? The Jews. Billig’s book showed that the higher up the movement you moved, the more you were exposed to “world Jewish conspiracy” ideas of classic Nazi antisemitism.
Many people assume that, in Britain, you have to go back to the 1930s to find Jews in the front line at street level from fascists. You don’t. Just after the war, between 1946 and 1950 fascist groups re-emerged promoting antisemitism, but were beaten back by a physical anti-fascist campaign organised mainly by Jewish ex-army servicemen and women called the 43 Group.
In the 1960s, thousands of anti-fascists broke up a rally where the platform had a banner across it saying “Free Britain from Jewish control”. In the early 1960s protests fringe far-right groups in Britain held banners proclaiming “Hitler was Right”. Those banners disappeared from view for nearly 50 years, as fascists began to use code-words to express antisemitism. But in the last few years similar banners have reappeared.
In America, and especially in central and eastern Europe, antisemitism is still the glue that holds neo-Nazis’ worldview together, that explains global economics and politics.
Racism against black and brown minorities in Britain has deep roots in Britain’s imperial and colonial past. Negative stereotypes of inferiority sustained themselves long after the Empire collapsed. They are still woven through institutions such as police, the criminal justice system and the education system.
Antisemitism has other deep roots in Britain society. Sometimes it has overlapped with more familiar anti-immigrant racism, but more often it stereotypes Jews not as inferior but as an intelligent, alien clique conspiring to undermine the nation
The mass immigration of Jews to Britain took place mainly between 1881 and 1905. In 1905, the Government passed the Aliens Act, which dramatically reduced Jewish immigration. The Prime Minister who pushed it through was Lord Balfour, who, 12 years later, promised Palestine to the Jews. Balfour was responding to grassroots campaigning from organisations such as the British Brothers League, whose activists were from struggling working class communities bordering Jewish enclaves.
People whose work was precarious, and whose housing conditions were poor, were convinced by the League’s middle-class leaders, such as Major William Evans-Gordon, that all their problems were caused by immigrants. Some politicians and many newspapers described Jews as dirty, diseased, parasitic, culturally inferior, alien, as well as being criminals and anarchists.
Both Evans-Gordon and Balfour were personal friends of a young Zionist called Chaim Weizman, who later became the first President of Israel. Evans-Gordon and Balfour were Christian Zionists and imperialists in foreign policy but antisemites domestically.
The everyday racism Jews suffered at this time, though, was largely from white workers who saw them as rivals for scarce resources. It was very similar to the xenophobic prejudices later experienced by Caribbean and Asian immigrants,
A more ideologically articulated antisemitism emerged in the 1930s. The British Union of Fascists, formed by Sir Oswald Mosley in 1932, portrayed working class Jews as rivals for the indigenous working class, but focused more on alleged machinations of wealthier Jews. It portrayed them as immensely powerful, accused them of controlling the economy, the media, and the political system. From autumn 1934 Mosley made antisemitism the central plank of his fascist ideology, defining a battle between “the cleansing spirit of fascism” and Jews as “an unclean, alien influence in our national and imperial life”.
Mosley preferred Mussolini to Hitler, at first, but in early 1936 his movement became the British Union of Fascists and National Socialists, and embraced Hitlerite antisemitism. Street-corner speakers for the movement still cast Jews as criminals, bad landlords, and rivals for jobs and homes, but they also described Jews as “rats and vermin”, “subhumans”, a “pestilence”, or a “cancer” that had to be removed,
Antisemitism proved popular among sections of all classes in the population. The fascists had 500 branches around the country including 20 branches at fee-paying schools for the wealthy. This helped to sustain an antisemitic mind-set among sections of the upper and upper-middle classes after World War 2, as they reached adulthood.
I sense that antisemitism in Britain is rising today together with other hatreds. That subjective perception is supported by the principal organisation collecting data on antisemitism – the Community Security Trust (CST) – a mainstream Jewish body that work closely with the police. They also work closely with the main institution claiming to represent the Jewish community – the Board of Deputies of British Jews – but are independent from it.
In political terms CST personnel comprise right-wing Labourites and mild Conservatives. They are pro-Zionist, and defensive about Israel, but not Netanyahu supporters. However, they are an increasingly reliable source of information on the kinds of incidents that occur and the profiles of the perpetrators. Mostly now, they differentiate between politically motivated abuse relating to Israel and Zionism and antisemitic abuse. They reject claims by Jews of antisemitic incidents which do not show a clear antisemitic intention. Their end of year report for 2017 recorded more than 1,300 incidents but left out several hundred more where anti-Jewish motives could not be proven.
Their facts indicate a significant, and gradually increasing level of attacks on Jewish individuals, sometimes on groups (such as schoolchildren), and on Jewish institutions such as synagogues and cemeteries. A typical attack involves verbal abuse, threatening behaviour and sometimes physical assault. Victims of assaults are often ultra-orthodox Jews, attacked for how they dress. Muslim girls and women wearing the hijab face similar street harassment.
The language used in many attacks frequently references the Holocaust and Hitler. Jewish communal leaders claim that the principal threat to Jews in Britain comes from the Left, but where the CST can identify perpetrators, the majority are white far-right. However, increasing numbers of incidents are perpetrated by other minorities, who themselves experience racism. These perpetrators often utilise the same Hitler and Holocaust tropes.
The far right have flooded the internet with poisonous antisemitic ideas, alleging Jewish conspiracies by “Rothschild bankers”/”Rothschild Zionists”. These powerful conspiracy theories are entering mainstream and minority cultures. Sometimes, they are unwittingly shared by Leftists who think they are sharing anti-capitalist or pro-Palestinian material. They are tainting both of these just struggles.
Jewish establishment responses to antisemitism and the far right, and to racism in general in Britain, have long been inadequate but have also undergone significant historical shifts.
Today the Board of Deputies seem to see antisemitism everywhere. Yet in the 1930 when working class Jews faced sustained abuse and assaults from organised fascists, the Board of Deputies and the principle Jewish establishment newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, dismissed the fascist threat as exaggerated, and treated the perpetrators merely as “Hitler copy-cats”.
They refused to believe that antisemitism could flourish in a country they characterised as fair, decent and tolerant. When that movement terrorised Jewish communities and threatened to march through the Jewish working class heartland, the Deputies and the Jewish Chronicle advised Jews to stay indoors and avoid protest actions that might lead to disorder. The community completely ignored them and inflicted a peoples’ defeat on the fascists through mass street action, in October 1936 in what became known as the “Battle of Cable Street”. Soon after that, Jewish leaders began to argue that Jewish behaviour was provoking antisemitism.
In the 1970s and early 1980s when the National Front were mainly targeting blacks and Asians – though antisemitism had not disappeared – Jewish “leaders” acknowledged the problems were principally caused by the far right, but they trusted the same state authorities who were frequently mistreating immigrant communities to deal with it.
When a mass and broad-based anti-fascist movement – the Anti-Nazi League – was created by leftists in 1978, the Jewish establishment tried to dissuade young Jews from joining it, claiming that some ANL leaders were known for anti-Zionist activism. I believe that the Jewish establishment was less worried about Israel than the prospect of young Jews associating with militant leftists.
The Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) –a radical fringe group – openly challenged communal leaders and helped recruit Jews to the Anti-Nazi League. A bigger confrontation with the Deputies came in the early 1980s. The JSG obtained and released information kept under wraps by the Board of Deputies about an increasing number of serious antisemitic incidents in London perpetrated by the far-right. Jewish leaders attempted to hide this from the community, because it might have alarmed the community or encouraged Jews to make common cause with other minorities. They preferred to deal with it privately in close cooperation with state authorities.
Contrast that with recent years where Britain’s Jewish leaders see antisemitism everywhere including where it is not present at all. This has coincided with their adopting a much more strident and explicit anti-left agenda, especially after Jeremy Corbyn, a pro-Palestinian radical socialist, became leader of the Labour Party. There is another paper at the conference on this so I won’t intrude on that, but just make a few observations.
The left, in its many organisations, have been the strongest and most militant fighters against racism and fascism in Britain, but they have not always recognised the continuing presence and significance of antisemitism.
Some elements of the left for whom Palestinian concerns are very important, who recognise that antisemitism provides the self-justification for Zionism, mistakenly believe that giving attention to antisemitism weakens their support for Palestinians. It doesn’t. Jewish communities are increasingly polarising over Israel/Palestine and Zionism. Every reliable survey of Jewish community opinion in Britain shows a decline in self-identification with the term “Zionist” – down from more than 70% to 59% in the last decade. Increasing numbers of Jews speak out for Palestinian rights. Those numbers would be greater still if Jews felt that those speaking up for Palestine also consistently denounced antisemitism.
Jewish community leaders speak and act as if there is rampant antisemitism on the left. They cynically conflate opposition to Israeli policy, and critiquing of Zionism, with antisemitism. They promote the lie that Zionism is an intrinsic and eternal part of Jewish identity rather than it being one of several political ideologies that were vying for support among Jews at the end of the 19th century
There are two errors frequently made on the left that make it open to criticism from Zionists. Leftists often refer to Israel when mean the Israeli government or the Israeli
military, or Israeli settlers. This homogenises Israeli Jews and erases the internal opposition. There are growing numbers of brave but harassed oppositionists within Israel – who are a mixture of anti-Zionists, non-Zionists, and left-wing Zionists. How they define themselves is less important than what they do. The left in Britain and elsewhere in Europe should recognise and broadcast what Israel’s internal opposition is doing.
The other error is to frequently make analogies between Israeli state practice and Nazism. This accusation seems more intended to wound rather than enlighten. It reveals a lack of historical understanding or empathy with Jews under Nazism. Racist discriminatory aspects of Israeli government policy are certainly similar to practices in the very early years of Nazism, but there are perhaps closer similarities with other racist, ultra-nationalist regimes, or with ethnic cleansers, for example, during the Yugoslav wars.
Why are we obsessed with making analogies? We can find all the arguments and evidence for promoting Palestinian justice in the practices of Israeli governments and institutions that are about dispossession, exclusion, discrimination and oppression. We don’t need to invoke Hitler.
Despite these errors, it is the left that consistently exposes and combats those who genuinely threaten the future well-being of minorities in Britain today. Leaders of the Jewish community highlight any perceived antisemitism on the Left even if the evidence is flimsy, yet they are silent on regimes in central and Eastern Europe where antisemitism rides in tandem with Islamophobia, anti-Roma prejudice and other forms of bigotry, where such regimes are friends with Benjamin Netanyahu.
We are entering a dangerous period with regard to the growth of the British far-right where the traditional alliance between the Left and the Jewish community has broken down. We urgently need to fix this.