This week has seen publication of the most detailed survey yet of contemporary attitudes towards the Jewish community in the UK. Yet rather than addressing ‘anti-Semitism’ as a monolithic phenomenon, the report applies the cool scalpel of reason within this loaded term. The dispassionate approach reflects a mandate by the report’s backer’s – the Community Security Trust (CST) and Institute of Jewish Policy Research – for it to direct their own internal activity rather than generate headlines. The result is a highly-nuanced work which confounds some expectations as it confirms others.
A central conclusion is that anti-Semitism should be considered as a multiplicitous – or ‘elastic’ – phenomenon; both in terms of how these sentiments are held and how they are perceived by Jewish people. The survey builds a three-dimensional picture of attitudes by tirelessly cross-referencing responses from individuals, and explicitly rejects the notion that a handful of anti-Semitic responses make an anti-Semite. As such, it draws a distinction between the 5% minority of Britons considered actively anti-Semitic and the much larger 30% pool who hold one or more anti-Semitic view. Yet the presence of this background – or ‘diffused’ – anti-Semitism in turn underpins a tendency for Jewish people to be oversensitive to isolated examples. Together with the presence of cultural differences – for example Jewish people associating their identity more closely with Israel than non-Jewish people realise – the report reaches a two-fold conclusion: that much anti-Semitism is unintentional, and that that which exists tends to be over-perceived by Jewish people. Happily, this holds true to much everyday experience in Britain. When an Israeli activist recently draped himself in the national flag and walked through inner-city London, he drew only occasional stares.
Even so, the CST’s own data recorded a 30% increase in anti-Semitic incidents during half of 2017 – taking the total to the highest ever since records began in 1984. Against this background, the report’s methodology feels extremely forgiving. Its authors have calmly rejected the growing conventional arsenal for offence-taking – instead raising the bar for discrimination just as other groups are lowering it. In particular, their rejection of ‘victim-identified’ discrimination – instead suggesting that potential victims are least well-equipped to identify genuine hate – swims against a growing orthodoxy in the British legal system. In an era when a stray Tweet can lead to a visit from the police – and piles of unsubstantiated online reports have been used to generate sweeping moral panics – the forensic attitude is remarkable.
What lies behind it? It is tempting to cite the long tradition of Jewish rationalism, as well as the historical resonances of an ‘elastic’ reading of anti-Semitism. (“He may be Prime Minister,” said one aristocratic hostess about Britain’s Jewish-born leader Benjamin Disraeli. “But do we have to have him in the house?” A better example of elasticity couldn’t be found). More immediately, there is the need for the sponsoring organisations to deploy resources without ideological blinkers and with maximum effect. Equally there is the practical question of who would benefit from raising the cry of anti-Semitism. It is by no means clear if over a decade of intense discussion of Islamophobia has made Muslims – or indeed anyone – safer. The lesson of the recent cycle of political radicalisation in the US is that if you tilt at a windmill, it is liable to tilt back.
And yet, as it feels out its response to anti-Semitism, there is a paradox at work which is unique to the Jewish community: for it to respond in an organised way risks undermining the very assimilation on which its security has rested. Where other risk groups typically self-identify and self-organise in response to threat – very vocally, in some cases – Jewish communities do the reverse. A second anti-Semitism survey this summer – conducted among Jewish people themselves – revealed that over a third of respondents had stopped self-identifying in public. At the root of this response is the profound fear of de-assimilation. To understand what the threat of de-assimilation means, it is necessary to understand the sheer speed which it struck during the Twentieth Century.
As late as the First World War, the notion of a German-directed holocaust against the Jewish people would have seemed like an evil fantasy. Second only to Britain, German-speaking lands had provided rich grounds for Jewish settlers to pursue their doctrine of providing social utility as a means of assimilation. The rising tide of Nineteenth Century Liberalism carried these settlers with it, meaning entry into the professions and arts was high. Theodore Herzl made Austria-Hungary the base for his project for a Jewish state. In his optimism, the immaculately-dressed Zionist actually ran to work each morning. Such threat as remained was outside Europe in Tsarist Russia, where Jewish people were still confined to the Pale of Settlement around modern Ukraine and Poland. This second-class life – as represented in the Fiddler on the Roof – was a far cry from the bourgeois opportunities of Vienna or Berlin.
The winds changed too quickly for many to respond and save their own lives. A mere 14 years elapsed between the drafting of the the Weimar Republic’s constitution by its – Jewish – Interior Minister to the banning of Jewish Germans from the civil service. That is less time than has passed since 9/11. Disbelief – denial, in fact – is a constant theme of Jewish popular response to Nazi Germany. Worse was the very success of assimilation being turned against these communities. The characterisation of ‘rich Jews’ was itself dependent on a success in the professions which would have been impossible in isolation from society. And yet the caricature of super-sophisticated, fur-coat-wearing industrialists coexisted with propaganda cartoons of rats. The mugging by reality was too brutal to be comprehended – not only before the war but after. Survivors found themselves shunned. “It couldn’t happen” mutated into “it couldn’t have happened”.
But it did.
De-assimilation anxiety has pulled hard on the western Jewish consciousness ever since – and provides a key to understanding modern popular culture. The hit Meet-The-Parents series of movie comedies turns on precisely this point: the nightmare experienced by a modern secular Jew attempting to marry into the ultimate WASP family. The actor Sacha Baron Cohen hides behind multiple characters partly to draw out latent anti-Semitism. Only once in his career has the mask slipped on camera: when in the guise of a Kazakh film producer, he got a Midwestern American audience singing along to ‘Throw the Jew Down the Well’. The Channel 4 Television series Jewish Mum of the Year sparked a huge wave of de-assimilation anxiety when it was aired in 2012. By casting a spotlight on the dualism which seeks to preserve Jewish cultural customs while also contributing fully to society, it committed an unforgivable sin.
The fear of de-assimilation goes beyond anti-Semitism and even pushes away the opposite sentiment of philo-Semitism. The public profession of wider pro-Jewish feelings should – like self-organisation – be a natural antidote to anti-Semitism. Indeed, the success of every other ‘identity politics’ movement in the West has rested on leveraging the support of outsiders: be they straight, white, or non-transgender. But when it comes expressing solidarity with Jewish people – especially in social situations – the gift is often returned unopened. From a de-assimilation perspective, a vocal philo-Semite can be – tragically – the next worse thing to an anti-Semite. Such discomfort was seen in the response to Julie Burchill’s strident 2014 memoir of Judeophilia Unchosen.
Anti-Semitism therefore presents a double fear – both awakening the spectre of an existential threat and presenting an impossible dilemma on how to respond. The potential for a vicious cycle of de-assimilation is already sickeningly present in France. This week the head of a school in Marseilles made the stark admission that he – and other headmasters – could not guarantee the safety of Jewish children in state schools. Instead, he refers them to Jewish schools – making them even easier to identify. The presence of unmarked, fortified Jewish schools in North London already sits uneasily on the same spectrum. It is with this future in mind that Jewish communities metabolise prejudice differently from other risk groups – absorbing it when possible, and eschewing victim status where others amplify it.
Yet, for all the analytical calm of this week’s report, some of its logical extensions are less comforting. Although it establishes a clear distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism – with the latter being far more developed – it acknowledges that, where most virulent, the two strains converge. Similarly it acknowledges that, while anti-Semitism exerts a much stronger hold on the far-Right than the far-Left of politics, the numerical superiority of the far-Left creates something of a demographic parity. It points out that the more advanced entryism of the far-Left into the ‘mainstream’ of politics carries anti-Semitism closer to the centre than the more developed anti-Semitism of the far Right, which remains more isolated. And it points to 4x to 6x higher level of anti-Semitism among certain other religious sub-groups – with this becoming more pronounced with greater religious observance.
For the reasons outlined above, the traditional ‘keep calm and carry on’ is good tactical advice for Jewish communities. But below the sanguine exterior, unease is growing. Whether it is also the right long-term strategy is another question. If anti-Semitism continues to grow in the UK, it may be time for Britain’s long-standing philo-Semitism to be more openly stated – and accepted.