Antisemitism in 21st century United Kingdom?

Don’t like Jews

An acquaintance once confided: “A lot of people here don’t like Jews”.  He is a born-and-bred British Jew, a successful businessman, not just well-integrated, but almost entirely assimilated into the social fabric of modern-day United Kingdom.  This man is the very image of self-confidence, yet he delivered that disconcerted statement at the dinner table in a low, almost conspiratorial voice.

His words spring to mind every time somebody mentions ‘defining’ antisemism.  And so, I remembered them recently, while reading the results of the latest survey on antisemitic attitudes in contemporary Great Britain.

Please tell us if you are an antisemite…

Undertook in 2016-2017 by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (a British-Jewish think-tank), the new poll is reputed to be the largest and most accurate survey on antisemitism ever performed in Britain.

But first, let’s talk about scope and methodology: the survey measured attitudes towards Jews and towards Israel among the British population.  It did so by approaching a representative sample of that population (more than 4,000 people in total), who were asked to provide answers to a questionnaire.

The first question asked was rather obvious:

“Please tell me if you have a very favourable, somewhat favourable, somewhat unfavourable or very unfavourable opinion of Jews”.

I say ‘obvious’ because this question is but a posher version of my friend’s rumination: it seeks to determine how many people “don’t like Jews”.  The immediate answer: 5.4% (that is, slightly more than 1 in 20 individuals or circa 3.6 million Britons) responded that they had either “a somewhat unfavourable” or “very unfavourable” opinion – i.e. that they “don’t like Jews”.  On the other hand, 39% said that they had a “favourable” or even “very favourable” opinion of Jews.  But the majority (56%) declared that their opinion of Jews was “neither favourable nor unfavourable”, or that they didn’t know/didn’t want to answer.

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“Not very helpful, this”, must have thought the academics behind the survey, scratching their balding pates.  Hence they asked the question again, while eliminating the ‘neutral’, fence-sitting option “neither favourable nor unfavourable”.  This time, 12.6% of respondents (i.e. 1 in 8) admitted that they didn’t like Jews.  In the absence of another ‘neutral’ option, 19.4% (almost 1 in 5) chose the ‘don’t know/refuse to answer’ option.

The report authors analysed the difference between the two sets of results:

“Within the context of this survey, that means that the respondents may have been somewhat cautious about revealing the true nature of their feelings toward certain groups, and may have given responses that were socially acceptable instead, i.e. responses that were unlikely to result in them being negatively judged. In survey science jargon the outcome of such under-reporting is called social desirability bias.”

Great.  Now let’s dispense with the “survey science jargon” and with ridiculous euphemisms such as “somewhat cautious about revealing the true nature of their feelings”.  The survey academics seem unable to say it – so let me state it for them: at least 7% of respondents (the difference between 12.6% and 5.4%) lied.  In the first experiment, they declared themselves ‘neutral’ – even though in reality they “don’t like Jews”, as proven by the second experiment.

And that is a fundamental problem with the “survey science”: people lie.  As we’ve all seen, most recently in polls regarding the Brexit referendum and US elections.  They lie to the pollsters and – perhaps even more frequently – they lie to themselves; and the more ‘controversial’ the issue, the higher the propensity to lie.  Ask yourself, dear reader: if you harboured some deep dislike towards an entire racial, ethnic or religious community – how likely would you be to admit those attitudes in writing, even in a questionnaire purported to be anonymous?  In fact, how likely would you be to admit them even to yourself – if they were (as they often are) well-hidden or even subliminal?

In fact, what the survey academics didn’t say (or didn’t say in plain English) is that those 12.6% are not the ones who “don’t like Jews”, but just the ones less reluctant to admit it.  There is no way of knowing how many (perhaps all?) of the 19.4% that stubbornly refused to answer did so because of understandable reluctance to confess a racist attitude.  It is also impossible to say how many of those who responded that they liked Jews actually lied (to the pollsters or to themselves) and in reality don’t.

Here’s another part of “survey science”: the very words used in asking the question create a strong bias, because people are always more likely to declare something positive (such as a “favourable opinion”) than they are to admit negative feelings (“unfavourable opinion”).  Even more so when it comes to issues of ‘race’.

The survey academics did not say all this in plain English – but they know it.  Which is why they continued their research beyond the obvious ‘favourable/unfavourable’ question.

I’m not antisemitic, but…

Respondents were presented with a number of statements about Jews and were asked to state if they agree with those statements or whether they disagree.  The statements themselves were based on common antisemitic preconceptions, but they also included a few positive statements about Jews.

And here are the results:

  • 13% agreed/strongly agreed that “Jews think they are better than other people”;
  • 12% agreed/strongly agreed that “The interests of Jews in Britain are very different from the interests of the rest”;
  • 12% agreed/strongly agreed that “Jews get rich at the expense of others”;
  • 10% think that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”;
  • 8% think that “Jews have too much power in Britain”;
  • 4% agree/strongly agree that “The Holocaust has been exaggerated” and 2% think it “is a myth”.

Again, the authors of the study avoid using plain language.  So let me do it in their stead: these ‘statements’ represent various embodiments of anti-Semitic prejudice.  And the percentages above are those of people who admit that they harbour those types of prejudice.

Interestingly, a full third of the people who declared unfavourable opinions in the previous round did not agree with any of the listed types of prejudice against Jews.  Maybe they base their antipathy on some other aspect; or perhaps they lied in the second round, when asked the more specific questions.  Or (more likely in my opinion), their dislike of Jews is a ‘matter of gut feeling’ and not based on any particular reason.  After all, racism isn’t rational; and, for some racists, it doesn’t even have to be post-rationalised.

True, on the other hand considerable majorities of Britons (78% and 61% respectively) agreed/strongly agreed that “A British Jew is just as British as any other British person” and that “British Jews make a positive contribution to British society”.

But, again, that’s not the end of the story.  A huge proportion of people (between 34% and 47%) reacted to the ‘negative’ questions either by choosing “neither agree nor disagree” or by refusing to answer.  On the other hand, just 16% chose that ‘neutral’ option with regard to the positive statement “A British Jew is just as British as any other British person”.  Perhaps many interpreted this as a statement of fact, rather than of opinion: after all ‘British’ (unlike ‘English’, ‘Scottish’ or ‘Jewish’) has to do with citizenship, not ethnicity; and it is a fact – not a matter of opinion – that British Jews are citizens equal under the law.

So, again, we are left mostly in the dark.  Take, for instance, “Jews get rich at the expense of others”: how many of the 39% who chose not to let us know their opinion about this statement actually agree with it (but are reluctant to confess it) and should really be added to the 12% who admitted the prejudice?  How many of the 34% who preferred to hide their feelings on the matter really believe that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”?

We know one thing: that, in the previous experiments, the number of people who admitted not liking Jews went up from 5.4% to 12.6% when the ‘neutral’ option was eliminated; in other words, 6 out of 10 individuals who actually don’t like Jews initially lied about it.  Assuming the same proportion for the ‘negative’ questions (an assumption that makes sense, I think, but for which I am unable to provide evidence) would mean for instance, that at least 27.5% of Britons believe that “Jews get rich at the expense of others”.

Unfortunately, the study’s authors did not overly concern themselves with the painful issue of insincere answers.  They did something else, however: they calculated the proportion of people who either admitted to disliking Jews or admitted to harbouring at least one type of anti-Jewish prejudice.  That proportion is 30%.  I.e., about 1 in 3 Britons admits to harbouring a dislike or prejudice against Jews.

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Boundary of the diffusion of attitudes

British Jews have a complex relationship with antisemitism: on one hand, they are keen to expose it, so that it can be dealt with; on the other hand, they are loath to admit its true extent.  And not just because it means confronting a scary situation, but because it would force them out of that false comfort of ignorance.  It is hard for a Jew to live, work and interact with other people when he/she knows that – statistically speaking – many of them ‘don’t like Jews’.

Hence, every piece of British-Jewish research into antisemitism always seems to tread softly, to gently tiptoe around the issue and to contain ‘clarifications’ meant to take the edge off otherwise harsh findings.

This study is no exception.  Having established – even with the huge caveat of deeming every answer as sincere – that scary 30% proportion, the authors take great pains to try and humble down its significance:

“We relate to this figure not as the proportion of antisemites that exist within British society (such a claim simply does not stand up to any reasonable scrutiny), but rather as a boundary of the diffusion of antisemitic attitudes in society. The use of the new term, diffusion, is highly significant analytically. It signals a shift in emphasis – from counting antisemitic individuals to quantifying the spread of attitudes that Jews consider to be antisemitic, and that may represent a source of discomfort or offense to many Jews when exposed to them.”

Well, I agree that antisemitism is not a matter of black-and-white, but a continuum of attitudes ranging from complete lack of prejudice to violent, berserk hatred.  What I do not understand or accept is the attempt to detach the assessment of the pandemic from the number (or proportion) of infected individuals.  Let’s do away with posh academic lingo and take an example.  Say an individual agrees (or strongly agrees) with the statement “Black people are lazy” (this is a prejudice originating, I believe, with white slave owners).  Would you then say that the polled individual is a racist – or would you just say that “We relate to this […] as a boundary of the diffusion of [racist] attitudes in society”??

‘Good’ news: they don’t ‘just’ hate Jews…

Perhaps in an attempt to persuade themselves that ‘things are not so bad, after all’, the survey authors also asked respondents about any ‘unfavourable’ opinions about Christians, Hindus and Muslims.  Needless to say, the vast majority of people in the UK do not dislike Christians – those who do represent just 3.1%.  After all, the UK is still ‘a Christian country’ – nominally at least, if not in terms of church attendance.  5.5% of respondents admitted to having unfavourable opinions of Hindus and 14.4% harbour such opinions with regard to Muslims.  So hey – there you are!  Jews fare no worse than Hindus and much better than Muslims.  Yupeee!!

Except that – though the academics behind the study failed to point this out – things are not so simple.  To start with, there are (according to the 2011 census) only about 260,000 Jews in the UK, compared to circa 835,000 Hindus.  That’s not including 425,000 Sikhs – although it’s doubtful that the average Briton differentiates between those two religions; in fact, it is much more likely that the majority of respondents had taken ‘Hindus’ to mean ‘more-or-less of Indian origin’, and hence have mentally included all ‘Indian-looking’ people, whether originating from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, whether Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Muslim.  That would bring UK’s total ‘Hindu’ population in 2011 to 3 million people.

As for Muslims, the 2011 census found circa 2.8 million self-declared adherents of this religion in the UK.

So both Hindu and Muslim minorities are considerably more numerous – arguably a full order of magnitude above Jews in absolute numbers and in proportion within the general British population.  As a result, the comparison is rather meaningless.  And for several reasons:

Firstly, given the minuscule proportion of Jews in the UK (and the fact that most British Jews live concentrated in a handful of urban areas), it is obvious that the vast majority of Britons spend the vast majority of their lives without ever interacting with Jews.  This means that, if they declare an ‘unfavourable opinion’ or some prejudice about Jews, that’s mostly not the result of some personal experience, not even personal experience wrongly twisted and generalised.  It is pure, unadulterated racism.

Secondly, at under 0.4% of population and given the long and bitter history of European antisemitism – including Inquisition, pogroms and the Holocaust – Jews not just feel more vulnerable, but objectively are more vulnerable than both Hindus and Muslims.  With regard to Jews (but not Hindus or Muslims), there is a concrete, relatively recent and absolutely horrific history of specific persecution.  This is not a ‘potential’ danger; nor are we talking about the type of racism that results in ‘mild’ discrimination – but about racism that has shown centuries of genocidal intensity.

Thirdly, in terms of sheer electoral muscle (the ultimate source of power in a parliamentary democracy) Jews are a negligible factor.  Hindus and Muslims are not.

All of the above should translate – in any democratic and caring society – into an understanding that Jews are more at risk of oppression and should therefore be more entitled to protection.

Left, right and centre

One of the issues investigated by the survey was the specific prevalence of antisemitic attitudes across the political spectrum.  To that end, respondents were asked to self-describe their political inclinations on a scale ranging from ‘very left wing’ to ‘very right wing’.  These categories were then cross-related to the previously measured antisemitic attitudes.

In the authors’ opinion, the only relevant result pertains to the ‘very right wing’.  52% of those who self-described as ‘very right wing’ admitted some form of antisemitic prejudice, as compared to 30% in the general population.  All the other types of political persuasion (including ‘very left wing’) hovered around 30%.  In the authors’ words:

“The very left-wing is indistinguishable from the general population and from the political centre in this regard. In general, it should be said that, with the exception of the very right-wing, there is little differentiation across the political spectrum in relation to the prevalence of antisemitic attitudes.”

Not so in relation to anti-Israel attitudes (which was measured using a similar methodology to the one described above).  Anti-Israel attitudes are hugely prevalent among the ‘very left wing’ – affecting close to 80% of those respondents.  Even among the ‘slightly left of centre’ anti-Israel attitudes are found among two thirds of respondents.  This exceeds even the prevalence of such sentiments among the ‘very far right’.

Should we conclude, then, that antisemitism is mainly an issue on the far right and that the far left is, in that respect, no-better-no-worse the rest of the British population?  Well, such stupid conclusions might, I think, come under the title ‘Statistics triumphs upon reason’.

The ‘anti-Zionism is not antisemitism’ has long been a slogan on the far-left.  Far-leftists have heard arguments around this slogan and are as a consequence both more motivated and more able to consciously avoid statements that are overtly antisemitic; to conceal antisemitic sentiment – and to more skilfully cloak it as ‘anti-Zionism’.  That biasing factor is certain to have been amplified in the period 28 October 2016 – 24 February 2017, when the survey was conducted and when Labour and Momentum were very much ‘under fire’ on the issue of antisemitism.  (See for instance articles published even in The Guardian.)

In fact, the poll attempts to use the same tools on two completely different populations: one (the militant far-left) is ‘forewarned’, extremely aware from a political point of view – and hence ‘forearmed’; the other, the much more ‘innocent’ and much less politically active centre, which decidedly less skilled in the art of dissimulation.  This is decidedly like comparing apples with oranges.

While far rightists may be just as militant as far leftists, they are less likely to dissimulate attitudes that may be perceived as racist, because such attitudes are less strident in the general picture of their ideology.

For the left (and in particular for the hard left), opposition to racism is – at least in theory – a major ideological thrust.  According to the perception of many Jews, the hard left’s anti-racism manifests a strange blind spot when it comes to seeing and identifying as such antisemitic (as opposed to anti-black, anti-Asian or Islamophobic) attitudes.  It would have been extremely interesting to test that hypothesis: even assuming that the ‘very left wing’ segment manifests the same level of anti-Jewish ‘dislike’ as the bulk of the population, how does that segment compare in terms of anti-Hindu and anti-Muslim sentiment?  If the level of that kind of racism is lower than average (as would be expected from a purportedly ‘anti-racist’ segment), then that would prove the ‘blind spot’ hypothesis.  Unfortunately, that data is not available in the published survey report.

But even if we were to accept that the far left is – from the point of view of antisemitism – no-better-no-worse than the bulk of British population, that should not be, from their own point of view, an acceptable situation.  This is a political segment that – to a considerable extent – defines itself in terms of opposition to racism.  Naively, we would expect them to be at the forefront of fight against antisemitism and not just ‘average’.

But you know what?  Let us now be practical.  Let us assume, despite all the above caveats, that the proportions found in the survey are largely correct.  So, we’ve got 52% of the far right harbouring antisemitic sentiment and ‘only’ 33% on the far left.  Does it follow, then, that the priority should be fighting far-right antisemitism?  Hardly!  In fact, the opposite is more logical, because in contemporary UK the far right is decidedly marginal – both in terms of numbers and of political influence.

Just 1.4% of respondents self-describe as ‘very right wing’, while 3.6% declare themselves as ‘very left wing’.  If we include ‘fairly right wing’ and ‘’fairly left wing’, the proportions are 7.8% and 15.5%, respectively.  As a result, despite the lower proportion, there are more leftists harbouring antisemitic prejudice than there are rightists.

But it’s not just about the numbers.  In terms of practical political influence, the English Defence League is a non-entity and so is the BNP; with no representatives in the Parliament, even UKIP is more and more inconsequential.  On the other hand, the hard-left faction currently leads the Labour Party – the country’s second-largest parliamentary bloc.  It is Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of that faction, that has a chance of becoming the next Prime Minister, not Nick Griffin or even Nigel Farage.

Proudly anti-Zionist, but utterly opposed to antisemitism…

Previous polls showed that, for the vast majority of British Jews, the State of Israel is central to their Jewish identity.  While British Jews accept (and often join) ‘normal’ criticism of Israeli government policies, they typically perceive anti-Israel hostility and anti-Zionism as antisemitic.  The survey attempted to discover, using statistical means, whether there is a correlation between ‘anti-Israelism’ and antisemitic prejudice.

In their academic lingo, the study authors state:

“we find that the existence of an association between the antisemitic and the anti-Israel attitudes tested, is unambiguous.”

In English: according to the survey results, the more anti-Israel a respondent’s opinions, the higher the likelihood that that individual also harbours antisemitic prejudice.  As we have seen, the prevalence of that prejudice is 30% among the general British population; it is, however, 74% among those with high levels of anti-Israel hostility.  1 in 2 respondents with strong anti-Israel opinions believes that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”; compared to 1 in 10 respondents in the general population.  Conversely, among those who hold no anti-Israel opinion, 86% are also free of antisemitic prejudice.  Of course, as discussed earlier, the correlation is likely to be even stronger than that, because the survey ignores the (very likely) possibility that some respondents will much more freely express anti-Israel attitudes, which they consider legitimate and even noble political views; but will tend to conceal anti-Jewish opinions, which are less ‘socially acceptable’.

In total, one third of respondents were willing to declare an ‘unfavourable’ or ‘somewhat unfavourable’ opinion about Israel.  The equivalent proportion was 23% about the USA and 48% about Iran.

Unfortunately, the survey investigated the correlation between ‘anti-state’ opinion and ‘anti-people’ prejudice only in the case of Israel and Jews.  It would have been interesting to see, for instance, if respondents who exhibited anti-USA opinions also tended to show more dislike for Americans living in Britain; but such data is not available.

As any student of statistics knows, ‘correlation’ does not necessarily imply causality – and of course does not shed any light on the direction of that causality.  True to their academic (or perhaps didactic) make-up, the study’s authors felt compelled to point that out:

“Our analysis lacks the capacity to identify causality. What remains unclear is just how the connection between the two types of attitudes arises, when it does. Do people develop anti-Israel attitudes because they are antisemitic? Does adopting an anti-Israel position become just one more channel for expressing antisemitism? Or, alternatively, do people become antisemitic as a side-effect of their anti-Israel attitudes and activities? Future research will have to tackle the question of the chain and order of the acquisition of these two types of attitudes.”

Theoretically, that is indeed so.  But, ‘between us girls’, allow me to scoff with contempt at the ludicrous suggestion that a sentiment well-documented in Europe for many centuries may actually be “a side-effect” of attitudes towards the modern State of Israel (established in 1948).  Statistics is an excellent aid for reason; it should never be employed in-lieu of reason.

So let’s summarise – in as simple a way as possible – what we learned about the anti-Zionism/antisemitism correlation:

  • If a Brit appears strongly hostile to Israel – this does not absolutely mean that s/he harbours antisemitic prejudice; but there is a 74% likelihood that s/he does.
  • If a Brit shows zero hostility towards Israel, it does not absolutely mean that s/he is free of antisemitic prejudice; but there is an 86% likelihood that s/he is.

Faithfully antisemitic

The study also tested the prevalence of antisemitic and anti-Israel sentiment among various religious communities in the UK.  To paraphrase the study’s authors, the conclusion in this respect is also ‘unambiguous’: no significant difference was found among the various Christian denominations, or indeed between Christians and those who self-described as ‘of no religion’.  On the other hand, both anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opinions are much more prevalent among British Muslims.

Almost 40% of the British Muslims polled did not agree with the statement “A British Jew is just as British as any other British person”.  63% did not agree that “British Jews make a positive contribution to British society”.  1 in 4 British Muslims believes that “Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes”.  1 in 7 believes that the Holocaust has been exaggerated and 1 in 12 believes that it is a myth.

According to the study, the higher the level of Islamic religious observance, the higher also the level of antisemitic prejudice (and anti-Israel opinion) among British Muslims.

It’s not like there are pogroms here!

Finally, the study measured the propensity to violence against Jews.  When asked whether it is justified to use violence against Jews “in defence of one’s political or religious beliefs and values”, 4.1% of respondents opined that this is ‘often justified’ or ‘sometimes justified’; 9.8% opined that it ‘rarely justified’.  When the same question was asked about ‘Zionists’, the proportions were 4.4% and 10.1% respectively; naming Israelis as the target of violence resulted only in a minor increase: 4.8% and 10.4%, respectively.  Strangely, the study authors failed to point out this similarity – which may indicate that for extremists the terms Jews, Zionists and Israelis are quasi-interchangeable.

4.1% might sound like a small proportion.  But when applied to the entire British population, it translates into 3 million people envisaging violence against Jews, either ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’, if they perceive that their “political or religious beliefs and values” are jeopardised.

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It would have been interesting to see the propensity-to-violence among Muslim respondents, but the data has not been provided in the report.  Was the result uninteresting, or did it offend the authors’ sense of ‘political correctness’?  We can only guess.

(Not) assigning blame

And perhaps it was political correctness that caused the authors to opine, in the final conclusions that, despite their focus on perceived ‘high incidence’ segments such as far right, far left and Muslims, the ‘responsibility’ for antisemitism cannot be assigned to these groups.  The authors justify that conclusion by showing that, if those three segments were eliminated from the analysis, the level of anti-Semitic prejudice would reduce only marginally.  That’s because those three segments of focus are numerically small within the general population (they account together for only circa 10%).  Well, the number crunching is correct – but the reasoning is rotten; this is yet another instance in which the authors are, in my humble opinion, ‘misinformed by data’.  Looking simplistically at the ‘numeric’ contribution of the three focus segments may be misleading.  We are clearly dealing with segments that tend to be more ‘militant’, where the general population is typically more ‘apathetic’.  The question is – or should be: to what extent are the levels of antisemitic prejudice found in the general population the result of the 3 segments’ militancy?  After all, the activism of a small but militant minority can gradually ‘spill over’ or ‘seep into’ the majority – such phenomenon is well-known in social sciences and is familiar also from historical events.  We do not know if this is what occurred here; but surely the authors should have given more thought to this very credible possibility, before placing the ‘responsibility’ squarely on the shoulders of the ‘mainstream’ and practically exonerating the political extremes (and the Muslim community) as ‘too few to matter’.

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Making no bones about it

It is easy to get caught in (or get bored with) numbers and number-crunching.  But what this study (and of all the studies before it) did was merely to provide scientific evidence for something that most British Jews – the well-ensconced, comfortable British Jews – already knew; for something they feel in their not-yet-assimilated Jewish bones: that antisemitism exists – and at worrying levels; that it exists in 21st century United Kingdom; that it exists in the mainstream and among those that inscribed anti-racism on their flags as a defining value; that it’s everywhere and that it’s growing.

It’s good to have scientific evidence.  But frankly – I don’t need it.  I listen to the scream of alarm coming from those old Jewish bones.  Broken by Inquisition and burned at Auschwitz – they’ve developed delicate nerves.  They’ve learned to identify a certain type of hostility – even when it’s well-hidden, even when it’s reflexive and subliminal.  They tell me all I need to know…

About the Author
Noru served in the IDF as a regular soldier and reservist. Currently a management consultant, in his spare time he engages in pro-Israel advocacy, especially in interfaith environments. He presented in front of Church of England and Quaker audiences and provides support to Methodist Friends of Israel. Noru is the Editor-in-Chief of 'Politically-incorrect Politics' (www.Pol-inc-Pol.com). Translated into Polish, his articles are also published by the Polish portal 'Listy z naszego sadu.'
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