Ask an average person what antisemitism is and they’ll probably give you a simple answer. “Not Liking Jews”, maybe even “Hatred of Jews”. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as “strong dislike or cruel and unfair treatment of Jewish People”
All definitions have a subjective element (how strong is strong?) and the determination to rely on one over another has scattered eggshells around us all. Everyone is wearing size 12 boots. Cue lots of tip toeing for most, whilst those who think Hitler was right trample away on Twitter and Instagram. Wiley and his tweets are clearly antisemitic but should we really use the same word to describe Maxine Peake for her mistaken reference to Israel when talking about the murder of George Floyd?
To move to a clear resolution we need to cut to the chase. Israel.
Many British Jews, historically divided equally between Labour and Tories (despite the oft quoted idea that Labour is the traditional home of the Jews) are more than uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s plans for annexation. High levels of Israeli poverty (more than Mexico) don’t sit well. The inability to get a Government that can act without appeasing a gaggle of minority parties doesn’t sit well (that’s Proportional Representation for you). We can’t vote in an Israeli election nor can we tell Israelis how they should vote. As British citizens, the only Government we have any say in is Her Majesty’s.
But the overwhelming majority of British Jews – research bears this out – do feel an affinity to the country. We have close relatives and friends who live there. We pray for its safety in all our synagogues – immediately after we pray for the Queen and the UK. It remains our refuge. Without it, Jews can be picked on, humiliated, ostracised and slaughtered. Somewhere in the world it will happen again, however many harrowing images appear on TV programmes, however many memorials are built to the Holocaust. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the vast majority of UK Jews aren’t tied to Israel just because a few loud voices on Twitter keep quiet on the subject.
Any British citizen under 40 would be hard pressed to think of a time when Israel was actually threatened with being decimated. They may remember terrorists blowing up Israeli buses or Israeli nightclubs and then the IDF taking revenge. Or possibly Iraq’s missiles in the first Gulf War which had the population reaching for their gas masks, thankfully un-needed. And yet, for the first 30 years of its existence, Israel was in real danger of being wiped out by Arab countries joining forces – as they did every 10 years or so. Since the Yom Kippur War in ’73 when Egypt, Syria and Jordan launched a surprise attack, the news has been mainly the drip drip drip effect of Israel, seen as a powerful and modern country in an occasionally violent dispute with a poorer, oppressed population, the Palestinians.
Whether this view is fair is irrelevant. It simply is. It’s not for the younger British generation to spend its free time researching the various wars, histories of both Jewish and Palestinian refugees, solutions that might have been. No-one really cares that Israel has great LGBT rights. Or that it’s contributing life-changing scientific and medical advances. Or that it’s the only democracy in the Mid-East. We have jobs to keep, loves to be found, families to look after, Netflix to watch, rents and mortgages to pay, even without COVID.
There is only one argument that really matters:
Israel is a state of refuge – it has by law to accept the any Jewish immigrant plus close relatives (other than extreme criminals) from anywhere in the world. It was founded after many pogroms, exiles and massacres. Not just the Holocaust. Were we massaged out of England in 1290? Gently nudged out of France in 1394? Caressed out of Spain in1492? No, we’ve been bloodily butchered across this continent simply for being Jews.
The Holocaust was merely the 20th Century’s attempt at annihilation. Instead, we should take a stroll, century by century, country by country, over the past 1700 years of legitimized religious slaughter. If each expulsion had been committed to celluloid, every mass execution witnessed, the Holocaust would find its place in a sea of persecution and brutality.
In the Middle Ages Christians held a literal torch to the Jews by burning us at the stake. In Spain, where Jews were murdered by the thousand it was called an auto da fe which translates rather ironically as “an act of faith”. Taken literally and expounded, the New Testament has been the most violent of champions for antisemitism.
Thankfully, the Church of England enabled the growth of tolerant Christianity – a much-underappreciated asset to the whole country. At Easter, no effigy of Christ on the cross is dragged through cobbled streets whipping up hatred of supposed god killers. Instead, we have uplifting sermons of hope and chocolate bunnies. In any number of strongly Catholic countries, if removing the Jews was useful once, why should it not happen again? Poland’s new President has just been elected on a Catholic platform of antisemitism.
The fact that the Jews won’t be slaughtered again is entirely because of Israel. When Jews stand up and say “Never again”, we can say it with confidence only because of that country. You can carry out your “act of faith” on someone else, thanks. You won’t see Jews perishing in a stinking sinking dinghy in the waters off a Greek island while the world watches on. Without Israel, “Never Again” is a request, not a statement.
More urgently, “Never Again” is totally meaningless because it has happened again and is happening again. Bosnia, Rwanda, Yemen, the Uighur Muslims in China. The world’s inability to act to prevent genocide, is an embarrassment and a stain on humanity. For “Never Again” we should substitute “Almost Certainly Again”.
It was noticeable how quickly Britain moved to offer sanctuary to over 2 million citizens of Hong Kong. That shows what can happen when a State genuinely cares. Sanctuary.
It may be an anathema to that part of modern Britain that has moved totally away from its Christian origins (only 40-50% call themselves Christians) but Israel is built on the idea that Jews will control its fate. Perhaps In an atheist’s world, all citizens can and should live together in the ideals of peace and harmony, John Lennon style, without the illogical shackles of religion. Many atheists may genuinely abhor the old antisemitism that stems from Christianity. However, just because you hate religious antisemitism and stand against it, doesn’t mean that you recognise the only resolution is a Jewish state. But without Israel, you send Jews back into the same old religious persecution – and that is indeed antisemitic. Idealism has to take second place to the likely future scenario – more fiery “acts of faith”.
At a time when Christians and Muslims live in fear of the gun in Central Africa, in India, in Syria, it may be that there should be more States of Refuge for the persecuted. Will the Uighur ever feel truly content in China? Or could the World do with more States offering guaranteed sanctuary?
More Israels, not less.
And yes, that applies to the Palestinians too.