Amid all the Covid-related talk of “the new normal” I have been pondering the meaning of “normal” in the context of Jews and antisemitism.
Sadly I have concluded that Jew-hate has become, if not “normal” then certainly normalised. To understand the difference, I think we need to consider those allegorical frogs swimming in their metaphorical pan of water. The water in the pan starts out cool, but is then heated slowly – so slowly that the frogs don’t notice until the water is so hot that they are being boiled alive.
It’s not a perfect metaphor and I’m not suggesting that being boiled alive is today’s reality for Jews in the UK, though from 2015 with our main Opposition party led by a virulently anti-Zionist, quasi-Marxist with an, um, high tolerance for antisemitism, that metaphorical saucepan did begin to feel uncomfortably warm.
But even before all the Israel-hate boiled up and crystallised into Jew-hate as a result of Jeremy Corbyn, the saucepan had been heating up rather alarmingly.
We had simply failed to notice. Mainly, the UK Jewish community (and, to spread the blame fairly, many other Jewish communities) had allowed a certain level of Jew-hate to flourish by failing to adequately challenge the big fat libel about Jews dispossessing Palestinians of their homeland.
Thus, initially, there was shock when a Zionist (Teddy Sieff) was shot (and almost killed) in his London home and outrage when an Israeli ambassador was shot in a London street, But gradually we acclimatised and it became “normal” for our synagogues, our schools and our institutions to require guards whenever they were in use.
And having failed to challenge the big, fat lie, we saw it grow even fatter until the water all around us was boiling and it was “normal” to hear the Left describe Israel as an “apartheid state;” “normal” to hear Israeli soldiers protecting Israeli citizens from Palestinian suicide bombers described as “Nazis”; even “normal” to expect some media outlets to reproduce Palestinian press-releases as if they were real “news.”
And then as antisemitic tropes coalesced with the lie about dispossessing the Palestinians, it became “normal” to hear pejorative remarks about Jews as much as about Israel. But still we felt comfortable (or, at least, only mildly uncomfortable) because we had acclimatised to the growing heat. Indeed, some had acclimatised so well, they were actively participating in the demonization of Israel (JVL, Miriam Margolyes, et al, I mean you).
Water in other saucepans had heated up, too, from Argentina to Zanzibar, where Jewish teens were targeted by Islamists in 2013. But most notably in France which has seen several fatal attacks on Jews in Paris, as well as in Lyons and Toulouse. Not even the US was immune: two years ago six Jewish worshippers were slain at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Plus, of course, the World Wide Web is like the Wild West meaning that online platforms and social media channels have helped to raise the water-temperature, and the tech giants are only now beginning to realise they need sheriffs (and laws) to tame the crazies.
And while all the vile, crude neo-Nazi or Islamist outpourings, virtual or actual, need to be repelled, I’m less worried about that. This is mainly because the swivel-eyed crazies are a minority and also because even the most complacent frog can spot these forms of hate and cry “Enough!”
But just as we wouldn’t notice the water in the pan rising to a bath-time 37 degrees, we seem not to be noticing that an insidious and subtle form of Jew-hate and antisemitism are out there; that Jew-hate and antisemitism are so ambient, and so pervasive they are not even seen as racism. (That “we” not noticing, by the way, is us, collectively, as a community; many individuals are noticing and taking action).
A perfect illustration of the world in which antisemitism and Jew-hate do not count as racism was the cartoon published by the New York Times in 2019 and featuring wildly antisemitic caricatures. As the American writer and antisemitism campaigner Bari Weiss pointed out in a recent Tweet, the issue was not that the paper’s editors were “hardened antisemites” but that “they didn’t even notice it.”
That is my fear: a world in which Jew-hate is so subtle and so ambient, that those engaging in it barely notice it is antisemitism; a world in which Jew-hate is so normalised, that people – often including Jewish people – fail to notice it until they are being boiled alive.