By Douglas Davis
Rowan Laxton was watching news of Israeli military activity in Gaza on television while working out on an exercise bike at his central London gym. What happened next unnerved fellow gym patrons: “F-ing Israelis. F-ing Jews,” he screamed repeatedly, interspersing his rant with demands for Israeli troops to be “wiped off the face of the earth.” He was still bellowing when the police arrived several minutes later to arrest him on a charge of inciting religious hatred.
This bizarre episode is worth recording for two reasons. First, because it is an example, albeit extreme, of how anti-Zionism and antisemitism have become conflated. Second, because the 47-year-old ranter is not a low-life Jew-hater who had just crawled out from under an antediluvian rock. Rather, Rowan Laxton is a sophisticated, high-ranking British diplomat, a former deputy ambassador to Afghanistan and now head of the South Asia Group at the Foreign Office (currently suspended), reporting directly to his Jewish boss, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
The sad fact of this little episode is that the hateful sentiments articulated in that London gym are now common currency across Europe. Antisemitism is said to be running at 1930s levels. Last month, CNN used footage of anti-Israeli protesters in London to illustrate hatred of Israel in the Arab and Muslim world, prompting one observer to note that, “the mythical Arab Street now reaches deep into Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid.”
Europe is overflowing with Rowan Laxtons – educated, sophisticated, urbane. What made his outburst a minor cause célèbre is that high-ranking European diplomats are usually smart enough – and controlled enough – to speak their antisemitism in private and in more nuanced language.
But a conjunction of events is accelerating the return of Europe’s oldest hatred across the political and the socio-economic spectrum. There is a deepening sense of political uncertainty over European integration, economic dislocation caused by the global financial crisis, profound social change, and the absence of a political will to oppose the substantial minority of radicalised Muslims among the 18 million-strong Muslim population of Europe (ten times the size of Europe’s Jewish population). Not least, there is a profound, widespread loathing of Israel.
The fact that we are able to understand the causes and rationalise the toxic phenomenon does not make this slow-motion car-crash less compelling to observe. Neo-Nazi antisemitism is not new in Europe. But the casual, pervasive “high-class” antisemitism – from the patrician boardrooms of Swiss banks to the bawdy shower rooms of the House of Lords – is discomfiting to Jews, particularly those who thought they had, at last, made themselves socially digestible. They believed they had transcended their origins, penetrated the barrier that separated their fathers from polite society and been granted unlimited access to the “mainstream”. They were wrong. And a succession of polling organisations is telling them so.
A study conducted by the respected Pew organisation last September showed that 25% of Germans and 20% of Frenchmen are still infected by antisemitism. In Spain, which has virtually no Jews but which has Europe’s most virulently anti-Israel media and political establishment, the figure rises to 46% (11% of Australians, according to Pew, hold unfavourable views of Jews).
More recently, a poll conducted in seven European countries by the US-based Anti-Defamation League between December 2008 and January 2009, found that 31% of respondents blamed Jews working in the financial sector for the economic meltdown, while 58% acknowledged that their antipathy towards Jews had increased in line with their hostility towards Israel.
There is more. Nearly half said they believed Jews were more loyal to Israel than to their home country, 44% said it was “probably true” that Jews made too much of the Holocaust, while 23% said they blame Jews for the death of Jesus. Overall, 40% of the European respondents believe Jews exercise overweening power in the business world, a figure that rises to more than 50% in almost judenrein Spain, Poland and Hungary.
The concept of “antisemitism without Jews” is not new. It was, indeed, a defining characteristic of the old East European Warsaw bloc, which remained virulently antisemitic long after its Jewish population had been destroyed in the Holocaust.
But no sooner have we got our head around the concept of “antisemitism without Jews” than the new antisemitism produces a new concept: “Antisemitism without Antisemites”.
The father of the phrase is the German writer Henryk Broder and the forum in which it was born was, appropriately, before the Interior Committee of the German Bundestag.
The supposedly non-existent antisemites are the phalanx of “progressive” academics, journalists and politicians who spew unlimited hatred of Israel and would boycott the Jewish state out of existence but vehemently reject the suggestion that they are antisemitic.
Polite, sophisticated Europeans have altered their vocabulary. Today they speak of “Zionists” and “lobby” and “imperialism” rather than “Jews” and “conspiracy” and “control”. The words have changed, but the meaning retains a chilling familiarity.