We sit together in awkward silence, four strangers around an expensive dining table at a posh London club. We’re here to celebrate the launch of a major new book on the history of antisemitism. The book is serious and scholarly. It is historically rich, but, in my view, rather skimpy on the causes of modern antisemitism. It left me feeling unsatisfied.
Jews straddle the fault line of Europe’s engagement with Islam, and the level of antisemitism has become a critical barometer of Europe’s fate. So while the fall of the antisemitic taboo is bad news for Jews, it also measures the effect of Europe’s loss of certainty in its values, traditions, institutions and identity.
Take Malmo. Over the past year, some 30 Jewish families have fled their homes in a major city of liberal, tolerant, sophisticated Sweden. Many more members of the 700-strong community say they are planning to leave. Malmo police recorded 79 antisemitic incidents last year, including the destruction of the local synagogue, but they concede that unreported incidents would push the figure far higher.
Malmo’s Jews say the constant abuse, harassment and street chants come mostly from Muslims, but not exclusively. They also blame the far-right neo-Nazi fringe. More revealing, though, they point to Malmo’s left-wing mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, who, they say, has simply abandoned them. Reepalu responds with the political expedient of turning victim into perpetrator: the hostility experienced by Malmo’s Jews, he says, is an understandable consequence of their support for Israel.
Malmo could become the model. As antisemitism emerges into the full light of day, it is being met with an attitude of, at best, benign neglect.
Every European country produces its own anecdotes. Britain is no exception. Jenny Tonge might be mistaken for a kindly aunt. She isn’t. As a senior member of parliament for the centrist Liberal Democrat Party, she returned from a visit to Gaza to declare, with reference to Palestinian suicide bombers: “I think if I had to live in that situation, and I say this advisedly, I might just consider becoming one myself.”
Having been booted upstairs to the House of Lords, she took off the gloves. “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the Western world, its financial grips. I think they have probably got a certain grip on our party.” More recently, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, she called for an inquiry into whether Israeli medical teams which joined the international relief efforts had used the opportunity to harvest organs from earthquake victims. If such slurs had been directed at any other minority group, she would have been excluded from polite society; in the event, Baroness Tonge remains an honoured member of BBC discussion panels.
This hatred, which flips seamlessly between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, is a manifestation of the “new antisemitism”. Also new is the appearance of politicians bending to the will of Muslim voters. Late last year, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni cancelled a visit to Britain when a pro-Palestinian group secured a warrant for her arrest on charges of war crimes relating to her role as foreign minister during Operation Cast Lead. In the ensuing political embarrassment, Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to change the law so that individuals could not apply for “politically motivated” arrest warrants. Nothing happened.
And nothing will happen until after the May election. Brown’s pledge to amend the law was scuppered by Justice Minister Jack Straw, who insisted that the legal point was too important to rush. Neatly overlooked was the fact Straw’s own political life depends on appeasing the substantial Muslim community in his constituency.
I am struggling with the notion of a “progressive” Labour government breaking a prime ministerial promise in order to satisfy a bunch of antisemitic, misogynistic, homophobic voters when I notice that my (non-Jewish) dinner companions are still sipping their wine in total silence. Ice must be broken.
“What’s your paper’s attitude to antisemitism?” I ask the correspondent of a leading Irish daily on my left.
“We’re anti,” he replies.
“Antisemitic or anti-antisemitic?”
“Oh, anti-anti,” he says. “Definitely anti-anti.”
I turn to the eminent barrister on my right. “And how do you explain antisemitism?”
“It’s all down to envy… People look around and see wealthy, clever, confident, successful Jews – they just don’t like it. Reprehensible, of course.”
“In that case,” I suggest, “we can solve the problem by impoverishing the Jews.”
He shrinks away.
Finally, there’s the zillionaire businessman sitting opposite: “And you?”
“Ignorance,” he replies in a word. “It can all be solved by education…”
“Does anyone think this is being driven by radical Islamists?” I ask.
“Oh yes!” they chorus enthusiastically.
“And the far-left?”
“And the far-right?”
“Anyone think this is connected to the demonisation of Israel?”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes…”
At least the ice has been broken.