Understanding anti-semitism today

Sunday 14 October, 10:0011:30, Cinema 2Contemporary Controversies

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Anti-Semitism appears to be making a comeback in Europe. In France this year, Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was stabbed and burnt to death in her apartment. Germany’s Jews have been advised to stop wearing kippahs for fear of attacks, and French Jewish schoolchildren have been warned not to attend a local school described as anti-Semitic, while two synagogues have been burned in Sweden. According to the Community Security Trust, anti-Semitic incidents in the UK are also at an all-time high. Meanwhile, centuries-old anti-Jewish tropes are reappearing, such as Jews as hooked-nose moneygrubbers secretly conspiring to control the world.

In one respect, it looks like the simple return of what has been called ‘the longest hatred’. But at least since the rise of the Nazis, anti-Semitism has been seen as a phenomenon of the political right, and a form of white racism. Today’s anti-Semites are more likely to rail against Jews in the name of the Palestinians, a favourite cause of the left. Indeed, fashionable anti-Zionism sometimes seems to merge with a conspiratorial form of anti-capitalism to reproduce something that looks very much like classic anti-Semitism, as in a notorious mural seen in the East End of London in 2012, which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn appeared to defend.

Despite its championing of anti-racist causes, the Labour Party became engulfed in accusations of anti-Semitism at the start of this year. Critics allege that pandering to a combination of anti-Semitic sentiments among some British Muslims and anti-Zionist radical chic on the far left (which has led some to endorse avowedly anti-Semitic groups like Hezbollah) has taken the Labour party down a dark path, seemingly numbed to the historic resonances of anti-Zionist rhetoric and imagery. Others contend that the issue has been ‘weaponised’ by Labour’s right-wing opponents, as well as anti-Corbyn elements within the party itself. Of course, both could be true, but how serious is the left’s anti-Semitism problem? Or indeed British Islam’s anti-Semitism problem?

Activists opposed to Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians have been branded anti-Semitic for supporting a boycott of Israeli goods. And recently, the UK government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes excessive criticism of Israel. So is anti-Zionism now the same as anti-Semitism? And if not, how can we separate criticism of Israel – the Jewish state – from denigration of the Jewish people as a whole? Is anti-Semitism a worrying offshoot of anti-Zionism, or does it have a dangerous life of its own?