On Sunday, Sky News went to Westminster to interview people at a pro-Israel demonstration. “I don’t know if we have a future here as British Jews,” attendee Esther Bloom told the broadcaster. “Maybe we need to go, maybe that’s what people want: maybe they just want the Jews to go.”
Bloom’s words echoed those of James Cleverly during the 2019 general election campaign. A Corbyn government, Cleverly told the Telegraph, which duly splashed his claim on its front page, would prompt a second Exodus. How had the Prophet Cleverly divined this? From “a number of […] Jewish friends of mine”.
The interviews exemplify two mutually reinforcing phenomena: Jewish fear, and the establishment’s superb ability to exploit it in the interests of servicing the Israeli war machine.
‘Europe is still teeming with antisemitism.’
Much like during the Corbyn years, reading the news as a British Jew in recent weeks has been a strange experience. For while most of us continue living our lives unharmed, the media is frantically telling us that we are inhabiting a hellscape.
Diaspora Jews are by this point well acquainted with an increase in antisemitic incidents in-line with Israeli violence. Synagogues are graffitied, our schools are daubed with red paint, and Jews are yelled at in the street. Yet watching and reading the news is to receive the impression not of an increase in antisemitism, but of an existential threat to our existence in this country. Needless to say, the evidence behind the inflammatory headlines is patchy.
The collection of data on antisemitism has become a highly politicised activity. Three days after the Hamas attack, the Jewish News – a communal newspaper marginally to the left of the Jewish Chronicle, but still firmly Zionist – published a story about antisemitism incidents tripling. The data was from the Community Security Trust (CST), which describes the notoriously Israel-friendly International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism as a “helpful set of guidelines”. Illustrating the article was an image, since removed, of a railway bridge inscribed with the words “PALESTINE WILL BE FREE!!”. It was captioned “pro-Hamas graffiti in Golders Green”.
A week later, the Metropolitan police reported that antisemitic hate crime had increased not just threefold, but by an astonishing 1,350%. Among the offences? Tearing down posters of Hamas hostages.
If this is what counts as antisemitism, official statistics become hard to trust.
Elsewhere, ambiguous events have been prematurely, tenuously or straight-up falsely chalked up as antisemitism. Claims of an antisemitic attack on a Golders Green kosher restaurant have stubbornly persisted in spite of its owners’ insistence that it was in fact an attempted burglary. Searching for evidence to confirm their readymade conclusions, major media outlets drew links between the restaurant vandalism and nearby pro-Palestine graffiti.
Reporting on the fatal stabbing of a teacher in France, the FT wrote cryptically that “although the attack has not been identified as antisemitic, Jewish leaders in France and government officials have made a connection with the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories.”
Meanwhile, in America, the killing of Jewish community leader Samantha Woll has been widely attributed to antisemitism, despite local police saying there is no evidence that this is the case.
The inevitable result is a fever pitch of Jewish fear out of step with material reality. At the bottom of an FT article titled “Police in London deploy 1,000 officers amid surge in antisemitism”, we discover that while “Jewish communities were understandably ‘scared for their safety’”, Metropolitan police deputy assistant commissioner Lawrence Taylor “was not aware of any specific threats to schools in London”.
“People are calling the NYPD [New York police department] bomb squad because they got a package from Gaza that turns out it’s olive oil,” Mitch Silber of the Community Security Initiative (New York’s answer to the CST) told the New York Times. “It feels like pure panic mode the community is in, and part of our job is to do a little anxiety alleviation.”
The truth is that organisations like Silber’s have little interest in quelling Jewish fears. In fact, our fear is incredibly useful to them in justifying their own continued existence to their funders and audience. The fear is also useful for justifying the need for a heavily militarised ethno-supremacist state, and in drowning out the fears of Palestinians, who are currently facing daily aerial bombardment and starvation.
A state of fear.
While the imperial powers that brought Israel into being in 1948 certainly had their own reasons for doing so – creating an outpost of European power in the Middle East, for example – their most loudly trumpeted reasoning is and has always been Jewish fear. Jews, they proclaimed, were not safe in Europe (I wonder why that was?), and could only be protected by having a state of their own. Never mind that the only Jewish member of Arthur Balfour’s cabinet, Edwin Montagu, staunchly opposed the Balfour Declaration, which he believed would encourage antisemitism around the world. Jews – some of them, at least – were demanding a state, and it was only right that they be granted it.
Since then, fear – specifically fear of a second Shoah – has become the Israeli government’s most useful affect, one it continually conjures in order to manufacture consensus for colonial expansion and military aggression. “Believe me,” said Israel’s then prime minister Menachem Begin explaining why he waged the first Lebanon war, “the alternative to fighting is Treblinka, and we have resolved that there would be no Treblinkas.”
The same logic informs much of Israel’s framing of the current war, including the widely-cited fact that more Jews were killed by Hamas on 7 October than on any day since the Holocaust. This, of course, is a grotesque way of commemorating the 1,400 Israelis killed. It equates genocidal fascism with a terrorist group, whose growth Israel encouraged in order to justify decades of occupation, blockade and apartheid.
For Israel and its supporters, it is critical to have a terrified base of diaspora Jews willing to give states such as the UK and US moral cover for their perpetuation of apartheid. Yet generating that fear when the threat level to Jews outside of Israel is demonstrably far lower than to those within it is challenging. Often, it requires the displacement of threat from acts of physical violence to rhetorical violence: slogans such as ‘From the river to the sea’ are calls not for Palestinian freedom but, we are told, calls for the eradication of the state of Israel – of Jews everywhere, even – and merely the sound of it is enough to make Jews feel unsafe.
The anxiety Jews are feeling right now is real. Viscerally so. What we must question is how that anxiety was generated, and whose interests it serves.
Correction, 30 October 2023: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the CST doesn’t use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism as originally stated, but rather its own criteria. Its website describes the working definition as a “helpful set of guidelines to help identify different examples of possible antisemitism”.