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The Blame Game: The Political Predicament of British Jews

In 2017, there were 1,382 anti-Semitic hate incidents and a 34% rise in violent anti-Semitic assaults in Britain. According to a 2017 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 30% of British citizens hold “at least one anti-Semitic attitude.”  Many British Jews perceive this to be a trend arising from the Left, especially given prominent Labour Parliament Members’–  such as Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn—  anti-Semitic remarks.  Currently, a staggering 40% of British Jews have considered leaving the UK, 90% of whom believe the Labour party to be anti-Semitic. Many have abandoned the Left, particularly because of criticism of Israel, instead of turning towards the Conservative party, which they perceive as Zionist and therefore less anti-Semitic. Yet this shift indicates a larger issue: the increasing global trend of turning to Conservative Zionism as a misguided tool to combat anti-Semitism.

Historically, the Right has harbored anti-Semites, even among politicians who have claimed to support Israel.  Arthur Balfour, whose Balfour Declaration was fundamental to the Zionist cause, was anti-Semitic. As Prime Minister in 1905, he passed the Aliens Act, which sought to limit the influx of Eastern European Jews into Britain. He even stated that Zionism would “mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst…a Body [Jews] which it too long regarded as alien…but which it was equally unable to expel or…absorb.”

Today, anti-Semitism continues to flourish on the Right. Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi white supremacist, echoing Balfour’s rhetoric, called Michael Signer, the Jewish mayor of Charlottesville’s a “little creep”  and mocked Signer’s last name, asking a crowd of neo-Nazis how to pronounce it, to which they chanted, “Jew, Jew, Jew.”  Spencer also calls himself a “white Zionist” and turns to Israel for “guidance.”  Although Conservatives may outwardly support Israel, in many cases this can be directly derived from their anti-Semitic beliefs.

According to a report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the highest rates of anti-Semitism in the UK, 2 to 4 times higher than the general population, were found “among the far right.”  Comparatively, anti-Semitism levels among all spectrums of the political Left, including the far-left, were found “indistinguishable from those… in the general population.”  Similarly, a 2016 UK Home Affairs Committee investigation found that “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other…party.” Nonetheless, 80% of all British Jews consider the members and supporters of the Labour Party to be “too tolerant of anti-Semitism,”  starkly contrasting their perception of the issue within the Conservative Party (19%).  This trend is due to the British Jewish Community’s strong connections to Israel, the Conservative Party’s more recent support of Zionism (and the Left’s criticism of it), and the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.

Through youth education, many British Jews have learned a narrow conception of the relationship between Judaism and Zionism. Each year, thousands of 16-year-old British Jews spend a month on Israel Tour, which the United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA) organizes. Often viewed as a rite of passage, the number of participants in some years exceeds half of all those eligible. The tour’s goal is simple: “connect young people with each other and with Israel.”  These tours take place during middle adolescence when individuals begin to formulate their own code of ethics. During a cognitively formative time, young British Jews learn to love Israel, and that supporting Israel is essential to Judaism. The organization has maintained a hardline pro-Israel stance, dismissing differing opinions amongst its supporters and the Jewish community.  In July 2018, UJIA fired an Israel tour leader who attended a kaddish (Jewish mourning event) for Palestinians killed in Gaza earlier that year.

Moreover, British Jewish schools are intimately tied to the Jewish state. The number of students attending Jewish schools in Britain has increased almost twofold in the past 20 years, as has the number of Jewish schools. Amid growing acts of anti-Semitism, parents feel the valid need to foster a Jewish identity in their children. Organizations like the Jewish National Fund UK have seized this opportunity to initiate measures tying Jewish education to Israel. In December 2018, Jewish National Fund UK announced a  £1.2 million grant to bolster Israel education programs across British Jewish schools, impacting “more than 12,000 pupils.”

These initiatives have had tremendous success:  93% percent of British Jews say that Israel plays a role in their Jewish identity. The interweaving of Judaism to Zionism has had lasting effects on the British Jewish community. According to a self-reported poll by the Campaign Against Antisemitism, “77% of British Jews had witnessed anti-Semitism disguised as a political comment about Israel.” While criticism of Israel can play into harmful anti-Semitic tropes or sentiments, criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitic. This statistic suggests, however, that many British Jews may be conflating anti-Semitism and critique of Israel, and this conflation explains why many British Jews have shifted right.

Although anti-Semitism in some cases may go hand in hand with anti-Zionism, it is not because of their equivalency. Yet many British Jews have turned away from the Left because of its anti-Zionist tendencies. Levels of Jewish support for Labour fell to just 7% in the 2016 general election compared to a rise to  67% for Conservatives in 2016. Comparatively, ten years prior both parties garnered  “similar levels”  of support. Undoubtedly, anti-Semitism exists within the Labour party. The campaign group Jewish Voice for Labor identified 453 complaints being investigated for anti-Semitism. But to claim that anti-Semitism has “overrun” the Labour Party is inaccurate as this figure represents 1/12th of 1% of Labour membership. There also is anti-Semitism within the Conservative party, evidenced by its affiliations with anti-Semitic parties and leaders in Europe, including Poland’s Law and Justice Party, which recently proposed a bill to abolish education about Poland’s role in the Holocaust, and Hungary’s far-right and “vivid[ly] anti-Semitic” leader Viktor Orban. Furthermore, unlike the Labour party, the Conservative Party’s handbook lacks any reference to anti-Semitism. Indeed, many British Jews have publicly denounced the Conservative party’s tolerance of anti-Semitism.

In recent years many British Jewish voters have aligned themselves with the Conservative party. British Jews hold strong historical ties to Israel, and many British Jews find supporting Israel as integral to their Jewish identities. Amongst increasing anti-Semitic actions in Britain, and criticism of Zionism from the Left, many British Jews have shifted to the Right. Yet it is essential to understand that the fight against discrimination in all forms, including anti-Semitism, historically does not occur on the Right. The Conservative party continues to be anti-Semitic, and Britain’s Right has shown to be even more anti-semitic than the Left. As British-Jewish journalist Francis Becket argues, “We have been conned into believing that anti-Semitism is now a disease of the left. In reality, it is still found mostly in racism’s historic home: on the right.”

Photo: Image via Mariano Mantel (Flickr)