When I talk to my British friends, I get no sense of panic on their part, no sense that they feel themselves under imminent threat. Certainly there is nothing remotely comparable to the panic which has gripped French Jewry in recent years in the wake of an outbreak of anti-Semitic incidents.
The question that I ask myself is: Why not? Is it possible that the ominous signs that I find in headlines from England are purely a function of being far away and lacking the experience of every day life carrying on pretty much as before? Or, on the other hand, could it be that my friends live such insular lives that they are out of touch with trends in British society. I certainly hope it is the former, but I remain concerned nevertheless.
Last year the number of anti-Semitic attacks in England rose alarmingly by over 40% -- the steepest rise in Europe -- to its highest level ever. But it is not the level of street attacks that I find most frightening. Rather it is the openly expressed loathing for Israel and Jews among a large swath of Britain's elites. It was the complete collapse of German elites before Hitler and his lumpenproletariat followers that allowed Hitler's rise to power in the most civilized nation in Europe. The German elites were infected with the same anti-Semitism as the uneducated sign painter.
I do not for a moment wish to compare the situation in Germany in 1933 with Britain today. Nor do I think for a moment that the two countries are remotely the same. But one of the lessons of Germany between the two world wars is how lethal the mix between lower class and elite anti-Semitism can be.
One of the crucial functions of a societal elite is to maintain in place taboos on what may be said and what may not be said. Those taboos, with respect to Jews in England, are tottering badly. Matters begin with the BBC, which despite the excellent work of Trevor Ascherson, continues to consistently adopt the pro-Palestinian line on all matters related to the Middle East.
Anyone evincing a whiff of sympathy for Israel who finds himself a panelist on one of BBC's "news" shows like Question Time can count on being quite isolated on the panel, if indeed such a person is to be found on the panel at all. Even the most unexceptional comment, such as the that Israel is the Middle East's only functioning democracy, will be instantly greeted with hisses and jeers by the studio audience. Even one watching in the safety of one's salon may find himself a more than a bit unnerved by the spectacle of the audience seemingly thirsting for the blood of Israel's would be defender.
The anti-Semitism has always been there. What is changed now is that the taboos against its expression have fallen.
A few years back, Penelope Wyatt reported in the Spectator the remark of a liberal peer, "Thank God, we can once again say what we want about the Jews." More recently, a liberal commentator tried to reassure Melanie Phillips that there has been no upsurge in anti-Semitism. No, he explained helpfully, the anti-Semitism has always been there. What is changed now is that the taboos against its expression have fallen.
"What you have to understand is that we are just so relieved that we don't have to worry about the Jews any more. Ever since the war we were told that because of their suffering, the Jews were above criticism. But now that's no longer the case," he said.
Beyond the BBC is the regnant Labor Party. The party has done the math, and it does not augur well for the Jews. There are less than 300,000 identifying Jews in England today, and over six times as many Moslems. The road to electoral success lies in appeasing Moslem voters. To that end, the Labor Party did not hesitate to remind voters in the last election of the Jewish origins of Conservative Party chairman Michael Howard. In one campaign poster, Howard was shown posed as Fagin. In another, he and Oliver Tetwin, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, who is also Jewish, were both shown attached to the bodies of pigs.
London Mayor Ken Livingstone deliberately baits Jews safe in the knowledge that it is the road to electoral success. He warmly received Egyptian sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, despite the latter's support for Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians and frequent calls for the execution of deviants, for whom Livingstone is normally hyper-solicitous. At the same time, the Labor Mayor compared a Jewish reporter whose questions got on his nerves to a concentration camp kapo.
When some of al-Qaradawi's more unsavory opinions became public, Livingstone charged a "Zionist front organization" with trying to ruin a budding, beautiful friendship by actually informing the public of al-Qaradawi's beliefs and pronouncements.
But one need not go to the far Left to find equally fervid descriptions of Zionist and Jewish plots. Simon Jenkins, the Times leading columnist, can find no explanation for the war in Iraq other than that Jews whose "first commitment was to the defense of Israel" have seized the reins of power in Washington and even London. Respected magazines carry cover stories about Zionist cabals and pictures of a Jewish star piercing through the U.S. capital.
A little over a year ago, the estimable Melanie Phillips pointed out to me the good fortune of England's Jews that the two major parties were both headed by the most pro-Israel member of the party. But Michael Howard has already announced that he will step down as head of the Conservative Party, and the pundits are predicting that Tony Blair will not serve out his term, but will rather abdicate in favor of Gordon Brown.
Two recent events highlight just how far the poison of anti-Semitism has permeated the British chattering classes. The first was the vote of the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) to boycott three Israeli academic institutions, and thereby single Israel out from all the nations on the face of the earth as the most egregious violator of human rights. As Harvard President Lawrence Summers famously remarked in the context of a move on the Harvard campus for divestiture of shares in companies doing business with Israel: One sure sign of anti-Semitism is far-fetched claims that the state of Israel is most brutal nation in the world.
The AUT kindly exempted from their strictures any Israeli academic who condemns the apartheid activities of his or her government. And thus an organization supposedly dedicated to the preservation of academic freedom claimed the right to tell Israeli academics what they may think or write. One of the boycotted universities was Haifa University, 20% of whose student body is Arab, as are a number of department chairs. What Arab university would accept even one Jewish student?
The boycott of Haifa University was the brainchild of Ilan Pappe, a history professor at Haifa University and a leader of the so-called "new historians," whose expressed purpose is to undermine the legitimacy of the Israeli state. Pappe has frequently denied that there is such a thing as truth, just competing narratives. And one of his students, Teddy Katz, took that to dictum to heart. He based his masters thesis on a supposed massacre of Palestinian villagers by Haganah troops in 1948. When members of the accused brigade sued for libel, an Israeli court found that Katz had fabricated many of the narratives of the supposed Palestinian witnesses and Katz offered his apologies. But in attempt to pressure Haifa University to reverse its rescission of Katz's M.A. degree, Pappe called for an international boycott of the university. Even so, Pappe's faculty colleagues were virtually unanimous that he should not be fired, though many devoutly wish that he would go teach at Bir Zeit University. Academic freedom, in Israel at least, is flourishing.
It might be possible to downplay the AUT vote. Less than 200 lecturers voted out of a membership of almost 50,000. And it appears likely that the boycott vote will be reversed. Yet the mere fact that such a vote could be taken at all should give pause. Despite knowing in advance that the vote would be close, and despite the questionable associations of the motion's leading sponsor, Sue Blackwell, whose website links to a neo-Nazi groups whose videos she commends, few opponents of the boycott resolution could be bothered to attend. The result was the passage of the motion by six votes and a flurry of publicity for the idea that Israel deserves to be censured more than any of her neighbors or such rogue regimes as Iran, North Korea, China (which occupies Tibet), or Sudan, in which mass murder is currently taking place.
The second recent event that should be of particular concern is the staging by the Royal Court Theatre, perhaps Europe's most prestigious theatre, of a play entitled "My name is Rachel Corrie." Corrie was a young American who was accidentally crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as she stood in its path trying to prevent the demolition of weapons smuggling tunnels in Gaza. Only one reviewer in the mainstream press - Clive Davis in the Times - called the play by its proper name: crude agitprop.
Others swallowed hook, line, and sinker the beatification of Corrie, who was in real life an anti-American rabble-rouser, who led Palestinian children in burning American flags, and a member of the International Solidarity Movement, which recognizes the "right" of the Palestinian's armed struggle and terms Israel an illegal entity which should not exist. The play's co-director Katharine Viner of the Guardian succeeded in doing for Corrie what she once did for Palestinian female plane hijacker Leila Khaled. She etherealized her as she did Khaled "with her Audrey Hepburn face" and "feminine adornment [a ring] resting delicately on her third finger."
One reviewer was swept away by Corrie's "unselfish goodness:" another by her "reckless courage" and youthful idealism. Not one apparently winced at Corrie's description of the vast majority of the Palestinian people as "engaging in Gandhian non-violent resistance." A printed version of the play is being readied for distribution to British schools.
I wait for my British friends to explain to me why I'm overwrought. Hopefully they will.