Why isn't the left protesting against the growth of
I never thought I would have to write about anti-semitism. Until
recently I hadn't experienced it. I might have done. I went to
Christian schools, St Mary's Primary, then Christ's College
Finchley. We Jews were different and a minority. Yet not once
was I insulted for my faith.
Like many others born after the Holocaust, anti-semitism was
something I associated with the past. My late father spoke
about it. He had come to Britain as a child fleeing persecution,
and he always argued that Polish anti-semitism went deeper
than that of the Germans. It was not until after he died that I
discovered that in Kielce, his home town, a pogrom had taken
place as late as July 1946. Local Poles shot, stoned, butchered
or otherwise murdered 42 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Yet
despite all he knew, my father never warned me to expect
prejudice. If anything, he made a joke of it. "Anti-semitic traffic
lights", he would say whenever they turned red at our approach.
Until now, I have been reticent about talking about
anti-semitism. There is all the difference in the world between
the virulent anti-Jewishness that dominated western Europe
during the 19th century and its genteel English equivalent
(perfectly captured in Isabel Colegate's novel, The Shooting
Party, when the host remarks, after the Jewish guest has
arrived: "The semite is among us"). Indiscreet remarks by
ambassadors at dinner parties do not constitute a new Dreyfus
case. Over-reaction is as foolish as under-reaction.
Anti-semitism is dangerous only when it enters the mainstream
of political discourse, something that has not yet happened in
Then again, some Jews see antisemitism as part of Jewish
identity. So did Jean-Paul Sartre, who claimed in his Sur le
Question Juif that the only thing Jews had in common was that
they were the victims of hate. It is not Jews who create
anti-semitism, he said, but anti-semitism that creates Jews. I
have fought that view all my adult life. It leads to the tortured
psychology of an Arthur Koestler, who wrote: "Self-hatred is the
Jews patriotism", or Franz Kafka, who said: "What do I have in
common with the Jews? I don't even have anything in common
with myself." To me, Jewishness is about moral responsibility,
not victimhood; about trust, not fear. Anti-semitism is something
that happens to Jews; it does not define who we are.
Equally we can too easily dismiss all criticism of the state or
government of Israel as anti-semitism. It is not. No democratic
state is entitled to consider itself beyond reproach, and Israel is
a democratic state. Indeed it was ancient Israel who, in the
biblical prophets, invented the art of self-criticism. Zionism is
categorically not, as it is sometimes claimed to be, "My people
right or wrong". Yet some recent assaults on Israel have gone
beyond mere criticism. They have entered darker territory. The
question is, where do we draw the line?
Anti-semitism is so emotive a topic that it helps to perform a
thought experiment. Suppose someone were to claim that there
is a form of prejudice called anti-kiwism, an irrational hatred of
New Zealanders. What might convince us he was right?
Criticism of the New Zealand government? No. A denial of New
Zealand's right to exist? Maybe. Seven thousand terrorist
attacks on New Zealand citizens in the past year? Possibly. A
series of claims at the UN Conference against Racism in Durban
that New Zealand, because of its treatment of the Maori, is
uniquely guilty of apartheid, ethnic cleansing and crimes against
humanity, accompanied by grotesque Nazi-style posters?
A call to murder all those with New Zealand loyalties even
though they were born and live elsewhere? A suggestion that
New Zealanders control the world's economy? That they are
responsible for Aids and poisoning water supplies? That they
arranged the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre?
That they are a satanic force of evil against whom a holy war
must be fought? By now we have moved from criticism to hatred
to evil fantasy. But delete "New Zealand" and insert "Israel" and
"Jews", and all these things have happened in the past year.
What more has to happen before an impartial observer
concludes that anti-semitism is alive and well and dangerous?
A week ago a cleric in east London was charged with "soliciting
to murder" after allegedly distributing videos calling on his
followers to attack Jews ("How do you fight the Jews? You kill
the Jews.") Within days another video appeared, showing the
gruesome murder in Pakistan of American journalist Daniel
Pearl. He is shown being forced to kneel and confess that he
and his parents are Jewish. His throat is then cut. Over his
writhing body, a voice warns: "Other Americans and Jews
should be ready to face a fate like Daniel Pearl." These are only
the most newsworthy of a wave of anti-Jewish incidents that
have gone round the world in recent months, affecting even
student life in Britain. This is not polite and genteel. This is the
real, ultimately murderous thing.
Anti-semitism is undeniably the most successful ideology of
modern times. Fascism came and went. Soviet communism
came and went. Anti-semitism came and stayed. Its success is
due to the fact that, like a virus, it mutates. At times it has been
directed against Jews as individuals. Today it is directed against
Jews as a sovereign people. The common factor is that Jews,
uniquely, are denied the right to exist in whatever form their
collective existence currently takes. There is a direct line from
"You have no right to live among us as Jews" to "You have no
right to live".
What disturbs me is that, were this cumulative hate to be
directed against anyone else, the left would be the first to
protest. Have we learned nothing from history? An assault on
Jews is an assault on difference, and a world that has no room
for difference has no room for humanity itself.
·Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of Britain and