This is a deeply uncomfortable moment to be a member of the Jewish community. After the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7th October, killing 1,200, and Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza, killing 11,000, antisemitism in the UK has increased by 531 per cent compared to the same period last year, according to the Community Security Trust. The weekend demonstrations calling for a ceasefire included antisemitic placards. There have been multiple incidents around the country that are openly antisemitic. John Woodcock, the government’s adviser on political violence and disruption, has said he will recommend giving police greater powers to prevent marches that intimidate the Jewish community.
I have lived in a Palestinian community in Jerusalem, worked with Palestinian writers and volunteered with an organisation in Israel that monitors abuse of Palestinian rights in the occupied territories. But I feel deeply uneasy about joining demonstrations where I might come up against antisemitism. But banning or limiting the right to protest is not a solution. We are witnessing a devastating attack on Gaza and protest is a vital and visible means for the public to express their disquiet or outrage and call for an effective response from the government. We have already seen a wholesale attack on the right to protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which increases police powers to tackle protests they consider disruptive. Further reducing our freedom to voice our views is an attack on a fundamental democratic right. As others have pointed out, Remembrance Sunday commemorates those who stood up for liberty and it would be an insult to their memory to deny what they fought for, if not an act of hypocrisy.
The more difficult question to answer is—why should the actions of a state trigger racism? Whenever there is conflict in Israel, there is a spike in antisemitic incidents around the world. Israel is a Jewish state, created as a nation for Jews and conceived as a refuge from antisemitism in Europe. The global Jewish population in the world is nearly 16m—just under half that figure lives in Israel. Yet all Jewish communities have become vulnerable to attack and vilification. This antisemitism not only intimidates and alienates Jews; it also undermines the very necessary call for justice for the Palestinian people. It should be possible to call out Israel’s actions in response to the massacre on 7th October—and war crimes, of which it has been accused—without resorting to racism.
Yet antisemitism is so deeply engrained in western culture that the actions of the Israeli state are immediately identified with the racist tropes that demonised the Jewish people for centuries. This includes most notably the blood lust attributed to Jews that dates back to medieval times in Europe and the many baseless, horrifying accusations against Jews that resulted in executions and massacres—in particular the accusation that Jews murdered Christians to use their blood in rituals. On social media, I have seen an image of a snake wrapped around the world, emblazoned with the Star of David, fangs barred. This also appeared on a placard at the demonstration last weekend. Quite how Israel’s bombing of Gaza equates to world domination eludes me. But its irrelevance apparently doesn’t matter. When the evil of Israel is top of the agenda, all the old antisemitic tropes are deployed.
These ancient and familiar conspiracy theories are triggered when Israel sheds Palestinian blood. It becomes more than a state committing a war crime when it bombs civilians, but guilty of an atavistic evil that is seen as inherent in the Jewish people. And that guilt is perceived to extend beyond Israel’s boundaries. This is what Jews do and have always done. They collectively have blood on their hands—a calumny that dates back to the crucifixion and the claim that Jews killed Jesus.
As the Jewish state, Israel carries the baggage of that history. It has become the modern manifestation of this trope, rather than another country among many that are guilty of human rights abuse. We need to disengage the fictitious crimes of the Jewish people, which were the bedrock of antisemitism, from the actions of Israel. That means throwing off hundreds of years of indoctrination that begins with the Bible and runs through western political thought and the canon of western literature.
The Jewish people are as various as any people, in their views, their beliefs and their affiliations. The abuse that many are facing on the streets of the UK, including schoolchildren, is shameful and base. It is also a deeply crude and cowardly response to an international crisis—targeting a minority that bears no responsibility for the actions of a state.