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Anti-semitism is a virus and it mutates

Stephen Byers- Tuesday 16th Mar 2004

To claim Jews cause their own suffering by failing to denounce Israeli policy is a revival of an old hatred

As the agnostic child of practising Methodist parents, I have viewed with alarm the dramatic increase in anti-semitic attacks and asked myself if it is really the case that Jews must denounce the behaviour of the Israeli government in order to earn a European commitment to fight anti-semitism.
In 21st-century Europe, the rise in anti-semitic incidents is directly linked to renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians. When tensions flare up in the Middle East, synagogues are burned, Jewish cemeteries are desecrated and Jews are attacked. Ethnically and religiously motivated hatred, violence and prejudice, wherever it occurs, should earn unconditional condemnation; sympathy and support for the victims should not be conditional on their behaviour or political convictions. Yet, because rage over Israel's policies can cause these attacks, condemnation is often too slow and increasingly conditional.

This is unacceptable. Of course, criticism of Israel's policy is not, of itself, anti- semitic. But it can become so when it involves applying double standards, holds all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government or reveals a demonisation of Jews. It is clearly anti-semitism if it provides an excuse for anti-Jewish hatred.

If Chinese restaurants in London were firebombed by angry mobs, would it be right to withhold sympathy for the victims until they condemned China for its policies in Tibet? Should Russian students at British universities be harassed unless they publicly condemn their government's handling of the Chechen crisis? This way of thinking becomes an apology for mass murder.

Nobody should be asked to take a loyalty and morality oath as a precondition for protection against racism. No citizen should feel that their equality before the law is dependent on their embrace of political views that we approve of. This is a totalitarian logic that undermines the very foundations of freedom on which our society stands. Yet present-day anti-semites demand precisely that of Jews.

Acts of anti-semitism are justified by an increasing number of "respectable" commentators, who accuse Jews of being the cause of their own suffering. This logic borders on apology of hatred; worse, it is a veiled threat that if Jews fail to oblige, nobody will stand by them in the hour of need. Instead of sympathising with the victims, anti-semites exploit the Palestinian cause to side with the perpetrators. Around the world, only Israel and the Jews earn such contemptuous treatment.

When it comes to Israel, Jews are held collectively responsible. Their sin is not deicide any more, nor are they are accused of possessing sinister racial traits. In the modern world, the methods of the anti-semite are far more subtle. It is no longer the jack-booted Nazi; instead, it is anti-semitism with a social conscience, often based on human rights and the demand of a homeland for the Palestinian people. Today's Jewish "collective crime" is Israel.

Nothing is more dishonest and prejudiced than shrugging off responsibility for hatred by saying the victims deserved it. Muslims do not merit Islamophobia because of Osama bin Laden, but Jews are somehow blamed for anti-semitism on account of their alleged uncritical support for Israel. This is an attempt to rationalise anti-semitism. It is a warning sent to Jews not by people who care about them, but by bigots seeking to condone their prejudice.

Anti-semitism is not rational. It is, as Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, a virus and it mutates. It will not be defeated unless it is treated as an act of senseless hatred that has no logic, no reason and no justification. It lies dormant, based on embedded myths and wilful misconceptions which lead to stereotyping.

The calumny that Jews falsely manipulate the memory of the Holocaust to defend Israel is its most recent malignant manifestation. No Jew has ever said that I do not have the right to criticise Israeli policies because of the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. It is not the Jews who abuse the memory of the Holocaust to shield Israel from criticism. It is the anti-semites who defile its memory by demonising Israel through baleful comparisons which are grotesque distortions of the truth and whose aim is Holocaust denial.

Nor is the accusation, most recently made by Max Hastings on these pages, that "overseas Jews are less brave than Israel's domestic critics" accurate. The Jewish world vociferously expresses a diversity of views on Israeli policies. The British Jewish community has been at the forefront of the campaign to demand a two-state solution. Peace Now is active in the British Jewish community. Many Jewish charities tirelessly promote dialogue and coexistence among Israelis and Palestinians.

The reason for the resurgence of an old hatred is simple. Anti-semites feel emboldened again. Their prejudice, suppressed out of guilt but lingering on in the past 50 years, is finding its way back to the mainstream. This cannot be ignored. Anti-racists everywhere have a responsibility to challenge and expose anti-semitism wherever it occurs.
Stephen Byers is chairman of the Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism



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