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The myth of British exceptionalism

When it comes to antisemitism, the United Kingdom is very much part of the European rule.

A pro-Palestinian protest in London, a week after Hamas murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel and took more than 250 others hostage into the Gaza Strip, on Nov. 4, 2023. Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.
A pro-Palestinian protest in London, a week after Hamas murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel and took more than 250 others hostage into the Gaza Strip, on Nov. 4, 2023. Credit: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr via Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

That old image of the Jewish family with a packed suitcase at the ready in case they are compelled to suddenly leave their home has returned with a vengeance across Europe.

In France and Germany, home to sizable Jewish communities, the “Should we leave?” debate is raging in earnest. Both of these countries experienced record levels of antisemitic incidents in 2023, most of them occurring after the Hamas pogrom of Oct. 7 in southern Israel. Similar conversations are also being held in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Belgium and Spain—countries with tiny Jewish communities that are nevertheless enduring a painful rise in antisemitism.

What about Britain, though? It’s a pertinent question insofar as there has always been a “British exceptionalism” with regard to the continent. During World War II, the Nazis failed in their quest to conquer the British Isles, in contrast to the rest of Europe. After the defeat of Hitler, the British supported efforts to transform Europe into an economic and political community that eventually became the European Union, even joining it. Yet Britain was never fully at peace with its identity as a European state, and as is well known, the “Brexit” referendum of 2016 resulted in the country’s full-fledged withdrawal from the European Union.

When it comes to antisemitism, however, Britain is very much part of the European rule, not the exception. Again, that’s important because while the British don’t deny that antisemitism is present in their politics and culture, they don’t believe that it’s as venomous as its German or French variations. “It is generally admitted that antisemitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding),” wrote George Orwell in an essay, “Antisemitism in Britain,” penned towards the war’s close in April 1945.

At the same time, Orwell conceded that British antisemitism was “ill-natured enough, and in favorable circumstances, it could have political results.” To illustrate this point, he offered a selection of the antisemitic barbs that he had encountered over the previous year. “No, I’ve got no matches for you. I should try the lady down the street. She’s always got matches. One of the Chosen Race, you see,” a grumpy tobacconist informed him. “Well, no one could call me antisemitic, but I do think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking. The way they push their way to the head of queues, and so on. They’re so abominably selfish. I think they’re responsible for a lot of what happens to them,” a “middle-class” woman said. Another woman, described by Orwell as an “intellectual,” refused to look at a book detailing the persecution of Jews in Germany on the grounds that “it will only make me hate them even more,” while a young man—a “near-Communist” in Orwell’s description—confessed that he had never made a secret of his loathing of Jews. “Mind you, I’m not antisemitic, of course,” he added.

I’d wager that were Orwell to tackle the same subject today, he would write a similar essay. The rhetoric he quotes echoes eerily in what we are hearing almost 80 years later, particularly the denial that recycling antisemitic tropes makes one an antisemite, as well as the digs against chosenness—because antisemites have never understood (or don’t want to understand) that Jewish “chosenness” is not about racial or ethnic superiority, but a duty to carry out a specific set of Divine commandments.

Last week, the Community Security Trust (CST), a voluntary security organization serving British Jews, issued its annual report on the state of antisemitism in Britain. The CST has been faithfully issuing these reports since 1984, and over the last few years, it has regularly registered new records for the number of offenses reported. 2023 was the worst year of all; there were a stomach-churning 4,103 incidents reported—an increase of 81% on the previous annual record in 2021, when 2,261 incidents were reported (largely due to that year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas for 11 days in May).

Instructively, the worst month in 2023 was October, in the days immediately following the rapes and other atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on that black day. Oct. 11 was, in fact, the worst day, with 80 incidents reported. As the CST pointed out, “[T]he speed at which antisemites mobilized in the U.K. on and immediately after Oct. 7 suggests that, initially at least, this increase in anti-Jewish hate was a celebration of the Hamas attack on Israel, rather than anger at Israel’s military response in Gaza.”

Of course, the present situation in the United Kingdom differs from Orwell’s time for two main reasons. Firstly, in 1945, there was no Jewish state, and antisemitism revolved around cruder tropes invoking supposed Jewish rudeness, clannishness, financial power and so forth. (Even so, Britain was also one of the first Western countries to experience antisemitic rioting linked to the Zionist movement and Israel; in 1947, after two British officers in Mandatory Palestine were executed by the Irgun, or “Etzel,” resistance organization, violence targeting Jewish communities broke out across the United Kingdom, thereby establishing the principle that all Jews, everywhere, are to blame for the alleged evils of Zionism.)

Secondly, in 1945 Britain was still largely a white, Christian society. In the interim, it has become far more diverse and is now home to nearly 4 million Muslims who constitute 6.5 percent of the population. Since the late 1980s—when the Iranian regime issued a fatwa calling for the death of the Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie, alleged to have slandered Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses—what was once a relatively docile population has become politically animated, with the Palestinian cause pushed front and center.

In the four months that have passed since the Hamas atrocities, with weekly demonstrations in support of Hamas in London and other cities, Muslim voices have been disproportionately loud in the opprobrium being piled not just on Israel, but on those Britons—the country’s Jewish community—most closely associated with the Jewish state. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every Muslim, and many of the worst offenders are non-Muslims on the left. Indeed, the Oct. 7 massacres have enabled the return to politics of a particularly odious individual whom I had forlornly believed had been banished to the garbage can of history; George Galloway, an ally of Hamas and one-time acolyte of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who is standing in the forthcoming parliamentary election in the northern English constituency of Rochdale for an outfit called the “Workers Party of Britain,” whose manifesto combines nationalism and socialism, but which would probably balk at the description “national socialist” in much the same way that some antisemites balk at the description “antisemitic.”

British Jews have weathered a great deal in recent years, especially the five years when the Labour Party, the main opposition, was led by the far-left Parliament member Jeremy Corbyn, who has since been turfed out of the party by his successor Sir Keir Starmer. Having survived that, the belief has spread that they can survive anything. But there’s another question to be asked: Is the effort worth it? Increasingly, and worryingly, growing numbers of British Jews are now answering “no.”

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