Denis MacShane: “’Witches’ Brew’ of Anti-Semitism in the UK”

It’s 350 years since Oliver Cromwell re-admitted Jews to England, and this week BBC Radio 4’s religious news programme Sunday consists of a special edition about Jews in Britain. The programme has some interesting material, and includes input from a wide range of British Jews – secular, religious, gay, pro- and anti-Zionist. The show also includes discussions about anti-Semitism and Zionism, and features a short interview with Denis MacShane, the former Labour cabinet member who currently chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism. The Inquiry has been underway for ten months now, but MacShane manages only a curiously vague assessment of the problem. Presenter Edward Stourton begins by asking him how anti-Semitism expresses itself in Britain today; MacShane responds:

Just the way that anti-Semitism has always been expressed in the past: direct assaults on Jews as they were going to their synagogues; on Jewish children from Jewish schools; desecration of cemeteries; spray-painting; insults; remarks. They had to spend millions of their own money to protect their synagogues, their community centres, their schools. That’s not right, I think, that any British citizen of any faith has to dig into his or her own pocket because they feel there isn’t adequate protection for their right to express themselves as Jews.

It would have been nice to have had some indication as to the extent of this kind of thing, and how it compares with other forms of prejudice, but Stourton moves on:

To what extent do you think that the phenomenon that you observed is a consequence of people’s views about what’s happening in the Middle East?

Undoubtedly there was a read-across. Some of the vilest anti-Semitic propaganda we saw came from ultra-Islamist groups. One only has to read some of the official policies of some of the organisations active in the Middle East, listen to the President of Iran calling for the eradication of the State of Israel from the map of the world, not to see that there is a direct connection.

I’m thinking, I suppose, more, of the views of ordinary citizens, really.

There’s obviously every right to be critical of Israel. That’s a normal democratic response in any country. People who criticise Israel are not anti-Semitic. On the other hand I haven’t met, or I haven’t seen, during the year’s work we’ve done, an anti-Semite was wasn’t viscerally anti-Israeli. So in that sense there is a connection, but I think anti-Semitism is there. It’s always been there. There was the post-1945 sense of “never again”, and that anti-Semitism had to be absolutely eradicated from everybody’s thinking, but it’s there. Look at the work of the [British Nationalist Party], look at some of the slogans and the placards carried by some of the Islamic fundamentalists, the ultra-left groups. The kind of sneering anti-Semitism that you find in clubs and the old joke of Harold Macmillan that Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet was more Old Estonian than Old Etonian. All those little remarks are there, they come together and they can turn quite ugly quite quickly.

This last part is a bit weak; these days the BNP is more interested in whipping up anti-Muslim hatred than pursuing anti-Semitism. While in 1997 BNP leader Nick Griffin was churning out an anti-Semitic screed entitled Who are the Mind-Benders?, now he prefers Jared Taylor’s strategy of including Jews among “white nationalists” (as was reported in the Forward back in March, and which Max Blumenthal followed up in the Nation); and regarding the Lebanon conflict, the BNP took the line that it was none of their business. [UPDATE: However, the report does also quote a 2005 BNP publication that blamed “filthy-rich Zionist businessmen” for leading the UK into war in Iraq]. And just how prevalent are these supposedly “sneering” comments in clubs? We need a bit more than one dodgy quip made by an ancient politician 25 years ago by way of evidence.

Some of those who are concerned about it do say that it’s a particular problem of the Left, that the Left tends to be concerned about how Israel is acting and how that quite often slips over into anti-Semitism. Do you accept that?

Yes and no. I think that very many people were very surprised at the position that William Hague of the Conservative Party took on the recent conflict where he was so obviously condemning Israel and not condemning equally Hezbollah, Iran, and Syria and so on.

That wasn’t anti-Semitic, though

It wasn’t anti…no, no, no, no…but when you say it comes from the Left it creates a culture of saying that we’re not going to look at this in an even-handed way. And of course, here the problem comes again. I don’t think I know a single person, single MP, a single journalist on the Left or the Right who expounds on these problems who I think for a nano-second I would say is anti-Semitic. But when Jewish people feel and they read stuff that is so aggressive, comparing Israel to Nazis, comparing Israel to those responsible for the Holocaust, and they shudder inwardly. And I think they’re right to be concerned.

Well yes, that kind of “Israel=Hitler” stuff is stupid and nasty (although “Nazi” accusations are thrown about fairly commonly in Israel), but what’s that got to do with William Hague and “even-handedness”? Must every criticism of Israel be preceded with a checklist of repudiations of anti-Israel extremists in order to be taken seriously? MacShane concludes:

But there is a Left problem certainly, the coming together of ultra-Islamist fundamentalist groups and fanatically anti-American, anti-British government, anti-any idea of a democratic solution for the Middle East that is based on the right of Israel fully and openly to exist. Then yes, I’m afraid there is a kind of “witches’ brew” and it’s an old politics we’ve also seen before of the ultra-left coming together with people that really they should have nothing to do with in terms of respect for women, respect for human rights, respect for gays, in some of the Islamist organisations. But that’s modern politics.

I’ve also noted this unhappy trend, and recently I blogged on British anti-war protestors cheering on a pro-Hezbollah and pro-Hamas rant from Azzam Tamimi.

The interview is followed by a more general discussion of anti-Semitism in the UK, in which various Jewish contributors complain of “tensions” which were not in evidence a few decades ago. Stourton tries to pin down where exactly criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic, but the answers remain vague, focusing mainly on Israel’s “right to exist” – although what that means in practical terms (are supporters of a bi-national solution beyond the pale, for instance?) was left unspecified. This is a complaint I’ve made previously.

UPDATE: The report is out, and I’ve discussed it here.