John Humphrys: Is antisemitism a threat to us all?

February 16, 2024, 12:46 PM GMT+0

Something deeply disturbing is happening in this country: the rise of antisemitism and everything that goes with it. It is reflected not only in marches and protests but also outlandish comments made by a few Labour politicians, some of which have forced the party to withdraw support from their own candidates. More worrying still is the publication of the latest figures by a respected charity that show antisemitism in Britain is at its highest levels in over 40 years. The home secretary James Cleverly himself has condemned the “utterly deplorable” rise and decried the recent “antisemitic hatred and abuse”.

There is another possible explanation behind these latest figures. It is, sadly, the case that antisemitism is endemic in society and not only in this country. Indeed, it has existed for so long it has been described as “the longest hatred”. But what has been happening in Israel and Gaza have given many the justification they might seek to parade their antisemitic views.

The research was carried out by the Community Security Trust (CST) which claimed there had been an “explosion in hatred” on the streets following the attack on Israelis by Hamas terrorists on October 7 in which more than 1,200 were murdered, many of them young people at a music festival. Some were raped and mutilated. Many more people have died in Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza. The latest figures from the ministry of health there puts the number of dead at well over 28,000.

But the CST claimed that the speed with which antisemites mobilised in this country on October 7 suggested that, initially, it was a “celebration” of the Hamas attacks, rather than a reaction to Israel’s response.

The report’s figures make depressing reading. The number of antisemitic incidents here has increased to 4,103. That’s by far the highest number recorded since the charity began logging cases in 1984: a rise of 150 per cent. Almost 2,700 of those incidents have been reported on or after October 7. The incidents include abusive behaviour, threats, assaults, the damage and desecration of synagogues and the distribution of antisemitic literature. Children were involved in more than 300 of the incidents and there has been a sharp increase in schools and universities. The CST also found that 48 incidents were connected to political parties or their supporters – 45 of them connected to the Labour Party.

Mark Gardner, the chief executive of CST, described its findings as an “explosion in hatred against our community… an absolute disgrace”. He said it is happening “in schools, universities, workplaces, on the streets and all over social media… Our community is being harassed, intimidated, threatened and attacked by extremists who also oppose society as a whole.” And he condemned what he called the “stony silence” from sections of society which call out racism “except when it comes to Jew hate”.

One of Labour’s most senior Jewish figures, Dame Louise Ellman, has warned that Sir Keir Starmer must urgently tighten up the vetting of potential Labour candidates or risk yet again bringing the party into disrepute. She said: “It’s really very, very bad… one of the things it shows is that there clearly hasn’t been proper scrutiny in selecting candidates. Labour has to act and be very careful on the selection of future.”

But Lord Mann, the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, has said that Labour issues with antisemitism were reflective of what is happening everywhere across the country. Here’s part of what he wrote after the CST report was published:

“Each and every political leader needs to put themselves on the front line in stopping this evil…. Our political leaders have to stand together on this. No more excuses, no more hesitation, no more party politicking. The situation today is beyond the point where we can afford such indulgence. If Jewish people are fearful of politicians, then what else is left? Children are being abused at school, on public transport on the way to school, in parks and playgrounds. Students are being targeted and isolated in universities. Theatre audiences are joining in antisemitic bullying — there are no mere bystanders here. The demands to make hospitals, workplaces and places of learning Jew-free zones are now a common currency.

“This is our country in the 21st century and we have not woken up to these realities. The noisy protests are what preoccupy the politicians, but what is going on beneath the surface is far more sinister: the organised targeting of Jewish voices and Jewish allies… Increasingly antisemitic actions are attempting to isolate Jewish people at work, remove Jewish young people from their shared accommodation, have Jewish professionals sacked from their job or removed from their contract, restricted in opportunities and shunned by their so-called colleagues. Lots of this is a new moral superiority that demeans and defiles the other as unworthy, some of it is organised and co-ordinated targeting. Extremism, of all kinds, is growing and the Jewish communities are on the front line.

“The Jewish community cannot be expected to fight this torrent of hatred on their own. Each and every political leader needs to put themselves on the front line in stopping this evil. Our political leaders have to stand together on this. No more excuses, no more hesitation, no more party politicking. The situation today is beyond the point where we can afford such indulgence. Each of you need to sort out your own party please. Each of you need to differentiate between hot-headed politics and racist targeting of Jewish people and their community buildings. The Jewish community requires you to work together on this. An unwillingness to do so will lead us further down a slippery slope to disaster. We must do better.”

Lord Mann’s critics might argue that he is guilty of exaggeration. Can you really apply the word “disaster”, they might ask, to the existence of a relatively tiny number of bigoted idiots and thugs who revel in their notoriety? By all means punish them with the full force of the law if they use violence or any form of intimidation but are we not playing their grubby game if we take them seriously and even consider them to be a threat to the state?

The answer to that might very well be: it depends on whether you yourself are Jewish and find yourself a victim of antisemitism. Or someone you love.

And there are other questions we should, perhaps, ask ourselves, assuming we are not Jewish. Have we ever been guilty of antisemitism ourselves in even its seemingly mildest guise? How might we have reacted if we had been in that West End theatre last week when the comedian subjected Jewish members of the audience to “verbal abuse”?

And finally, if you yourself are Jewish are you aware of an increase in the level of antisemitism on this country and, if so, how should we deal with it?

Do let us know.

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