There was a time - roughly from the 1950s till the 1980s, perhaps - when being Jewish in the United Kingdom hardly felt uncomfortable at all. The horrors of the recent past in central Europe had left most people, including many Jews, feeling that the world had conclusively learned what anti-Semitism leads to, and that nothing like that would happen again, because people would never countenance a return to those hideous depths of moral degradation. And Britain in particular had led the world in the overthrow of those horrors, and hence would always, it seemed, be resistant to any serious resurgence of anti-Semitism. Although there remained in the UK some residual anti-Semitism, principally on the right, it was not at a level that gave rise to any real anxiety - it was golf-club exclusion stuff, rather than any more serious form of hostility. And the liberal-left, of course, was thought to be as resolute in its hostility to anti-Semitism as it was to other forms of racism, so it could always be seen as a bulwark of defence against any resurgence from Europe's darker recesses of prejudice.
Things, however, are rather different now (see the closing paragraphs here). Anti-Semitism is on the rise again, and some, perhaps many, Jews are beginning to feel under threat on account of their Jewishness, and in particular on account of their support for Jewish rights of self-determination and self-defence. Parts of the left are now notably ready to single out the state which embodies some of these rights not only for criticism but also for punishment, and for unique demonization and delegitimization. The reasons for this shift of attitude on the left are extremely unclear. The question has been raised time and again as to why these parts of the left are so anxious to punish Israel for its crimes, when they give a free pass to other far worse malefactors. In spite of approximately 3,000 civilians being killed in Sri Lanka since January 2009, we do not find plays called 'Seven Sri Lankan Children', showing how these children are taught to hate Tamil innocents, and receiving loud cheers from liberal-left critics; nor do we find repeated claims emanating from our universities of how the Russians in Chechnya are like the Nazis and must be boycotted, or how the Chinese in Tibet are like the Nazis and must be boycotted, or how the Sudanese in Darfur are like the Nazis, and must be... well, you get the picture. And complaints about this singular and punitive hostility to Israel, and the discriminatory effects which it has, are routinely met with a response which has been baptised (so to speak) as the Livingstone Formulation, in recognition of a noted deployer of it: the response that Jews only mention these other catastrophes, and indeed only mention anti-Semitism, as a way of distracting people from Israel's terrible crimes. Jews, that is, are mendacious and lying, and dishonestly seek to exploit innocent left-wing anxieties about being called anti-Semitic, in order to silence the critics of Israel. And in this context mention of the Jewish Lobby is now common, and the sinister power which it supposedly holds, especially in America; and increasingly reference is made to the children which Jews (it is implied and sometimes even asserted) like to kill, and in general to Jewish arrogance and bloodthirstiness. And though people still deny being anti-Semitic themselves, they are increasingly ready to declare that they find the anti-Semitism of others 'understandable'.
How did we get to this stage, where parts of the liberal-left in Britain are quite unashamedly prepared to deploy some of the most traditional tropes of anti-Semitism? The standard explanation given is that the 'root cause' of all this hostility lies in the behaviour and sometimes the existence of Israel. The causal arrow, it is claimed, runs from Israel's existence and crimes to current hostility to Jews both in Israel and in the rest of the world. But this explanation is not a convincing one, since the much greater crimes of other states have produced nothing like the febrile animosity and persistent demands for punishment and ostracism (at the very least) that Israel has attracted, far less the demands for the destruction of the offending state itself. So we need a better explanation, and it's tempting to think of one in which the causal arrow is reversed, in which it's hostility to Jews which is in the driving seat, a hostility which explains the distorted perception of Israel as uniquely malevolent and hence to be uniquely excoriated.
This reversal of the causal arrow doesn't produce a fully satisfactory explanation either, since most people on the left aren't consumed by hatred of Jews, aren't driven by an anti-Semitic project to demonize them and to deny them the rights which others are routinely accorded. A world in which there is such a conscious project on the left, here in Britain, isn't the world we actually live in. But reversing the direction of the causal arrow does produce an instructive thought experiment: if we consider what such a world, if it did exist, would be like, the differences between it and the real world will help us to understand our own circumstances better. Suppose that there were indeed a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the UK, particularly on the left. What would we expect to find? What would treatment of the Jews be like, as this new version of Jew-hatred got under way?
In this hypothetical world we would, I think, expect to find a general cover-story being used to veil the development of anti-Semitism. This is what has happened in the past: there is in fact quite a long history of left-wing anti-Semitism in Britain from the 19th century onwards, but it has always been shame-faced, reluctant to declare itself and speak its own name, unlike its parallel on the right. In the past, the cover-story was about wealth - Jews were objectionable because most of them were supposedly so rich, and this objectionability spread over to all Jews, rich and poor alike. Given widespread British disapproval of public expressions of anti-Semitism, a cover-story in the hypothetical world would still be needed, and the obvious one would be anti-Zionism, under whose broad sheltering wings the needed racist generalizations could take place. So we would expect to find Israel's crimes singled out for ferocious hostility while similar and worse ones elsewhere notably failed to arouse the same fury and venomous animosity; we would expect to find demands for boycotts and other punishments against Israel, and only Israel, and an insistence on comparing it, in the teeth of the evidence and with overt relish, to those paradigm cases of political evil, apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany; we would expect to find a hugely disproportionate amount of news time devoted to Israel's crimes (real and fabricated), and we would also expect to find literary and literary-critical expressions of the anti-Semitic project, under the guise of hostility to Zionism, being produced and received with critical applause. The words 'Israeli' and 'Zionist' would be used as terms of contempt at Hampstead and Islington dinner parties and in left-wing groupuscules, and also in the university staff and student unions influenced by either or both of these milieus. The latter's inhabitants would discover and express sympathies for Islamist organizations which explicitly seek the destruction of Israel and indeed of the Jews in toto. There would be an increasing requirement for left-wing Jews to declare their hostility to Israel as a ticket of entry to progressive circles, and some would of course be prepared to pay this price. Such Jews would provide invaluable cover for this developing anti-Semitism, and we could expect to find them in strong demand as legitimizers for the project.
What else might occur as the opening shots of this hypothetical project? An obvious seam for anti-Semites to mine would be the rich tradition of anti-Semitic tropes, suitably updated for the 21st century. So we should look for versions of the belief that Jews are too powerful, that they use their sinister power to harm others, that they work from the shadows to control, and control adversely, the policies that affect the rest of the world. They would be blamed for unpopular political policies and practices ranging from British and American involvement in Iraq to the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and the mass murders in London of 7/7. We might also expect to see a revival of the old blood libel which was so effective in the Middle Ages for whipping up Jew-hatred. Stories about Jews killing children, Jews deliberately and intentionally aiming to massacre innocents, would be circulated, and any Jewish activity which could possibly be represented in this way would be dwelt on and embellished. Cases of this kind would also be fabricated wherever there was the opportunity to persuade others that the Jews were to blame for harming children. And deliberate and intentional attacks on Jewish children would be ignored, or explained away as the result of an 'understandable' uprush of hatred for Jews caused by Israel's crimes.
Naturally in our thought-experimental world we would find Jews voicing their alarm about this resurgence of anti-Semitism, and pointing out the nature of what was going on. So we would see various strategies being developed to deal with these charges, given that they might arouse some public concern. The most effective strategy would be to claim that complaints about anti-Semitism actually reveal the viciousness of the Jews who make the complaints, and the meretricious nature of their supposed concerns - this is after all a traditional riposte made by anti-Semites to their critics. One version of this strategy might be to announce that Jews only complain about anti-Semitism in order to distract people's attention from Israel's crimes. An added advantage of this manoeuvre would be the implication that Jews who are worried about anti-Jewish discrimination are really mendacious liars seeking to pull the wool over honest Gentile eyes, thus constituting a further updating of traditional anti-Semitic tropes about dishonest manipulative Jews. Indeed so successful might this manoeuvre be that charges of anti-Semitism would be received with ill-disguised pleasure in our hypothetical world, since they would provide yet another opportunity to announce that Jews are deceitful and exploitative, and that the anti-Semitism they claim to worry about is merely a lying construct. People would start to proudly declare that they were being labelled as anti-Semitic, and demand admiration for their courage in exposing themselves to these smears.
We would also, I think, find some people on the liberal-left, including some serious critics of Israel, not being prepared to take part in the anti-Semitic project. These refuseniks, so to speak, would easily be distinguished from participants in the project by the fact that alongside their criticisms of Israel they would also be ready to recognize and explicitly condemn the renewal of anti-Semitic hostilities, to identify the discriminatory strategies being used in this way, to declare that they wanted no part of them and, in some cases at least, to actively and vociferously struggle against them. Such members of the liberal-left would be pilloried by their anti-Semitic comrades; they would share in the opprobrium which would, in our thought experiment, increasingly be heaped on Jews who didn't dissociate themselves from Israel, and sometimes on those who did.
And alongside all this we would, of course, expect to find the number of attacks on Jews and on Jewish institutions starting to increase.
All of these phenomena are what might be expected in a hypothetical Britain in which anti-Semitism was beginning to rise again. But this is of course just a thought experiment. So what can we learn from it? We definitely can't learn whether the relevant parts of the liberal-left in the real world actually are motivated by anti-Semitism, particularly since they keep telling us that they aren't. But the behaviour which we would expect to find in the hypothetical world turns out to be largely indistinguishable from the behaviour of parts of the left in the real world. So there's something which we can learn from the thought experiment: we can learn that whatever motives are in play, the actual behaviour of much of the anti-Zionist left is remarkably similar to that which we would expect in the circumstances of a resurrected anti-Semitism.
There is not at the moment, so far as I know, a deliberate and conscious anti-Semitic project on the left to undermine the standing of Jews in Britain and elsewhere, and to deny them the rights of self-determination and self-defence which are accorded to others. But there is a significant number of people on the liberal-left behaving as if they were in fact complicit in such a project; who are impervious to the chilling anti-Semitic effects of their behaviour; who are in practice acting as enablers and facilitators for those full-blooded anti-Semites who want to exploit the rich possibilities of this situation. This willingness to prepare the ground for Jew-hatred is in itself a disgusting development on the left, and a betrayal of some of its most basic principles. It is also a proper source of alarm for Jews who are beginning to feel that the brief decades in which being a Jew in Britain was unproblematic may be coming to an end. (Eve Garrard)