My views on anti-Semitism, until maybe just a few years ago, reflected those of many others in modern Britain. In short I saw it as an incredibly black and white issue. I would have of course condemned any anti-Semitism but I would also have assumed that it was only perpetrated by crackpots in far-right groups.
I would never have connected it with my own very normal friends, family and community.
Growing up in the UK I was surrounded by the idea that being anti-Semitic was a thing of the past, an ultimate evil that dogged the 20th century but played little role in modern Britain. This caricature of anti-Semitism made my young mind think of it as something comparable to that of Nazism…abhorrent but something of times past that only a handful of lunatics still believed.
Perversely, this perception of it being an ‘ultimate evil’ enabled me to develop a slightly flippant attitude about it – to write it off as something which was only found in niche far-right circles. This was perpetuated by my own blinkered experience that failed to spot it in my own life.
It was, for a long time, beyond my comprehension that it might be embedded in the culture that I was growing up in. Only now, looking back, can I see how wrong I was.
Growing up I attended a very reasonable comprehensive school. Thinking back to my school days I can remember all too clearly the flippant use of the word Jew as a playground insult for someone acting in a selfish way. “Come on, don’t be such a Jew, lend me some money”.
In retrospect these sorts of sentences are completely outrageous, but at the time, they were just a turn of phrase.
Thinking back to my childhood, I am not sure I knew anyone who was open about their Jewish identity at school or in the local community.
Now, this might well have been because there are not many Jews living in Gloucester…equally though it could be because of a phenomena a recent poll of 6,000 Jews across 8 European countries found, which was that many Jews feared being open about their identity for fear of discrimination and prejudice.
Have I known someone who was a Jew who just refrained from being open about it for fear of reprisals – very possibly! A fact that in itself is deeply sad and troubling.
The same poll also found that 46% said they worried about being verbally assaulted or harassed in public because they were Jewish.
At this stage I cannot help but to draw comparisons between gay friends who kept their sexuality a secret for fear of discrimination and abuse whilst also having to endure the daily use of the word gay being used as a playground insult.
The very small part that I played, in using such terminology and perpetuating this climate of fear, is something that as an adult I deeply regret.
And this leads to the crux of what I am saying. Anti-Semitism is not an abstract issue distant to my own community, but an important issue which must be tackled along-side all other forms of prejudice and discrimination. By dismissing it as something abstract and distant to your own life, your own community, you become lazy in tackling it in your every day life. This allows for the climate of fear that many Jews so evidently feel.
It is not just about the inappropriate use of language either. Thinking back to the last 5 years of my life I can draw out a handful of illustrations where I witnessed overt anti-Semitism.
To give one, and perhaps the most shocking, example: I was visiting White Hart Lane to watch some football and I stood there in disbelief as fans chanted things like ”You’re not in the gas chambers now” and “You’r two nil up but your six million down” to the Spurs fans sat opposite. What shocked me most here was that no-one else seemed shocked!
Equally, upon returning from the West Bank and doing talks on the human rights situation in the West Bank I have heard repeated anti-Semitic slurs. Something which I tried to write about here. I will never forget one activist friend who has done some amazing work on Palestine telling me I needed to keep things in perspective and stop worrying about anti-Semitism.
These are just two examples of draw-dropping anti-Semitism and inappropriate responses from ordinary people. But it is worth remembering hundreds of anti-Semitic incidents occur across the UK every year.
And of course we are not separate to the (by most accounts) much worse anti-Semitism which is occurring across the channel at the moment. These recent videos coming out from Paris over the last couple of days shows a dangerous populism behind these overt forms of anti-Semitism.
I write this blog now as a reflection of the journey that I have taken over the last 5 years.
5 or 6 years ago I was a well intentioned but essentially ignorant, activist. My failure to spot the severity of anti-Semitism damaged my ability to tackle prejudice and discrimination in general.
Now, more than ever, I feel anti-Semitism needs to be tackled along-side all other forms of bigotry, hatred and discrimination. To do this though, we have to remove it from its 20th century caricature and understand how it moves and looks in modern Britain.
One response to “My journey in tackling anti-Semitism”
I think you make a really important point about how the extreme taboo around antisemitism, because of the Holocaust, can actually be oddly counterproductive. People are more sensitive about being accused, even gently and indirectly, of antisemitism and so don’t confront the issue. I also agree that indifference or flippancy in the face of antisemitism is particularly concerning.