Racism is civilisation’s most toxic poison. Gradually building within modern societies, it culminates in actions that illogically divide ethnic groups in both a social and legal sense. It is, in many ways, the most powerful and dominant form of social “othering” mankind has ever witnessed.
In one form or another, racism asserts itself within every human group. This ranges from the politically dormant – the subtle and subconscious racism that alters individual preferences – to coercive regimes, where racist sentiment is supported by the law and the rights of citizens are determined by their ethnicity.
The modern liberal desire to rid the world of racism is, however, not entirely consistent when dealing with it in practice. It prioritises racist issues depending on the level of demand and relevance to that particular nation.
As a nation with an imperial history, the form of racism that England has most eagerly engaged with is that between WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and natives from the colonies it conquered – though this is not to ignore the nation’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, if one regards England’s history in its totality, our track record on racism is hardly promising to those who now wish to rid the world of its pernicious effects.
Yet there is one form of racism that England is yet to fully acknowledge: antisemitism. Unlike other forms of racism, antisemitism proves the greatest challenge of all to dismantle – not because of historical context or inherited privilege, as one could say in reference to the struggles of black Europeans and Americans; but because of the way antisemitism perpetuates itself across every generation through perverse, illogical and conspiratorial worldviews.
Rather than being a hatred based merely on a difference of appearance, antisemitism survives in the same way all basic issues survive: it is inherently linked with the political, and continually evolves to tailor itself to modern situations. This hatred is not unexplainable, it is born out of foolish minds who connect Judaism to a warped political worldview.
It is my view that the titanic presence of the Holocaust in modern history has led to a skewed perception of what antisemitism consists of. As a result, I have witnessed antisemitism defined and restricted to the racial policy of Nazi Germany: the boycotting of Jewish shops, the enforced wearing of the Star of David, speeches littered with references to blood purity; ultimately culminating in systematic extermination on an industrial scale.
However, like any virus, antisemitism is under constant mutation. As a result, tackling its modern form becomes difficult because it no longer resembles the antisemitism of the past, but disguises itself by adopting the language of anti-imperialism and protecting human rights. This has allowed for many to overlook antisemitism’s current mutation and consequently, has allowed it to weave its way back into civil discourse.
Though not often considered, England has seen severe antisemitic policies implemented before. Henry III’s “Edict of the Badge” proclamation required Jews to wear a distinctive badge – markedly separating them from the remaining Christian population. This legislation carries an eerily similar tone and style to the antisemitic policy endorsed by the Nazi state before the so-called “Final Solution” was finally devised at the Wannsee Conference.
Under this legislation, Christian wet-nurses and servants were also banned from working for Jews, and it simultaneously outlawed Christians from eating with Jews or “abiding” with them in their houses. Article Eight of this law also banned any “secret familiarity” between Jewish men and Christian women, and Christian men and Jewish women.
While these policies are undoubtedly antisemitic in nature, they don’t so much offer an explanation for the hatred towards Jews, more the actions taken to persecute them. The beliefs and motivations that inspired policies such as these derive largely from the compelling narrative that has been shrouded around Jews for centuries. It has infected everything from our folk-tales, our nursery rhymes, to even our most beloved works of literature.
Perhaps the two most obvious examples of this are Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist. Both these characters are portrayed as shady Jewish stereotypes and are defined by their morally questionable exploits. Within the pages of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, one can once again recognise the author openly embracing the negative Jewish stereotype. Wilde describes, “A hideous Jew…was standing by the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt.”
If these three examples fail to convince you of the widespread antisemitic tendencies within English literature, then I would refer you to yet another work: Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Hardy writes, “…the money did not come, but he found afterwards that the breeches he knelt in were made by a wicked Jew”. What one can recognise here is a subtle trend of contemporaneous antisemitism, exposed in the writings of famous authors that shamelessly embrace the classic stereotypical image of the Jew as rich, rank, slimy and corrupt.
Other elements as common as classic nursery rhymes or limericks also reveal antisemitic and racist sentiment within England. One such example is the poem David Irving was exposed as reciting to his daughter before his case to sue for libel against Dr Deborah Lipstadt in 1994. The poem is as follows:
“I am a Baby Aryan,
Not Jewish or Sectarian.
I have no plans to marry-an
Ape or Rastafarian.”
One should not overlook Christianity’s role in the antisemitism that has plagued Western society. Ever since the proclamation that the Jews were responsible for the killing of Christ, they have been depicted as a group with treacherous intentions. This stereotype was then reinforced in several different ways, such as the myth of Jews participating in a blood libel – an act that involves drinking the blood of Christian children.
Quickly, this basic foundation of how the Jew was perceived became a canvas from which people could attach any frustration. The initial prejudice created an environment whereby any allegation levelled against Jews could appear plausible because of what was perceived as in their nature. It is pseudo-intellectual and conspiratorial to its core, but what is worse, it has allowed antisemites to disguise their bigotry in false facts and seemingly logical arguments.
This has created a narrative that has become inextricably linked to Jewish history: a dark and perverse “story of the Jews”. This story portrays Jews as dirty; exclusive; selfish and, perhaps most sinister of them all, destructively powerful. Jews are not only regarded as untrustworthy but they are considered a threat to world peace, security and equality.
One only needs to regard a speech given at an NSDAP meeting in the 1920s to understand the sway this pseudo-intellectual movement can have when societies are facing various economic and social difficulties. The speech claimed that the Jews were a threat because they are “a people of robbers. [They have] never founded any civilisation, though [they have] destroyed civilisations by the hundred. [They] possesses nothing of [their] own creation to which [they] can point”.
Speeches such as this portray a picture much like the anti-corporatist and anti-globalisation message we witness today. It is the belief that antisemitism is a rejection of the financial dominance of the world’s Jews that eventually destroys world cultures.
This conspiracy still resonates with many people. In 2016 the Liberal Democrats suspended the MP Matthew Gordon Banks who claimed that “Farron’s leadership campaign was organised and funded by London Jews” and “I tried to work with them. Very difficult”.
The antisemitism of the past is now easily identifiable. These forms of antisemitism were disguised and justified by the scale of external issues: economic difficulties, theological complexities, and the vulnerability of national identities. While these issues are not inherently antisemitic, they have nevertheless been utilised by the antisemite to explain why the cause of the problem lies directly at the feet of the Jew.
The next issue we face is whether we can recognise the next step in antisemitism’s mutation.
With much of antisemitism’s history aligned with extreme elements of the political right, it is perhaps surprising to some that the response of the political left towards Zionism can be regarded as the next step in this mutation.
It is only to be expected that most on the left would refuse to acknowledge this; their discourse prioritises minority and human rights, and is anti-imperialist at its core. Yet anti-Zionist discourse places its anti-imperialism at the centre of an absolutist ideology. There is little patience for the nuances in the issue and it divides the world into two distinct camps: those who take the side of the oppressed, and those who take the side of the oppressor. Within this, a discourse begins to flourish that may take on an antisemitic form, or may just merge with the antisemitic discourse without being inherently antisemitic itself.
The same way one could have been anti-Bolshevist without supporting the theory of Judeo-Bolshevism, one’s criticism of an Israeli government is not inherently antisemitic. The problem arises when justified criticism and antisemitism merge together in a discussion that is impossible to disentangle. This creates a political milieu whereby non-antisemitic criticisms of an Israeli government’s actions are simultaneously and unconsciously supportive of the antisemitic message: to deny the Jewish people of a home.
The antisemitism we witness today is no longer just the Fagins or the Shylocks that haunt the pages of our books. Nor is it just the jeering a Jew may receive on the street. Instead, it is the denial of the right of the Jewish people to have a place they can call home. After Europe has persecuted them for centuries, it is only right that Jews have a place where they can live without fear.
But, to our shame, breeding in the shadows of British politics, hiding behind the veil of minority and human rights, we have seen antisemitism re-emerge in England. It’s time to call it what it is.
In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Jews survived all the defeats, expulsions, persecutions and pogroms, the centuries in which they were regarded as a pariah people, even the Holocaust itself, because they never gave up the faith that one day they would be free to live as Jews without fear.” This is a message I wholeheartedly support.