In the continuing debate about the extent of antisemitism in Britain, arguably the most obvious feature is the lack of good evidence to support the views of most commentators. I have already commented on that in a previous blog that was largely concerned with allegations against the Labour party. Leaving that aside, there has also been a dearth of evidence about the extent of antisemitism in the general population, and in particular the relationship between antisemitic attitudes and attitudes to Israel and its policies. That’s why a recent survey carried out for the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) is welcome.
Carried out in late 2016 and early 2017, a comprehensive report was published in September 2018 (http://www.jpr.org.uk/documents/JPR.2017.Antisemitism_in_contemporary_Great_Britain.pdf ).
While it sheds only a small amount of light on the controversy around Labour, it does make an important contribution to the debate around the relationship between anti-Semitic attitudes and attitudes towards Israel. This debate has become more prominent over the last few years, and much of it has centered around the statement by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that sought to both define antisemitism and also to provide examples of anti-Semitic statements (https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/working-definition-antisemitism). One example in particular; “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”, has been criticised on the grounds that it implies that criticism of Israeli policies, for example by claiming that it is an apartheid State, is anti-Semitic. In fact the IHRA statement exhibits a certain amount of internal confusion since it also says “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”. The full IHRA definition and examples, in fact, were eventually adopted by the Labour Party after considerable pressure from its critics and despite the Party and especially its leader continuing to criticise Israeli policies that are seen as racist. More recently several voices have been raised that are critical of this linking of attitudes, most notably the piece that appeared in the Guardian newspaper (itself a strong critic of the Labour Party’s handling of antisemitism) by Peter Beinart
( https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/mar/07/debunking-myth-that-anti-zionism-is-antisemitic ). Beinart’s argument is persuasive and he carefully demolishes the claim that being critical of Israeli policies is inherently anti-Semitic. He also says “In the real world, anti-Zionism and antisemitism don’t always go together. It is easy to find antisemitism among people who, far from opposing Zionism, enthusiastically embrace it.”
The JPR report now provides some empirical support in the general population for this statement. But, as far as the second sentence is concerned, he is largely referring to well-known historical figures such as Balfour, who was not only largely responsible for the declaration that sought to establish a Jewish home in Palestine, but who also argued earlier in favour of restricting the ‘influx’ of Jewish immigrants. The JPR report does not provide much evidence that in the general population those who are uncritical of Israel are likely to exhibit strong anti-Semitic attitudes.
The JPR report in particular shows that of those people who score highly on the anti-Semitic scale, some 80% score highly on the anti-Israel scale compared to the overall figure of 9%, and of those who score highly on the anti-Israel scale some 17% score highly on the anti semitic scale compared to the overall figure of 4%. Clearly there is a strong association here between anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes, although most people scoring highly on the anti-Israel scale do not in fact score highly on the anti-semitic scale and some 28% show no tendency at all to hold anti-Semitic views.
We do not know, of course, how causation operates. Do anti-Israeli attitudes encourage anti-Semitic ones or does it work the other way around, and for how many people? For those who appear to be keen to equate anti-Israeli attitudes with anti-Semitic attitudes, such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, there may well also be a sad irony. If anti-Israeli attitudes encourage anti-Semitic ones, then if Israeli policies increasingly engender criticisms and if criticism of Israel does provoke anti-Semitic attitudes, then those who attempt to equate the two will implicitly be encouraging anti-Semitic attitudes.
The rest of the JPR report is also useful. It explores the extent of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli attitudes among different religious groups and among those with various political leanings. For the latter, while it does not identify party membership, it does quite clearly show a higher degree of anti-Semitic attitudes among the right than the left, while for the former it identifies a greater degree of antisemitism among Muslims.
For those concerned with the current debates about antisemitism and attitudes to Israel this report is to be highly recommended – even if you don’t get past the executive summary.