Simon Johnson: Executive Summary - December 2018

I made my debut on CNN recently. I had been asked on to respond to a CNN survey on antisemitism published at the end of November.

The subject had rightly been off the agenda for a couple of months as the political establishment and media focussed exclusively on Brexit. And we were doing nothing to bring it to the centre of the Agenda. That is, until the CNN survey came along.

7,000 adults across Europe were interviewed as part of the investigation.

And what a surprising and profoundly depressing set of findings it produced.  

Among the key headlines were findings that more than a quarter of Europeans believe Jews have “too much influence” in business and finance; one in five says that Jews have “too much influence in the media” and too much influence in politics”.


Remarkably, a third of those surveyed say they know “just a little” or nothing at all” about the Holocaust. One in 20 Europeans surveyed had never heard of the Holocaust. This astounding number included 40% of young German adults and 20% of Young French adults.

Almost one in five said antisemitism in their countries was a response to the everyday behaviour of Jewish people. More than a quarter of respondents said most antisemitism in their countries was a response to the actions of the State of Israel.

This latter set of findings are the modern version of the traditional anti-Semitic paradox- that Jews are both the victims and the cause of antisemitism. It is a modern version of the argument that we bring antisemtism upon ourselves. In our modern times, that argument becomes that antisemtism is the fault of the actions of the State of Israel.

These old fashioned antisemitic thoughts were around Europe for centuries before the State of Israel existed. It is very evident from this survey that these endemic, antisemitic views, which have lasted for centuries, are proving stubbornly difficult to shift. Despite education programmes across Europe, it seems that there is till a lot more to be done to shift these ancient antisemitic prejudices.

The fact that such views exist amongst younger people is the most depressing of the findings. As we all know, the vast majority of people around Europe have never and will never meet a Jew. As we know, Jews represent 0.5% of the UK population, 0.7% of the French population and less than 0.2% of the German population. So, if these views are held in such large numbers, then there is clearly something in European culture which continues to demonise “the Jew” as the outsider, or the one that does not belong, the invisible cause of some many problems. If that is the case, nothing much has changed since before the Holocaust.

Of course, part of the explanation may be the rise of populist nationalism in many European countries, with its rhetoric of scapegoating and anti-immigration. In Hungary and other European countries, nationalist politicians have begun in recent weeks a campaign to vilify George Soros. Again, this is a modern version of the old fashioned attack on the global Jew, conspiring to undermine nations and Governments. It really is amazing how resilient such old prejudices are.

I was asked by CNN what I felt needed to be done. To be honest, I found it hard to come up with an all pervasive answer. I ended up saying that it was incumbent upon European Governments to commit themselves to greater education on tolerance, to programmes of education on the Holocaust and its causes and to fight against hatred, bigotry and discrimination.

But, I can not escape the conclusion that this survey supports my view, which I have been articulating more in recent weeks, that the UK, under this Government, is really a great place in which to live a Jewish life. We may have forgotten that a bit over the last six months, as we have battled to deal with the failure to tackle antisemtism in the Labour party. But it remains undoubtedly the case.

Take Holocaust education. Successive UK Governments have embraced the need and importance of national Holocaust education. They have consistently supported the Holocaust Educational Trust. They have helped to ensure that Holocaust education is part of the National curriculum and taught in schools. There continues to be Government funding for HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz programme, whereby teens visit the Eastern European Concentration camps on official school trips. The Government and all Political parties and municipalities observe National Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th. And the Government has committed to a National Holocaust Memorial and Resource Centre right next to Parliament in Central London. This has the potential to be a greater educational tool than the Holocaust memorials which there are admittedly in other European capitals.

Our Government supports religious freedom, invests in security for the Jewish community, sustains Jewish schools and has been resolute in fighting antisemitism. In fact, a little known fact is how many local councils have adopted the IHRA definition against antisemtism.

At this time, over 150 Councils have adopted the IHRA definition in full. This makes us the only European country to have embedded action against antisemtism into the rules of local municipalities. This is a massive achievement. It is something we will highlight more in the New Year but it shows how embedded the fight against antisemtism is in our society, despite the challenges we have had this year.

The Prime Minister herself has engaged a lot with the community in the last few weeks. The JLC’s annual meeting with the PM was in mid October. On the day of one of her recent pummelling’s in the House of Commons on Brexit, the PM hosted at Downing Street a reception for the Sara Conference against antisemtism. And on the very day she pulled the Brexit vote, she came to and spoke at the Conservative Friends of Israel Annual Lunch.

So, depressing as this CNN survey was, the fact is that European governments have much to learn from the UK about how to conquer antisemitic attitudes.

And we should be grateful to be Jews here in the UK in 2018.