Simon Johnson: The issue of antisemitism is having less and less to do with the situation in the Middle East

Last week’s official CST Antisemitic Incidents Report for the first six months of 2017 certainly made for grim reading.  A 30% increase on the same period in the previous year, which itself was a high from the year before that.

The media in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the report was keen to explore the reasons for the increase. In my view, there is not one easy or convenient explanation. It could very well be increased awareness of the issue and of the need to report. It could be the fact that, thanks to the Government’s investment in visible security guards for Jewish schools, synagogues and institutions, it is easier to report to one of those guards, who will know exactly what to do with it. It could reflect a general increase in hate crimes and xenophobia across the UK, with racists feeling emboldened by a range of societal factors.

What these figures demonstrate is a clear decoupling of the issue of antisemtism from conflicts in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians or its neighbours. It is indeed the case that, when there is a conflict or military action in Israel, there is a spike in recorded antisemitic incidents. But the last such conflict was in Summer of 2014 in Gaza. The figures did indeed spike then. But since then, they came down but have stubbornly continued to rise and are now at a higher base level- and going up.

There is continually tension between Israel and the Palestinians or Hamas, and there are flare ups and incidents. But the antisemitism figures seem to not be changing with those incidents. The issue of antisemitism is having less and less to do with the situation in the Middle East.

Such is evident from the report itself. CST recorded over 450 incidents which were reported to them but not classed as antisemitic. Some of those were for Israel related activity which did not amount to antisemitism. This fact scotches those critics who believe that the reports of antisemitism are being used by the community to quieten criticism of Israel.

Further, the profile of the reported offenders in the CST report revealed that still over 50% of offenders were white European, and for 22% of the reported incidents where a “political element” lay behind the incident, less than 30% of such incidents were classed as having an anti-Zionist or Islamic motive.

That tends to support my view that the larger of the potential causes of the rise of antisemitism is far right xenophobia.

The media is always concerned about what can be done. This year I answered by saying that there is little visible deterrence for those who would tend towards antisemitism. If the social media companies are not yet doing enough to close down the most vile and baseless of the antisemitic hate online, with the result that material of a hateful nature continues to circulate, that emboldens those who hate.

When high profile political figures, whose statements or actions cross the line into antisemtism, such as Ken Livingstone, only receive a “slap on the wrist”, it empowers those who also have such views.

What is needed is more of the rapid response of the Sunday Times to the publication of Kevin Myers’ antisemitic article about Jewish BBC presenters. The article was removed, the journalist sacked and a rapid and fulsome apology issued. That is proper deterrence.

The IHRA Definition of Antisemtism is a sensible and balanced measure for public bodies to adopt, which helps to focus minds and guide officials about where the language used in public discourse might be defined as antisemitic. It was recommended to public bodies by the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.

Since then, it has been adopted by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, and by the Greater London Authority, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, the Scottish Government, Welsh Assembly and the National Union of Students.  It has also been adopted by 4 County Councils and 17 Local Authorities.  It is a mainstream measure now rolling out across the country as the Commons Committee recommended.

The most recent Council to adopt it was Haringey Council in North London. But the unanimous adoption of the IHRA Definition was greeted by disgraceful, noisy and intimidating heckling from the public gallery, by local Momentum activists. They were shouting “shame on you” at the Local Councillors, with one heard to threaten “Just wait until the selection meeting of the Labour Party. These people have formed the entirely mistaken view that the IHRA definition is intended to shut down criticism of Israel. Their reaction was so unedifying and harmful that it even caused the national Momentum movement to distance itself from the protests.

The people who heckled do not like not getting their own way. So they disrupt and shout and threaten when this happens. That is the behaviour of spoiled, playground bullies. And so they resort to menaces and threatening the Councillors that they will be replaced by someone perhaps more malleable.

And although the national Momentum movement has tried to distance itself from the “Haringey Hecklers”, other adherents of theirs are not immune from threats to deselect. And who was the first labour MP to be publicly threatened with deselection as part of this “purge” against those who are disloyal to the Leader? Luciana Berger MP.

And, before the Election, who were the MP’s who received the worst and most online antisemitic abuse and hatred? Luciana Berger, Louise Ellman MP and Ruth Smeeth MP. Those three are Jewish- and also Women.

So the menaces are coming in such a way that makes the Labour Party seem not just nasty and at times antisemitic, but misogynistic and bullying. The Leader of Haringey Council, who received all that abuse, is also a woman.

Activists may not care if they are thought to be antisemitic. But they might not be able to survive being seen as misogynistic. And that is a real danger. One Shadow cabinet member with whom I discussed this had his head in his hands at the impression being given that the playground bullies who are heckling and threatening MP’s are indeed making the party look misogynistic.

The IHRA definition is one of many sensible tools that is being used to tackle the indisputable rise in antisemitic incidents. It is being rolled out across civil society and no amount of bullying or intimidation should be allowed to intervene in the exercise of democracy. 


The article first appeared in the Jewish Telegraph in the 4th August 2017 edition.