Don't let the Livingstone row blind us to the growing threat of anti-Semitism

It seems that human rights abuses committed by Jews provoke more rage than abuses committed by others
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Don't be lulled into complacency by the bogus campaign over the past week to present Ken Livingstone as an anti-Semite. We are in the middle of a global resurgence of Jew-hating - and no foolish newspaper witch-hunt should make us doubt it.

Don't be lulled into complacency by the bogus campaign over the past week to present Ken Livingstone as an anti-Semite. We are in the middle of a global resurgence of Jew-hating - and no foolish newspaper witch-hunt should make us doubt it.

Figures released this month show that anti-Jewish attacks in Britain rose by 40 per cent last year, with teenagers beaten for wearing yarkmulkas, and swastikas carved into the side of synagogues. Some 24 per cent of British people, in a recent poll, agreed with statements like "Jews only care about their own kind" and "Jews have too much power in this country" - up from 18 per cent in 2002.

This is happening in almost every country for which we have data. Even anti-Semitic ideas that have long been lying dormant are reawakening across the world - from Mel Gibson's blockbuster depiction of hook-nosed Jews slaughtering Jesus Christ to a prime-time adaptation of the old, insane Protocols of the Elders of Zion on Egyptian TV.

There is no other form of racism that would make decent progressive people equivocate. But how many of us hesitate before we call this hatred by its proper name? How many of us wonder - just for a moment - if perhaps this wave of hate is a legitimate response to the crimes committed by Ariel Sharon in the Occupied Territories? But wait. Does anybody think the global wave of hostility towards Muslims was a legitimate response to Bin Laden's crimes?

Yes, I know what many people think when they hear the word "anti-Semitism": that the writer is trying to silence criticism of Israel. It is true that some hucksters and intellectual crooks abuse the term in this way. But regular readers will know that I regard Sharon as a war criminal, and I have reported from the Occupied Territories on the slow-motion suffering of the Palestinians. I have even - ridiculously - been accused of anti-Semitism myself. But the fact that a few people cry wolf for disreputable reasons is not a sign that the wolves don't exist. Twenty-first century anti-Semitism is real and epidemic, and there is a danger that the row about Ken - who has been falsely accused of anti-Semitism by right-wing trouble-makers - will encourage the people who want to dismiss the entire surging hatred as a myth.

Why is this happening, and should we be worried? A few months ago I was talking to an old woman who survived Auschwitz. She said: "Growing up in Weimar Berlin, I used to laugh when I heard my grandparents ranting about anti-Semitism. I told them they were paranoid. Well, I wasn't laughing in the cattle trucks. I obviously don't think Britain is about to turn Nazi. But in Jewish terms, sixty years is nothing. Nothing. Sure, we're on top today - but how many times in history have the Jews been on top and thought we were safe, only to see it disappear in the blink of a gentile eye?" I must have looked sceptical because she quickly added: "Sure, we have the support of most Americans today. But power passes. The Pharoah looked very powerful once upon a time. American power will ebb away, and then what will my grandchildren be left with? At this rate, it will be a world that hates us more than ever."

And, yes, the debate about Israel is being infected with anti-Semitism. I passionately support the creation of a Palestinian state - and a real Palestinian state, not the string of Bantustans offered to Yasser Arafat in the summer of 2000. But why the constant rhetorical inflation of Israel's crimes to put them on a par with Nazi Germany? A recent poll found that 51 per cent of Germans believe "there is not much difference between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and what the Nazis did to the Jews". In truth, more people died in one afternoon in Bergen-Belsen than have been killed in twenty years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. That doesn't make the murder of single Palestinian justifiable - but it does make me question the motives of those who would draw the comparison. Is it suppressed guilt? Is the old Jewish saying - the gentiles will never forgive us for what we revealed about them in Auschwitz - true?

Israel is committing real and terrible crimes in the Occupied Territories - but it does seem that human rights abuses committed by Jews provoke far more rage across the world than human rights abuses committed by any other group. Over the past 15 years, Russia has slaughtered at least 300,000 people in Chechnya - 40,000 of them children. This is more than ten times the number of Muslims who have (unforgivably) been killed by Israel. Western governments mostly supported and excused the killing in Chechnya, and Russia is - like Israel - a semi-democracy. So where's the comparable outrage? Does anybody constantly demand that Russians condemn Vladimir Putin before they have a right to be protected from racism?

I am angry about both Chechnya and Palestine - but why do so many people get furious about one and ignore the other? Some of my friends in pro-Palestinian campaigns say it's because our government is intermeshed with Israel when it comes to diplomacy, geopolitics and arms sales, so we have more responsibility for what happens there - but is that enough to explain the disparity?

Others say it is because Zionism is inherently racist, because it is based on the idea of a Jewish state that, by definition, Arab-Israeli citizens cannot identify with. I worry about this too, and I would like to see Israel gradually become post-Zionist, in line with proposals by the Israeli historian, Tom Segev. He has argued that Israel must adopt a more flexible and open self-identity based on the Hebrew language rather than Jewish ethnicity, and end the legal restrictions against Arab citizens. But the racism faced by Arab-Israelis - bad though it is - is a tiny fraction of that faced by the black population of Darfur who are being slaughtered in their thousands as you read this with the help of Western corporations, who we could stop if we wanted to. Why is Darfur attracting only a fraction of the attention?

In case you still doubt the rise of anti-Semitism, let me offer you a small anecdote that opened even my flabby eyelids. At a recent debate about Iraq, one person in the audience came up to me afterwards and said: "Your skullcap is slipping, Mr Hari." Now, as it happens, I'm not Jewish (although a few of my relatives are). I asked him is he realised he was an anti-Semite, and he replied indignantly: "Criticising Israel isn't anti-Semitic!" I replied: "I agree. I criticise Israel all the time. But how are you criticising Israel by talking about my non-existent skullcap? You didn't mention Israel once, and nor did the debate." He scowled:. "You Jews are so paranoid!" he declared, before storming off. Jews across Britain are experiencing moments like all the time now.

So here's the challenge for those of us who support Palestinian self-determination but want a clean and honourable argument. Whenever we discuss the crimes committed by Israel - and we must never stop until the Palestinians are free - we must also debunk anti-Jewish myths. How many people know - for example - that, according to every opinion poll, American Jews are more supportive of creating a Palestinian state than any other ethnic group except African-Americans? So much for the all-powerful "Jewish vote" - but how often do you hear this canard trotted out as fact?

The problem with anti-Semitism isn't with Ken Livingstone. It is all around us.