MPs have warned that the "virus" of anti-Semitism is beginning to infect mainstream politics in Britain, as figures show a record number of attacks on Jews last year.
The former cabinet minister Stephen Byers said yesterday that the "line is now being crossed from legitimate criticism" of the Israeli government into "demonisation, dehumanisation of Jews and the application of double standards".
In a debate in the House of Commons, James Purnell, chairman of Labour Friends of Israel, criticised caricatures and cartoons of Jews in the media as dangerous. He said: "Today overt anti-Semitism is still taboo, but anti-Semitism is a virus that once again has started to infect our body politic."
The warnings come after an unprecedented number of attacks on Jews in Britain last year, including desecration of synagogues and cemeteries. Jewish women walking down the street have been attacked by strangers, and Jewish schools and community centres have been put on a high state of alert.
Mike Whine, of the Community Security Trust, which defends Jews against attacks in Britain, said: "We have seen a year-on-year rise since September 2000 of anti-Semitic incidents and, unfortunately, also an increase in violent attacks against both religious institutions and persons. The Jewish community has been at a high level of security since the threat to attack Jewish communities announced by al-Qa'ida two years ago. Increasingly, anti-Semitic discourse is influenced by the Middle East and the anti-Zionism of the far left."
There were 375 attacks in Britain last year, part of a rising number of anti-Semitic incidents within Europe which has been blamed on the far right and Islamic extremists. The attacks have been linked to unease about Israel's policies towards the Palestinians and its campaign of assassinations and enforced curfews.
Yesterday, MPs warned that anti-Israeli feeling should not spill over into criticism of Jews in general, many of whom do not support the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.
Stephen Byers, a former transport secretary who chairs the committee on anti-Semitism, said that anti-Israeli criticism should not be used as "a cloak of respectability" for racist views. He said there was the danger of the development of an "intellectual argument" bolstering anti-Semitic feeling. "We need to be robust on confronting anti-Semitic views wherever these may occur," Mr Byers said.
Mr Purnell said memories of the Holocaust had largely inoculated Europe against anti-Semitism for 60 years, but some people on the extreme left had allowed themselves to find "some extremely strange bedfellows" in their criticism of Israel. "During the anti-war protests there were some really terrifying pictures of individuals dressed up as suicide bombers holding banners with the Star of David and an equals sign to a swastika," he said. "This apparent embrace of such symbols by the anti-war left is absolutely astounding."
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