UK cited for 'obsessive' anti-Semitism

British expert claims England is treating Jews as it did during the Middle Ages.

anti semitism 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
anti semitism 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
It turns out that joining the EU hasn't been the only thing to draw England closer to continental Europe. For the first time since the Middle Ages, England is exhibiting classic "obsessive" anti-Semitism until now reserved for its neighbors across the channel, according to a British anti-Semitism expert. Robert Wistrich, who heads the Hebrew University's Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, pointed to recent characterizations of Jews as the cabal behind the Iraq war and anti-Israel rhetoric leading to activities such as boycotts. Historically, Wistrich explained at a lecture Wednesday night, British Jew-hatred has been less ideological, less violent and less successful in influencing government policies than in places such as Germany, Russia and Poland. And, he stressed, "you cannot say that the British government was anti-Semitic in the 20th century," calling Prime Minister Tony Blair "one of the better or best friends Israel has in the outside world." He attributed England's less "compulsive" anti-Semitism in part to British "self-confidence" as a prosperous empire with no need to feel threatened by a small minority, which started to change in the 20th century as the empire began to fall apart. Yet Wistrich noted that even when that minority was so small it disappeared entirely - during the 350 or so years of medieval Jewish exile that preceded the reign of Oliver Cromwell - anti-Semitic tropes survived and found their way into high literature as well as popular culture. Wistrich, who grew up in England, recalled that "every single author I had to read for advanced-level English literature - Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Dickens - could be described at least as contributing to the corpus of anti-Semitism, even if unintentionally." Even as a doctoral student in the 1970s, Wistrich told of anti-Zionist sentiment on campus and bans - later rescinded - on Jewish organizations. "The main difference between then and now [is that] it was not mainstream," he said of these sentiments. He described multi-culturalism, among other developments as a "sea-change" which paradoxically seemed like it might worsen the position of Jews. Now, according to Brenda Katten, chair of the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association, the demonization of Israel at British universities is so prevalent that "our biggest problem on campus today is that students are being asked to justify Israel's right to exist." "We're back to square one," she told the crowd packing the small hall holding Wednesday's symposium on "The New Anti-Semitism? The Case of Great Britain." She said that members of the Jewish community, who face regular anti-Semitism, were beginning to blame themselves. An audience member challenged the panelists' depiction of widespread anti-Semitism in Britain, but Katten countered that she knows of first-hand experiences proving the opposite. She mentioned that a group of Jewish students she spoke to recently related being taunted with anti-Semitic jeers when they congregated in Golders Green, a heavily Jewish neighborhood in London. She said they told her: "We think it's our fault, because the girls dress a little loud and we talk a little loud." Katten lamented that "the victim had suddenly become the perpetrator, and I couldn't help thinking if this is the problem we are facing in the academic world, where so many Jewish professors criticize Israel." She referred to several instances in which Jews and even Israelis lead protests against Israel and boycott drives. Members of the British embassy attended Wednesday's event. Public Affairs Officer Karen Kaufman said that anti-Semitism in the UK is "obviously still a problem" and that it is "an issue that is very, very important to the British government."