A modern Cassandra

Leading UK columnist Phillips trying to convince Brits their country is threatened by radical Islam.

melanie phillips 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
melanie phillips 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Much has been written over the last couple of years of the exodus of Jews from France. In the face of a wave of violent anti-Semitism, thousands have left Paris, Strasbourg and Marseilles for Israel. In certain middle-class neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Netanya and Ashdod, it's impossible not to notice them. Last week's aliya figures from the Jewish Agency disclosed another trend: Quietly, without fanfare, another community seems to be on the move. Immigration from Britain was up by 45 percent in 2006. In absolute numbers this might not be a high figure - 720 new olim, up from 480 in 2005. Perhaps it's just a statistical blip, but all the same, it's the highest number of British olim in decades, and when it's added to unknown numbers of young British Jews who reportedly are leaving for other shores, such as the US, a worrisome trend begins to emerge. Are the Jews of one of the most successful outposts of the Diaspora beginning to leave? Melanie Phillips has never been an official spokeswoman, but in her writing over the years she has never shied away from her Jewishness, and she is currently one of the most outspoken voices in a community which traditionally has been very careful not to rock the boat. On a visit to Jerusalem this week, she expressed no surprise at the aliya statistics. "I wouldn't have thought it's quite so high," she says, "but I'm not surprised by the fact that it's jumped, because Britain's Jews are beginning to think in an increasing number that there is no future for the new generation of Jews in Britain." As a leading columnist for the Daily Mail, Phillips has been at the forefront of the anti-establishment campaign trying to convince Britons that their country is being threatened by a wave of radical Islamism that has found in London and other cities not only a physical safe haven, but also a convenient center for the dissemination of its ideas and a source of many eager new converts. Her latest book Londonistan analyzes the rise of a new generation of Muslim youths, radicalized by fanatical preachers who found shelter in Britain thanks to a lax immigration policy and the blind eye of the authorities, a situation that led to the bombings of London's public transport in July 2005 by British-born suicide bombers. Phillips connects the loss of national and religious values in British society and the culture of moral relativity and political correctness with an environment which continues to allow the activity of these preachers and their followers, even after the bombings. In the media and in person, Phillips cuts an austere, almost puritanical image. She is very quick to correct her interviewers, making absolutely sure they understand her precise message. In Israel for a short winter break with her family, she rarely seems to be on vacation. On the day we met, she had two other interviews scheduled and a lecture at the Hebrew University. Her journalistic output of long, opinionated and carefully argued columns in the Daily Mail, the Jewish Chronicle and the Spectator and an extensive on-line diary on her personal Web site is prodigious. She enjoyed a meteoric rise at the Guardian, Britain's major left-wing newspaper, at the start of her career, but her stubborn questioning of various policies, such as family values and educational standards, led to a rapid alienation from her former colleagues. Today they are among her many detractors in Britain, where she is widely regarded as an outspoken extremist. An adjective often applied to her is "shrill," a consequence of her incessant challenges to the prevailing wisdom and confronting the media and political establishment with a constant supply of uncomfortable facts. She is fully aware that many in her own community see her as a troublemaker. She insists that despite the headstrong image, she is capable of self-criticism. "I question myself all the time. And of course they regard me as an extremist because I rock the boat, I make life uncomfortable for them. They will have to tell me what I say is untrue or exaggerated, and I will deal with these claims one by one." PHILLIPS IDENTIFIES the radicalized and growing Muslim community as only one factor leading many British Jews to consider emigration. "It's also not entirely because of the perception that non-Muslim Britain has become very aggressive towards Israel" she says, "though these are very important contributory factors. In my view, a very significant driver is simply the increasing Jewish awareness among British Jewish youth. There's been a dramatic increase in my lifetime of the number of Jewish children being educated at Jewish schools, a very considerable rise in Jewish awareness and learning that is all for the good. And such young people increasingly feel in large numbers that there is no future for them, or to be more precise for their children, in Britain, that it's not possible to live the kind of fulfilled Jewish life that you can live in Israel." And this is perhaps the irony of the Jewish existence in Britain: On the face of it, British Jews have never had it so good. Their numbers among the higher levels of politics, culture, business and media are astounding, out of all proportion to the size of the community. But this, coupled with the resurgence of Jewish education, is the reason Phillips thinks that many of them are frustrated by the current attitude toward them. "Somebody said to me the other day that he intends to make aliya as soon as he possibly can. He's young, he's got a small family, he's extremely successful in British terms, but he doesn't want anymore to live on the defensive. He doesn't want anymore to wake up in the morning and be worried about what he's going to read, about what he's going to hear, what people might say to him socially about Israel or about Jews. "He's fed up with having to defend what is patently a just position, that is being made out to be a completely evil position. He's fed up with being made to feel as if he's a pariah, and that's a very important factor, people do feel this acutely. I believe that these young people who come to Israel think that there are more important things in the world than success, and that the future spiritual, religious and moral life of their children is more important. They also feel - and it's not an inconsiderable factor at all - that British public life has turned against them, that it's much more hostile than it was." Phillips also identifies a growing divide between two parts of the community. "The Jews who tend to be most successful in the professional world tend to be Jews with an either secular perspective or not to have a very large attachment to Jewish life. They're not very religious, they don't play an active part in a synagogue, they don't have much cultural or religious feeling. That's not always true - obviously there are a number of very successful Jews who are Orthodox or indeed very Orthodox - but the Jews who have made it in Jewish life are overwhelmingly not religious, so that tends to create a distorted perspective. There seem to be a lot of Jews in Britain, but those Jews who are most active in public life tend to be the kind of Jews who are typically at the forefront of demonizing Israel because they are left-wing." Those who openly identify themselves as Jews and defend Israel come up against a more modern, understated type of anti-Semitism - not one which puts Jews in immediate physical danger, but one which Phillips sees as no less disturbing. "The idea that because there is no physical persecution, people shouldn't be feeling uncomfortable shows a complete inability to understand that there is a whole scale of social pressures which make people feel uneasy and uncomfortable. In certain professions, like journalism and academia, to be very publicly in favor of Israel - and I don't mean supporting the activities of the Israeli government at any one time, I mean merely taking Israel's side as the regional victim rather than the regional bully - can cost you your job." There was always a degree of anti-Semitism among the British establishment, especially within the upper classes, but through much of the second half of the 20th century it was hidden and considered socially unacceptable. Phillips says that has changed over recent years. "Then it was latent, now it is blatant, it's open. Twenty years ago, one would have never ever read in a mainstream newspaper or heard mainstream politicians talk openly about the Jewish conspiracy subverting the policies of the prime minister or the president of the US, now you do." She cites examples, such as the mainstream left-wing magazine New Statesman, which five years ago featured on its cover the question "A kosher conspiracy?" with a picture of a golden Star of David stuck on the British flag, or veteran Labor Party parliamentarian Tam Dalyell, who four years ago accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of being influenced by "a cabal of Jewish advisers." Phillips says this is part of a trend that began in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and intensified with the beginning of the second intifada in 2000. IN THE FACE of this challenge, Phillips sees no organized response by the leadership of the Jewish community. "The leaders of the British Jewish community are servile," she says. "They never put their heads above the parapet; they believe in doing things behind the scenes and are very reluctant to jeopardize their standing in the British social circle. They have the standing of worms; in other words they have a social standing as long as they don't identify themselves with the Jewish people. That to me is disgusting, degrading and outright betrayal." In such an environment, she feels she can't blame those Jews who are leaving Britain. "It's up to people and I understand precisely why they're doing it. It's regrettable that the British Jewish community is losing its brightest and best, but I understand and sympathize very much with why they're coming here. It's entirely logical that with British Jews under siege as they are, an increasing number will choose to come here. It's absolutely inevitable. It doesn't lessen the fact that it's a tragic situation that Britain is effectively getting rid of its Jews. "I think it's tragic above other things because there's a fight to be had in Britain, and one of the problems of the spinelessness of the British Jewish leadership is that the fight has not been had, that the lie has not been countered in public and that the Jewish community has allowed itself to be spineless. And if you're spineless, people kick you. "I believe there is a fight that must be had because it's a fight not just for Britain but for better values. If the Jews allow themselves to be persecuted out of a country like Britain, it does not augur well for the wider fight to defend the West. And I don't think it right that the Jewish community just sidles out of history." When confronted with quotes from Israeli leaders like Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski, who say that all Jews should live in Israel, and the feeling that there are some Israeli politicians who perhaps see a positive side to this persecution feeling of Jews in the Diaspora, she is equally critical. "It's the siege mentality of Israel - that everyone else can go hang as long as Israel exists with American support. This is a poison that is seeping fast through the West. Other European countries are showing similar signs, and Israel is very shortsighted if it thinks that in time it won't be to Israel's own detriment that this has been allowed to happen. "I think its understandable that Israel thinks that all Jews should live in Israel, but the fact is that they don't and for Israel simply to shrug at this is morally reprehensible. If all the Jews lived in Israel, it probably wouldn't survive. Israel needs Jews around the world." DESPITE THE dire picture she paints of the situation in Britain, Phillips insists that she is an optimist who believes that Israel and the West can still win, though first they must realize that their battle is a joint one. "Saving British Jewry can't be done in isolation. It has to be a part of the defense of the free world. We have to say that Israel is not the cause of the free world's problems, Israel is actually the front line of the free world's defense and that its fight is the free world's fight. And that is one very important way of shifting the perception, because the impression that the Jews are responsible for the danger that Britain is in is to a large measure what fuels the animosity." And here again, Phillips believes that Israeli politicians have much to answer for. "Israeli hasbara has failed strategically ever since the point that the Israeli Foreign Ministry felt that it didn't have to make the case any more. They've left the battleground open, they've allowed the enemy to colonize the battleground without the fight being had. "I'm not saying for a moment that Israel should stop fighting the military fight, of course, but behind the military fight is a battleground of ideas. The Muslim Brotherhood has spent the last 50 years spending; billions of dollars of Saudi money have gone into guiding Europe to the ideas of Islam. They understand something that the West does not understand, that Israel has never acknowledged - that the way to fight the war of civilizations is first of all to command minds. It used to be a project to enlighten Britain and Europe and to bring truth into the public mind. The problem is that it has been stopped and the lies come instead. "The Israelis are always on the defensive, responding to accusations. What they should be doing is making the case. They should be occupying the aggressive intellectual position, saying, 'Look world, these guys in the Islamic world are telling lies.' "I'm an optimist. I don't believe that lies need only win, that it is inevitable. They'll only win if we allow them to, which at the moment is what we're doing."