Speech given in New York City

Why Anti-Semitism Matters
24 March 2009
There are 3 existential threats to the survival of the Jewish community, its history, culture, sense of itself and the right of Jews to live freely in all parts of the world.
The first is the political threat to Israel from its enemies. Israel today is essential to the notion that Jews have a right to exist. At times I might be tempted to argue that a threat to Israel comes from its friends and from those who want Israelis to be different from other citizens in the mosaic of states that constitute the democratic rule of law world.
The second threat comes from the failure to maintain a sense of Jewish culture and community, the history of a people and the knowledge of its wisdoms and faith. I am not qualified to talk about religion or indeed Jewishness. I agree with André Malraux when he said Le 21eme siècle sera mystique ou il ne sera pas – that it is the 21st century will have to understand the need and power of faith, of belief in something that cannot be fully comprehended. You can be an atheist and still get Malraux’s insight. And given that almost, not all, but almost every conflict we confront today pits one religious faith against another, M. Malraux was right.
The third threat comes from ideology. And that ideology is a new-antisemitism or a neo-antisemitism which seeks to provide a political rationale for attacks on Jews and on Issrael. It is true that not every critic of Israel is anti-Semitic. But every anti-semite hates Israel. An ideology provides a picture of the world which explains what is wrong and what needs to be done. It justifies harsh decisions in the search for a greater end which always justifies the means.
Antisemitism is a new pernicious 21st century ideology that has steadily gained ground since the century opened. It has its writers and propagandists. It has its fellow travellers. It has its state promoters. It has its soft salon version and its hard killing version in the shape of Islamist terrorism. I use the word Islamist and Islamism deliberately as the Abrahamic relgion of Islam and Muslims themselves are quite capable of being a faith and a faithful which can live in peace and harmony with those of other faiths.
The late Samuel Huntingdon was wrong to lump in all Muslim nations as being on one side of the clash of civilisations. Indonesia or Turkey are not peopled by Muslims who want to destroy or kill. Nor do I believe that the majority of Muslims on the sub-continent of India are animated by Jew-hating ideology. Extremist Islamist parties in Pakistan actually get fewer votes as a share than do extreme right-wing anti-Jewish parties in France or in some local elections in Britain.
Anti-semitism is rife in many parts of the democratic world, especially in Europe and it is as an ideology that we should consider and confront it. I am not an expert on the ins and outs of Israeli politics and diplomacy and what Israel and her friends and allies should do to persuade Palestinians to renounce violence and seek a negotiated settlement. I am always surprised by the vehemence of people who pronounce on Israel and decide what should be done in the name of Israelis, or indeed for that matter, Palestinians.
Nor am I an expert on how the Jewish community and faith should be kept alive. There is a great deal of work in this area not the least in Europe where support is given to Jewish communities, notably in Germany where new synagogues have been sponsored by the German government and Jews from many parts of the world allowed to come to Germany to enjoy political freedom and economic possibility.
Instead I am a British politician who has spent much of my active political life fighting racism, extremism, intolerance and any ideology that denies to any group of human being their right to exist without fear of hate, persecution and worse.
Today the fight against anti-semitism is more important than ever. Old and new forms of anti-Semitism blend together to create a force field of hate. Right-wing academics in America produce a book proclaiming the oldest lie in the Jew-hating lexicon – that of the cabal, lobby or secret network that controls government policy or dictates politics or manipulates the media in favour of Jews and of Israel.
Given the almost universally bad press Israel gets and the mammoth hostility to Israel on many campuses in the Western world one might ask where the famous lobby actually is? The British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, has only one lengthy publication to his name. Entitled ‘Who are the Mind Benders’ it claims Jews have excessive influence in British television and newspapers often secretively as Jewish executives and journalists and editors have changed their name.
Mr Griffin’s BNP party does not advertise its anti-Semitism and keeps its mouth shut on Israel preferring other classic xenophobic politics such as hatred of foreigners, of immigrants, and of the European Union. But the BNP, which may well win seats from the UK in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament in June is rooted in the antisemitism of its leaders and the antisemitism of the politics is inherited as it grew out of other rightist parties in the past.
As a former Foreign Office minister I have to not the rise of diplomatic antisemitism. This sadly could be seen in the behaviour of the Turkish prime minister Erdogan who attacked Jews in the Turkish parliament in a debate over the Gaza conflict. Mr Erdogan and previous Turkish leaders face their own version of Hamas, in the form of the PKK party, which has committed endless acts of terrorism against Turkey in its pursuit of a Kurdish state.
There are plenty of western supporters of the PKK and of Hamas, and supporters of the aspirations of the Kurdish people as there are supporters of the aspirations of the Palestinian people. But not for one second would Mr Erdogan accept criticisms about the Turkish army’s behaviour in its fight against the PKK or be told that Turkey had no right to take action using all its resources in the fight against the PKK.
Yet when Israel seeks to end the rain of rockets upon its population Mr Erdogan criticises Israel, crudely, loudly and publicly.. Let us not forget that Hamas has fired more rockets to kill Jews in Israel than the Nazis fired V1 and V2 rockets to kill Londoners in 1944. Churchill’s response was to bomb Germany even harder. Israel, according to part of the argument advanced by the Erdogans in the world, is meant to allow its citizens to be killed by the Jew-haters in Hamas without seeking to protect its own population.
This diplomatic double standard does not make its proponents conscious and willing antisemites and Turkey as well as its government has been more friendly to Jews and to Israel than any other majority-Muslim state in the eastern Mediterranean region. But there is comfort those who do hate Jews and hate Israel when they hear responsible leaders of democratic nations using language about Israel that they would never accept about their own actions to protect their people.
If one contrasts the tough actions taken by the British against the IRA – mass internment and accusations of torture; or the Spanish against ETA – the use of death squads and curbs on media freedom, it is pure hypocrisy for European leaders to criticise Israel.
Another example of political and media double standards encouraged is to portray Israel as a anti-Muslim state. Compared to the massacres of Muslims in India, in Kashmir, in Sudan just to take three egregious examples, the death toll of Muslims in the struggle over six decades in the borders of Israel-Palestine is much smaller.
Yet I never see Islamist protests about the thousands of Muslims killed by BJP Hindu nationalist extremists in Gujarat and elsewhere in India this century. Nor any reference in the press to Human Rights Watch estimate of 70,000 Kashmiri Muslims killed since 500,000 troops from India moved in 20 years to stamp down on Kashmiri protests about their political status.
Let me be clear. There is resurgent anti-Semitism in Europe – intellectual, political, Islamist, neo-fascist – and it is turning nasty and violent. Yet European leaders are not anti-Jewish. Britain’s Foreign Secretary is Jewish as is our Ambassador to the United States and as are other key leaders in the British state. Prime Minister Gordon Brown affirms his support for Israel and his passion for Jewish culture, religious ideals and humanist traditions. Gordon’s father chaired for 30 years the Israel committee of the Church of Scotland where he was a minister and Gordon learnt about Israel and the thousands of years of Jewish history at his father’s knee and dinner table. I spent last night in NYC with a friend, a Jewish diplomat who is star of the foreign office who affirms his Jewishness with pride. He reminded me that many if not most Jews in Britain lead rich fulfilling lives proud of their Britishness, proud of being European citizens, and clear in their support for Israel.
To be sure there are acts of violence – attacks on synagogues, insults in the street, random assaults on rabbis or Jews wearing the kippa or other marks of their faith. These are intolerable and the police need to crack down hard on them. The anti-Israel demonstrations, as ferocious in their fervour as the anti-American demonstrations during the Vietnam War, chant hideous ungly slogans – "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas" being one heard in Amsterdam in January. But these are condemned.
Courts take action. Indeed, there are two British racists who were condemned by a British Court and who jumped bail before their sentencing and fled via Ireland to the United States. They are now in Los Angeles being defended by civil rights lawyers who accuse the British courts of denying their clients their right to free speech.
One of the biggest purveyors of antisemitic hate is the Internet but whereas Europeans take action to shut down antisemitic web sites we do not see equal vigorous action from the United States authorities. And if one reads the history of state-sponsored antisemitic propagation the biggest purveyors of antisemitic hate are the Saudis via the Wahabi religion and the Egyptians via their television and publishing. Yet I have yet to hear a US president denounce Saudi and Wahabi anti-Semitism, rather the contrary as Saudi Wahabis have been the most intimate friends of successive US administrations.
So it is wrong to spray accusations that Britain or Europe are reverting to the 1930s when in fact we have failed collectively as a Euro-Atlantic community to see the new antisemitism as a whole and take action to expose, reject, and use the authority of the democratic state to punish those who disseminate anti-Semitic hate.
I came to this problem as a non-Jew when I was asked to set up a committee on inquiry into anti-Semitism by the British Parliament in 2005. We formed a traditional House of Commons committee on inquiry, with evidence sessions, visits, commissioned research. It was all-party with senior Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats, former ministers and chair of House Select Committee, as well as a Muslim Labour MP and Lady Sylvia Hermon MP from Northern Ireland.
None of the Commission members were Jews or active in the Middle East political debates that rage in British political life. Our report revealed an extent of under-reporting of antisemitic incidents and a worrying complacency by university authorities about intimidation of Jewish students on the campus. When our report came out Tony Blair ordered ministers to implement its recommendations and Gordon Brown and I emphasise all party leaders in Britain were fully supportive.
We took our report to other parliaments. Freom my time as Europe Minister and my knowledge of European languages and politics and working with some wonderful young people I have sought to highlight the question of contemporary antisemitism and the need for a political response at the European level, including the Council of Europe and the European Union.
This is patient political networking as there are no quick fixes and arguments have to be sustained in terms of the evil that antisemitism is in terms of harmony between faiths and communities in the different European countries. The struggle against antisemitism must not be conflated with unconditional and unqualified support for Israel right or wrong. If it is, we will fail. As I tell the university teachers’ or journalists’ unions who call for a boycott of Israel, the biggest criticisms of Israeli government policy are to be found in Israel herself and especially in Israeli media and universities. But because criticism of Israel is necessary just as criticism of American or British government policy is part and parcel of democracy - and Israel we have to continually remind the Israel-haters is the only democracy in the region - that does not mean any quarter, any tolerance, any acceptance of anti-Jewish ideology or anti-Semitic politics is to be accepted.
We have sought to take the example of our parliamentary commission to other parliaments and suggested they set up their own commission of enquiry. My good friend and fellow Labour MP, John Mann, who chairs the All-Party Antisemitism standing committee in the Commons has travelled far and wide, even to Latin America, to argue the case for parliamentary work to expose antisemitism.
Last month in London, we organised the first Inter-Parliamentary Coalition conference against anti-Semitism. There were MPs, and deputies, and senators from all over Europe, from Australia and a distinguished high level delegation from Canada. We met in the Commons, at Downing Street and in Lancaster House, just across from Buckingham Palace as Britain’s Foreign Office and the Prime Minister gave the conference full backing.
My friend Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League was there and the input from American friends from Jewish organisations and from universities was stimulating. The workshops were full of debate and passion and it was a thrill to see the struggle against anti-Semitism take this truly global expression.
One conference does not defeat antisemitism but it is the beginning of a fight-back and of saying to the Islamists, the president of Iran, to the right-wing European parties as well as the anti-semites of the left, No pasaran, you will not win.
But and there is always a but when discussing antisemitism. There was not a single report in a British newspaper about the conference despite important newsworthy speeches there by Italy’s foreign minister, my friend, Franco Frattini, about the Durban 2 conference and a very clear statement of UK government support on the need for international cooperation against antisemitism from Lord Malloch Brown, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office. There were moving testimonies from Moroccan and Tunisian delegates about the need for the Muslim world to defeat anti-semitism.
Yet if you Google the conference and search for a report in the New York Times, or the London Guardian, or Le Monde, or Der Spiegel of this major international report your search will come up with nothing. The accusation made by antisemities is that the Jews or - to use the contemporary American antisemitic trope, the "Israel Lobby" control or influence the media. I wish. Given the news blackout of the conference it is rather that the media do not want to admit that antisemitism is back and needs to be exposed, confronted and dealt with. In October 2008 I published a book called "Globalising Hatred: the new Antisemitism".. It got the best reviews of any book I have ever written. It was published by Orion, one of the UK’s biggest publishers. Yet bookstores in the UK refuse to put it on display or give it any prominence.
Again, one book by a non-Jew who thinks the issue of anti-Semitism is important and need exposing is neither here nor there. But if the media and book-selling establishment refuses to highlight the problem then the antisemites have already won a major battle in their 21st century campaign to see Israel wiped off the world’s map to use President Ahminajehad’s evil metaphor and to see universities again become Judenrein and to see Jews everywhere unable to be fully Jews with all the rights of faith, affiliation, community, learning and being that for so long over oo many centuries were denied to the Jewish people. So the struggle as ever goes on. But we will win.