The past year has seen big increases in reported hate crimes, with a continuous string of headlines and scandals concerning antisemitism from across the political spectrum and civil society. With the upcoming general election, Marie Van der Zyl of the Board of Deputies of British Jews considers how parliamentary candidates can seek to address antisemitism and ensure society is safe and inclusive for Jewish citizens.
- 2016 saw the highest level of antisemitic incidents ever recorded in the UK
- The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism allows for constructive debate on Israel without the resorting to antisemitic smears
- A renewed effort is needed by parliamentarians to pressure social media companies to regulate their services and content more effectively
- Policymakers should promote good relations, understanding and cooperation between all communities in the UK
- Candidates in the General Election need to regain and retain the trust of Jewish voters
Statistically, 2016 was a terrible year to be a member of a minority group in the UK. Hate crime was up by 19% compared to 2015, and religious hate crime by 34%. The EU Referendum was one particular marker for this, with hate crime rates increasing by up to 10% in the months after the referendum.
Jews were no exception. 2016 saw the highest level of antisemitic incidents ever recorded in the UK. What makes this statistic so shocking is that ordinarily there are spikes in the number of incidents during periods of high tension in the Middle East – July 2014, for example, was the worst month for antisemitism on record, largely due to antisemitic reactions in the UK to the conflict in Israel and Gaza. Yet 2016 saw no similar trigger events. Instead, we witnessed naked antisemitism infecting political parties and movements.
Antisemitism across the political spectrum
Unfortunately, the far right is a growing force in the UK, exemplified by Holocaust denial leaflets, fascist stickers and swastikas etched on and around university campuses. Islamist extremism also remains a significant threat to Jews with antisemitism often a core tenet of this ideology, something that has resulted in the murder of Jews and others in Paris, Copenhagen and Brussels terrorist attacks.
The far left also has a problem with antisemitism. With the resurgence of the left in the political scene, a space has opened up for antisemitic discourse, with politicians and activists making appalling comments. High profile examples include Ken Livingstone saying that Hitler supported Zionism and Momentum activist Jackie Walker suggesting that Jewish institutions exaggerate the security threat against them.
Unique to antisemites on the left is the defence that they could not possibly be antisemitic because they are anti-racist. This denial has led to a politicisation of antisemitism, with people who are not Jewish telling Jews how they should define antisemitism. This flies in the face of our contemporary understanding of racism and discrimination, as codified in the Macpherson principle: that incidents are to be investigated as racist if they are identified as such by the victim.
This is why the Board of Deputies of British Jews warmly welcomed the Government’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. The definition provides guidance on when discourse or acts are antisemitic and it has subsequently been accepted by the main opposition parties and the Scottish Government. A previous iteration of the definition is used by the police and several devolved and local authorities, including the London Assembly and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, have formally adopted it in recent months.
Some say this definition stifles free speech and shuts down criticism of Israel but that is ridiculous. Like any other government, Israel must be prepared to receive fair and proportionate criticism. What this definition does is allow for constructive debate without the resorting to antisemitic smears. It detoxifies the atmosphere surrounding this contentious topic. Candidates in the General Election should explicitly support this definition to ensure that our most sensitive political debates are not infected by hate.
In our experience, most offences are simply due to ignorance. This makes it imperative that people are made aware of what antisemitism actually is. Social media does not help in this respect; indeed the online world has ensured that antisemitism now has a global audience with a huge amount of antisemitic tweets and posts being circulated. Social media companies themselves are not doing enough to self-police content shared on their sites.
The Board of Deputies recently complained to Facebook about a video on its site detailing the ‘Rothschild’s master plan’ – a classic antisemitic trope – which to date boasts 23 million views, yet nothing was done. It was only after a huge spate of divestment by advertisers that social media companies began to do anything constructive. A renewed effort is needed by parliamentarians to pressure social media companies to regulate their services more effectively.
In advance of the General Election, we have produced a Jewish Manifesto which summarises the main areas of Jewish concern into ‘Ten Commitments’ and details a number of policy asks relating to antisemitism, religious freedom, education and Israel. For example, policymakers should promote good relations, understanding and cooperation between all communities in the UK and defend the right to a Jewish way of life, including access to kosher meat and flexible working, and to accommodate Shabbat and Holy Day observance. To regain and retain the trust of Jewish voters, I would strongly advise candidates to endorse the Manifesto and its recommendations.
In this time of uncertainty and fear for all communities in the UK, it is up to our political representatives to lead by example. We hope the General Election will be a step in the right direction.