Manifestations of persistent anti-Semitism shock British MPs

Manifestations of persistent anti-Semitism shock British MPs

At a cross-party panel, UK lawmakers leave their tea and scones and discuss grave implications of a new report on the oldest hatred

Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley holds a copy of the 2015 All Party Parliamentary Report on Antisemitism. (courtesy)
Democratic Unionist Party MP Ian Paisley holds a copy of the 2015 All Party Parliamentary Report on Antisemitism. (courtesy)

LONDON — In the Gothic splendor of Archbishop Justin Welby’s Lambeth Palace in central London, a sumptuous English afternoon tea is laid out – strawberry chocolate gateau, lashings of strong tea, and even tiny triangular cucumber sandwiches.

But the great and the good gathered at Lambeth Palace this week were wearing the expressions of men and women in shock – shock that in 2015 they were still dealing with the manifestations of the oldest hatred, anti-Semitism.

In a world where too often Jews feel left to their own devices to deal with anti-Semitism, the 2015 All Party Parliamentary Report on Antisemitism comes as a welcome breath of fresh air. It was commissioned by a non-Jewish parliamentarian, John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw — a constituency where it is unlikely that there are many Jews.

The cross-party panel – including members both of the House of Commons and the House of Lords – had only one Jewish parliamentarian, the Labour peer, Lord Mendelsohn. It was the second such report commissioned by Mann, the first being in 2006.

One of the best-known names on the panel is that of the Democratic Unionist MP for North Antrim, Ian Paisley. Son of the rabble-rousing Northern Irish minister of the same name who died last year, Paisley Jr told The Times of Israel that he had wanted to work on the panel because he has a particular interest in Israel and anti-Semitic attacks.

“Our synagogue in Belfast was attacked and there has even been a boycott of Israeli goods by IRA [Irish Republican Army] supporters. I felt I had to speak out and say something,” said Paisley.

‘I don’t believe we can just shrug our shoulders and say, oh, anti-Semitism, just one of those things’

He reserves his strongest contempt for other parliamentarians who have used violence in Israel to make comments which can be construed both as inflammatory and – occasionally – anti-Semitic.

“If I had said those things in my country [Northern Ireland] I would have been called a bigot. I don’t believe we can just shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Oh, anti-Semitism, just one of those things.’ It is not. And those MPs who make those remarks – yes, I think the [parliamentary] whip should be removed,” said Paisley.The APPG report was commissioned in July 2014 and its work was conducted between August and November last year. During its deliberations the panelists went to Amsterdam to talk to members of the Jewish community there.

As MP John Mann revealed, “We met 16- and 17-year-olds who told us they saw no future for themselves in Holland. We were all tremendously shocked. By the next parliament [in Britain] we need to be in a position where no British Jewish teenager sees no future for themselves in the UK.”

'We need to be in a position where no British Jewish teenager sees no future for themselves in the UK,' says MP John Mann. (courtesy)
‘We need to be in a position where no British Jewish teenager sees no future for themselves in the UK,’ says MP John Mann. (courtesy)

The report lists 34 recommendations but two are at the top of John Mann’s list. Though the report is not binding it has been generally welcomed by the government and Mann’s two priorities are “increased security for Jewish communal buildings,” and so-called “Internet ASBOs” (anti-social behavior orders).

“Security for communal buildings is an urgent priority,” Mann told The Times of Israel. “Yes, the government pledged to help underwrite security at Jewish schools [presently primarily funded by parents] but there are plenty of other community buildings.”

The report declares, “Given the continuing threat of terrorism against the Jewish community, we recommend that a government fund be established to cover both capital and revenue costs for the security of British synagogues.”

The other headline-grabbing recommendation was the so-called “Internet ASBO” – with a view to tightening up existing guidelines on what constitutes hate crime on social media. Those guilty of “grossly offensive speech” on social media sites, say the panel, should be warned that they will be prosecuted.

At least one MP, Luciana Berger, a former director of the Labour Friends of Israel, endured a summer of abusive attacks on Twitter for being Jewish. Though one of the Twitter abusers was jailed, Twitter itself was unable to explain to the panel why such people were able to set up subsequent accounts and begin their campaigns anew. In the last week there have been indications that Twitter will toughen up its procedures, something welcomed by John Mann.

MP Yvette Cooper, Shadow Foreign Secretary, warned: “Technology has changed and that means that old forms of hatred are finding new means of expression. We need to ensure that social media do more to more to clamp down on this kind of abuse.”

John Mann said he hoped the security and Internet recommendations to be implemented by the summer.

Part of the APPG report is devoted to an examination of the boycott movement and its recommendation pulls no punches.

“People have a legitimate right to protest against Israel though boycott or other peaceful means. However, such protest becomes entirely illegitimate when constituting an attack on or intimidation of British Jews. We have set out that cultural boycotts, implemented in the way they were in the summer, were unacceptable. The boycott movement faces a challenge of how to put their tactics into effect while not slipping into anti-Semitism, unlawful discrimination or assaulting valued freedoms.”

Accompanying survey to the report

The parliamentarians commissioned a survey to accompany the APPG Report on Anti-Semitism. It was carried out by the polling company, Populus, between January 22 and 25 2015, sampling 1001 adults aged over 18.

The poll shows both levels of ignorance and respect for British Jews. Those sampled, for example, believed there were around 2.7 million Jews in the UK, whereas in fact there are something like 250,000. But 62 percent of those polled thought Jews were as loyal to Britain as any other British citizens.

More than half those surveyed – 55% – said they would be able to explain what anti-Semitism means to someone else. Confidence in their ability increased with age, with only 37% of 18-24-year-olds believing they could explain it, in contrast to 71% of those aged over 65.

Populus asked those sampled to assess how much of a problem anti-Semitism is in Britain today on a scale of one to 10, where one means it is not a problem at all and 10 means it is serious. Britons rate it at 4.66; women think it is more of a problem than men, and over-65s give it the highest score.

Thirty-seven percent think anti-Semitism is more of a problem than 10 years ago.

The vast majority of people (91%) had heard about the killing of four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris by a gunman supporting the murderers of 12 Charlie Hebdo journalists, cartoonists and staff. Out of those aware of the incident, 80% regard it as an example of anti-Semitism.

Conversely, only 20% had heard about the Tricycle Theatre in London refusing to host Jewish Film Week and of the “Hitler was right” placard at the ProPalestine/Anti-Israel rally. For the former, just over half – 52% — of those aware of the incident regard it as anti-Semitic, and for the latter a much larger proportion — 83%

Two-fifths had heard of a soccer club owner declaring that “Jewish people chase money more than everybody else,” with 69% who were aware of the incident considering it to be an act of anti-Semitism. Young adults, 18-24 year olds, are most likely to think it is an act of anti-Semitism. Of those 18-24 year olds aware of the incident, 81% think it is an act of anti-Semitism.

A quarter of people have heard about the MP declaring Bradford to be an “Israel Free Zone,” and three-fifths of those who recall the remarks (68%) regard them as anti-Semitic.

Anti-Semitism in the Church of England

The Prince of Wales speaks with the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby following his Enthronement at Canterbury Cathedral. (photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Ison, Pool)
The Prince of Wales speaks with the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Reverend Justin Welby following his Enthronement at Canterbury Cathedral. (photo credit: AP Photo/Chris Ison, Pool)

It was a grave-faced Archbishop of Canterbury who welcomed guests to Lambeth Palace for the report’s launch. Archbishop Justin Welby, whose grandfather was a German Jewish immigrant to Britain, said he had read the report in shock.

“It is not just the essential right of people to live their lives unimpeded. It goes to the heart of our belief that all men are made in the image of God,” said Welby.

Welby said the Church of England had a particular responsibility “to be accountable and to hold others to account [on anti-Semitism]. This is something on which we will act, and I hope those gathered here will do the same with passion and commitment.”

Some observers took the Archbishop’s remarks to refer to a stinging rebuke given to the vicar of Virginia Water, in Surrey, the Rt Rev Stephen Sizer. Sizer has posted a series of links to anti-Semitic or anti-Israel sites on his blog posts, and when challenged by Jewish community leaders has insisted that he does not necessarily endorse such views.

Finally, this week, an exasperated Bishop of Guildford – Sizer’s direct boss – issued a ruling: Sizer has to refrain from posting anything on social media about the Middle East for six months or face losing his job.

The latest row emanates from Sizer’s posting on his Facebook page of a Wikispooks article entitled “9/11 Israel did it.” The incoming Bishop of Guildford, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Watson, said that Sizer had “demonstrated appallingly poor judgment in the material he has chosen to disseminate, particularly via social media, some of which is clearly anti-Semitic.”

John Bercow (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Office of John Bercow, Wikimedia Commons)
John Bercow (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Office of John Bercow, Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most moving presentation at the APPG launch came from an unexpected source: the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Bercow, who is Jewish, has had his fair share of anti-Semitic abuse over the years. He said that he had changed his view that anti-Semitism was “a dormant volcano.”

“We have to concede that it has fomented and brought its hatred to the surface. I do not want to be alarmist, nor do I want to be complacent. But I do say that anti-Semitism is intolerable in any decent and civilized society. Combating it is a serious struggle which requires the widest possible constitution to sustain it,” said Bercow.

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, welcomed the report. It confirmed, he said, surveys on European anti-Semitism previously published by the Agency.

But, he declared, it was “not enough to deploy armed policemen and soldiers around synagogues and Jewish schools. The problem must be addressed at its very roots, through education, legal steps, and social action.”

The APPG report was issued a week after Britain’s Community Security Trust issued the highest ever number of anti-Semitic incidents recorded in the UK. The report’s authors hope their recommendations – which include guidelines to local councils, the judiciary, and an extension of inter-faith dialogue – can improve the situation. Certainly, at least this week, there was profound goodwill among the teacups and the cucumber sandwiches.

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