Cruel Britannia

By Robert S. Wistrich

Anti-Semitism in Britain has gone mainstream.

On January 13, 2005, the London Sun published a photograph of Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, dressed in Nazi regalia at a birthday party. Expressions of dismay came from many quarters, including Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative Party, and the heads of many British Jewish communal organizations, who widely expected a full-throated public apology.
The response was not what they expected. The prince, a twenty-year-old raised in the reserve of royalty and acutely aware of the resonance of public symbols in the media, chose the most limited of apologies—a brief statement read by his spokesman, declaring only that “Prince Harry has apologized for any offense or embarrassment he has caused. He realizes it was a poor choice of costume.”1 No mention of the Holocaust, nor even any indication of whether his apology was directed at Jews, or—equally plausibly—at the memory of fallen British servicemen. Moreover, when Jewish leaders called upon the prince to make a more sincere effort, such as a public appearance explicitly acknowledging his insensitivity, they were swiftly drowned out by British elites saying that the poor fellow ought to be left alone. “I don’t think he needs to make a public apology,” said Lord Falconer, who holds the title of lord chancellor, one of the senior positions in the House of Lords, and is a close adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair. “I think already he must understand what has happened and I think that should be the end of it.”2 According to one poll, more than half of British adults ages 18 to 24 “could see no problem with the outfit.”3
Taken in isolation, one could find reasons to ignore both the incident itself and the general reluctance of the British establishment to condemn it. Yet it comes at a time when anti-Semitism has emerged as a serious problem in Britain, turning in just a few years from a public nuisance into something of a crisis. According to the annual report of the Community Security Trust, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, 2004 was the worst year of anti-Semitic violence, vandalism, and harassment since the group began keeping statistics in 1996. These numbers include 83 physical assaults (up from 54 in 2003, or a 54-percent increase) and 365 acts of abusive or threatening behavior (up from 233 in 2003, or a 57-percent increase). All told, the group recorded 532 serious anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in 2004—more than double the 228 recorded in 1996, and a rise of over 40 percent from the previous year. In absolute numbers, Great Britain is today second only to France in serious anti-Semitic incidents reported among European countries—with Russia a distant third.4
Yet Britain is unusual not simply in the frequency and severity of anti-Semitic incidents. While many European countries have come to associate anti-Semitism with the forces of either the extreme Right, radical Left, or the increasingly vocal Muslim minorities, in Britain anti-Semitic sentiment is a part of mainstream discourse, continually resurfacing among the academic, political, and media elites. Indeed, while a great deal of attention has been focused on anti-Semitism—often masquerading under the banner of anti-Zionism—across Western Europe in the past few years, and especially in France, in some ways British anti-Semitism is more prevalent, and enjoys greater tolerance in public life, than in any other country in Europe. While the French state, for example, has marshaled its resources to fighting anti-Semitic words and actions, with greater or lesser success, in Britain the response has been far less decisive, its public denunciations frequently unsupported by institutional or government sanction.
There are many possible explanations for the unusual quarter that anti-Semitism in Britain enjoys. Whereas the efforts to combat anti-Semitism in France and Germany are intimately connected with the memory of the Holocaust that took place on their soil, Britain has never had to undergo a similar kind of soul-searching. At the same time, London has become a world center for Muslim anti-Semitism and the demonization of Jews and Israel that accompanies it. As Melanie Phillips, the Daily Mail columnist, wrote two years ago, “It is not an exaggeration to say that in Britain at present it is open season on both Israel and the Jews… I no longer feel comfortable in my own country because of the poison that has welled up toward… the Jews.”5 In a country such as Britain, with its proud history of tolerance, moderation, and multi-culturalism, this is indeed a damning indictment. Unless something significant changes, the United Kingdom risks becoming the country where anti-Semitism has the freest rein, and where Jews feel the least secure, in all of Europe.
To understand the unique nature of British anti-Semitism, and the surprising degree of legitimacy it currently enjoys in the public discourse, it is important to recognize its deep roots in modern British history. While it is true that, unlike Germany, France, Russia, or Poland, Britain was not a major stronghold of anti-Semitism in the modern era, its liberal democratic tradition has nonetheless been far more ambivalent toward Jews than is often assumed.6 As a result of immigration from Eastern Europe, the population of Anglo-Jewry rose from 65,000 in 1880 to 300,000 by 1914,7 of whom two-thirds settled in London. These immigrants were at times the target of malevolent anti-Semitic incitement; they were seen—especially by conservatives—as breeders of anarchism, socialism, and other subversive doctrines. The 1905 Aliens Act, intended to restrict further waves of Jewish immigration, reflected this biased climate of opinion, which also found strong echoes in the British labor movement. Only a few years earlier, during the South African War (1899-1902), a left-wing, populist anti-Semitism had emerged in Britain, which attacked wealthy Jewish capitalists and financiers for having “engineered” an imperialist war to seize the gold-rich Boer lands in order to advance the sinister interests of world Jewry. Through their presumed control of the press and high finance, this “golden international” was said to be “poisoning the wells of public information.”8
In the first half of the twentieth century, however, Jews in Britain were associated as much with communism as with capitalism. The Russian Revolution of 1917 exacerbated fears of a world revolutionary upheaval instigated by Russian Jews purportedly engaged in a conspiracy against England.9 This was the murky background to the popularity that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion initially attained in post-1918 Britain.10
In the aftermath of World War I, and with the establishment by the League of Nations of a British Mandate for Palestine, anti-Jewish feelings found yet another trigger. The Morning Post, for example, exhibited extreme hostility to the Jews and Zionism. Jews were portrayed in the early 1920s as expropriating the Palestine Arabs’ land under the protective cover of British bayonets and at the expense of British taxpayers. Anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism became an integral part of the rhetoric used by right-wing newspapers against the Lloyd George government and British rule in Palestine.11
With the emergence of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, a new anti-Semitic motif rose to the surface—one that carries a decidedly contemporary resonance. Jews were accused of trying to drag Britain into an unnecessary war with Nazi Germany.12 Mosley’s arguments combined fascist rhetoric, calls for the preservation of the Empire and for “peace with honor,” and a populist appeal to lower-class anti-Semitic sentiment, especially pervasive in London’s East End. The residues of his campaigns carried through into World War II, requiring the British government ostentatiously to demonstrate that it was not fighting a “Jews’ war.” During the war itself, an obsessive fear of “fifth columns” and “enemy aliens” existed alongside a perceived linkage of Jews with black-marketeering, spying, and subversion.13 This undercurrent of anti-Semitism probably contributed to Britain’s refusal to undertake any serious rescue effort to save the remnants of European Jewry during the Holocaust. Britain’s policy of blocking Jewish immigration to Palestine beginning in 1938, and especially from the end of the war until 1948, though mainly driven by realpolitik and imperial strategy, cannot plausibly be detached from anti-Jewish sentiment.
Even after the Holocaust, anti-Semitic attitudes only grew worse, resonating at the highest levels of the British government. The first U.S. ambassador to Israel, James G. McDonald, writing in his diary on August 3, 1948, recorded the “blazing hatred” of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin for “the Jews, the Israelis, the Israeli government” as well as for American president Harry S. Truman.14 Richard Crossman, the Labor MP who knew Bevin intimately, concluded in 1947 that British policy in Palestine was excessively influenced by “one man’s determination to teach the Jews a lesson.”15 The refusal of Palestinian Jewry to conform to British plans for them had tipped Bevin over into “overt anti-Semitism,” he said. The British foreign secretary was convinced that “the Jews were organizing a world conspiracy against poor old Britain” in which the Zionists, together with the Soviet Union, would seek to bring down the Empire.16 The Jewish resistance to British rule in Palestine in the summer of 1947 triggered anti-Jewish riots in Britain following the hanging of two British sergeants by the Irgun, which had in turn come in retaliation for the execution of an Irgun member by British authorities. On August 1, 1947, mobs of youths rampaged through Jewish districts in Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, East London, and other cities. Jewish property was looted, synagogues attacked, and cemeteries desecrated.17 Palestine—not for the first or last time—had become a catalyst for British hostility to Jews.

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