In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on September 11 2001 and July 7 2005, a noble impulse seized the British liberal left. Politicians, commentators and activists united to say to their fellow citizens that, no matter how outraged they felt at the loss of civilian life they had just witnessed, they should under no circumstances take out that anger on the Muslim community. Progressive voices insisted that Muslims were not to be branded as guilty by association, just because the killers of 9/11 and 7/7 had been Muslims and had claimed to act in the name of all Muslims.
They urged Britons to be careful in their language, not to generalise from a few individuals to an entire community, to make clear to Britain’s Muslims that they were a welcome part of the national life. One week after the 7/7 London attacks, a vast crowd gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear a call for unity led by then mayor Ken Livingstone, who said Londoners should not start looking for “who to blame and who to hate”.
It was the right reaction and I am glad that, writing on these pages, I shared it, denouncing the surge in Islamophobia that greeted either a terrorist attack or the revelation of a terror plot. Yet there’s been a curious silence in the last few weeks. Once again many are outraged by the loss of civilian life they have witnessed – this time in Gaza. Yet there has been no chorus of liberal voices insisting that, no matter how intense their fury, people must not take out that anger on Britain’s Jewish community.
The reason for this is quite simple. The Left doesn’t understand Antisemitism because it is not something that was overcome by leftists. Rights for African-Americans, women, and gays are all part of the Left’s legacy. Jews, on the other hand, just sort of trickled into normal society. There was never any Jewish affirmative action, never any Jewish civil rights laws. Mostly, Jewish emancipation was made complete by reaction to Word War II and the upward mobility of Jews made possible in part by their own work and in part by assimilating enough to enjoy white privilege.
It’s not that different in England. And England, like America, is sick and tired of the fighting in the Middle East, sick and tired of imperialism, sick and tired of neo-conservative America dragging them into wars. So, Jews/Israel get shunted into something that the Right Wing sticks up for.
What’s ugly is associating all Jews with Israel, all Israelis as Zionists, all Zionists as Neoconservatives, etc. Really, the attack on Gaza was provoked and exaggerated by Hamas, and Israel responded when it did due to the political realities of Israel and the US. In other words, it has more to do with Hamas’s leadership and some of Israel’s ministers than it does Jews or Muslims.
And then when there’s any “permission” to act antisemitic, the crazies come out of the woodwork. It’s all social psychology. Being pissed about Gaza gives social permission to others. If you try and act like the two aren’t connected then you hate science.
Here’s the other thing: amateurs and grassroots folks always look at the upside. People in power look at the downside more if not as much. The upside of being right about Palestine is Peace In The Middle East®. The downside about being wrong is more Islamic terrorism. Wanna face that? Haha.