British antisemitism: A look at the facts

In recent months nearly every national mainstream media outlet has run reports concerning mounting antisemitism within the UK. Following the massacres in Gaza over the summer many of these reports warn that a new strain of antisemitism is on the rise, with leading public figures joining forces to condemn those responsible for increasingly frequent verbal and physical attacks on British Jews. 

The statistics cited by the press can be traced to the Community Security Trust (CST) - an organisation which has been documenting antisemitic incidents reported to it by the public since 1984. At first glance they are indeed shocking. In July CST recorded 302 antisemitic incidents representing a 400% increase over the 59 incidents recorded in the same month last year. A further 150 cases were reported the following month.

In September David Cameron and Michael Gove both reacted to the news publicly. “Today, across Europe, there has been a revival of antisemitism which the enormity of the Holocaust should have rendered forever unthinkable,” warned Gove, “…The virus is spreading across other European nations. We must all remember where this leads, now more than ever. And we must not think that Britain, gentle, tolerant, civilised Britain, is immune.”

Gove’s strong rhetoric and suggestion that the recent spike is connected to a wider trend across Europe echoes much of the media’s coverage of the issue. Yet while many articles assert that antisemitism has reached record levels in the UK, on closer inspection the matter appears more complex. Long term trends suggest antisemitism in Britain has actually been in decline for several years and, though it is cause for concern, the latest surge in incidents is not unprecedented.

“What happened this summer is something that has happened in the past,” explains Dave Rich, Deputy Director of Communications for CST. “When there is a flare up in the conflict in Gaza as there was this summer we get more incidents taking place…A lot of the incidents make direct reference to what’s happening in the Middle East. Then after the fighting over there finishes, the spike in incidents declines so in that respect it’s short term.

In January 2009, Israel launched ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza - a conflict lasting 22 days which resulted in the death of around 1400 Palestinians. That month CST recorded a surge in antisemitism involving 289 reported incidents – very close to the July 2014 figure (302). In the years since then, however, the number of incidents reported to CST has dropped steadily, and in its latest annual report for 2013 the organisation recorded 529 incidents - the lowest number of annual incidents since 2005.

CST has also noted that antisemitism trends in Britain appear to be at odds with other parts of Europe such as France, where reports of violent attacks on Jews have been increasing in frequency over the past few years and where a synagogue was firebombed in July. Violent attacks in the UK are by comparison quite rare with the most common form of antisemitism recorded by CST described as ‘random verbal abuse by passers-by at visibly Jewish people in the street.’

“In the last two or three years the trajectory in Britain has been very different to that in France and we had taken that as a positive sign that things were working,” says Rich, “This summer has set us back quite considerably but having said that it’s set back France even worse.”

Rich’s approach to analysing the state of antisemitism in Britain seems more measured than many of the media reports which rely on CST’s figures for their stories. But the sensationalism with which antisemitism tends to be reported – often invoking the Holocaust as a terrifying reminder of the worst case scenario – has led to criticism by some Jews who believe that spreading fear is largely counterproductive. Among them is Antony Lerman, a British writer specialising in the study of antisemitism and the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

One of the publications Lerman singles out for criticism is the Jewish Chronicle – Britain’s leading Jewish newspaper – which ran a headline in August titled ‘63% question the future of Jews in the UK.’ The newspaper conducted a straw poll of merely 150 Jews – a small sample on which to base such a bold statement. 

“To blast a headline like that across the front page of the main Jewish newspaper in the this a sensible thing to do? Are you just feeding people’s fears of antisemitism?” Asks Lerman, “I think there is a lack of responsibility on the part of Jewish leaders and certain people involved in the business of monitoring antisemitism.”

Lerman extends his criticism to CST and questions whether the organisation risks conflating political opposition to Israel with antisemitism in its analysis. In particular, the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement - which calls for economic and political pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories - has been the subject of some debate.

As a charitable organisation, CST is restricted from expressing political opinions and officially the organisation claims to uphold this requirement. However, in September the organisation’s Communications Director, Mark Gardner, released a statement published in several newspapers in which he appeared to criticise the effect that boycotts of Israeli goods were having on British Jews.

“Anti-Semitic incidents will subside along with the images on people’s television screens, but the long term damage to Jews of anti-Israel boycotts will persist...One consequence of this war will be a lot more boycotts, either through choice or intimidation. Just as Israel is being singled out for scrutiny and boycott, so many Jews are going to feel the same way.”

This sentiment was reiterated by Michael Gove who stated in his speech: “We need to remind people that what began with a campaign against Jewish goods in the past ended with a campaign against Jewish lives.”

But Lerman and others see these comments as highly problematic. “The boycott may be wrong, it may be counter productive but to label it antisemitic is a big mistake,” he says.

In response, Dave Rich maintains that CST does not regard boycotts alone as antisemitic. For an incident to be classed as antisemitic it must be deemed “a malicious act aimed at Jewish people, organisations or property where there is evidence that the victim or victims were targeted because they are or are believed to be Jewish.” Boycotts against Israel do not meet this threshold and are not included in official figures but, he claims, some polls suggest around two thirds of Jews do think someone who boycotts Israeli goods is probably antisemitic and CST has a duty to report their fears.

Despite these disputes all parties are agreed on one thing. While the recent spikes must be monitored closely and treated seriously, the trajectory of antisemitism in Britain over the past few decades has in many respects been positive - a fact seldom mentioned by the press.

“Yes there is a level of antisemitism and it hasn’t gone away. But on the whole it’s not at all bad in this country,” says Lerman, who has been studying the matter since the 1980s.

“There’s a lot of work to be done but there’s a lot of work that has been done,” concludes Dave Rich. “In terms of policy, government action and police action we’re in a much better place now than we were 20 years ago, so when events like this summer happen I think it’s important not to just write all that off.”