Parliamentary Committee Against Antisemitism Briefing

Professor Robert Wistrich

Friday 28th November 2003

 

 

Introduction

 

Today we are extremely lucky to have with us Professor Wistrich who is the director of the Vidal Sassoon Institute, the International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism. He is no stranger to academia here. He has been a professor at University College London, he has also been a Professor at Oxford and again in Paris at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. He is the author and editor of twenty two books, don’t worry I’m not going to mention them, but in particular he has written a book that many of you will have read, called Antisemitism The Longest Hatred. This particular meeting is to give him an opportunity to talk about the situation in Europe as it is today.

  

Professor Robert Wistrich:

Thank you Stephen, it’s a pleasure to be here this morning, even at this unholy hour, and to address you. I think that my initial presentation will be short, no more than twenty minutes because the most useful purpose of this meeting will be to exchange views. I would prefer to define my topic this morning as ‘Antisemitism in Europe Today’, although we will see that we cannot divorce this issue from the past or indeed from antisemitism in the Middle East.

Let me begin by saying that I believe that what we have seen since the beginning of the new millennium is in effect a “new look” antisemitism, which does not mean that it is unrelated to earlier forms of antisemitism.

Essentially I see three consistent elements.

1. At the risk of simplifying, I will call the first strand “Classical Antisemitism”. This includes not only pagan Judeophobia and the Christian tradition but also racist and Nazi antisemitism. All these strands which were dominant until 1945 will not be my main concern today.

 2. The second element is rather new, although not as unprecedented as some people assert. I refer to Muslim antisemitism, particularly the Islamist form of anti-Jewishness. That clearly comes from the Middle East, but its relationship to Europe is more complex. Middle Eastern antisemitism was very much influenced in the modern period by the European model. But, in more recent years it has been re-exported back to the West. I believe is an important, perhaps even the central factor in the wave of antisemitism that we have seen in the last three years.

 3. The third element (perhaps the least familiar) is Liberal/Left antisemitism. This manifests itself most often under the banner of anti-Zionism.

So there are these three strands that we need to analytically disentangle, to better understand what is happening today.

Let me begin with the racist or Nazi form of Jew-hatred, because one of the misunderstandings that is very widespread today, is the notion that after the Holocaust, antisemitism as a political force was eradicated in Europe. As someone who has spent many years researching this subject, I do not buy that. Antisemitism was a major contributing factor of the Holocaust. But antisemitism has a history of two thousand years at least and it existed long before the Holocaust. Racist antisemitism is still alive and it is misleading to suggest that it was eradicated. Not only that, but in certain specific cases, for instance in Germany today, there is a new variant of antisemitism which exists precisely because of the Holocaust! There is resentment at reparations and restitution to Jews of what was taken from them; there is also a strong desire in Germany and Austria to draw a line over the Nazi past.

Recently, The Times published an article stating that because some Israelis are applying for German passports, this is proof that there is no antisemitism over there. That is laughable. There have been a series of antisemitic affairs in Germany in the last three years; the Moellemann affair, the Walser affair and now the Hohmann scandal. Many other indicators show (even though the German government behaves in a correct manner) that antisemitism is a problem in Germany today. To give you just one illustration I was in Berlin in September 2003. At that time a survey came out which showed that twenty percent out of eighty million Germans – believe that the events of 9/11 were provoked by the American government and the CIA, and/or the Mossad. This idea originated in the Middle East and among many Muslims it fits their pervasive belief in conspiracy theory. But now we know that in the heart of Europe twenty percent of Germans believe this noxious fiction. This summer alone, three best-sellers appeared in Germany on the subject. All of them put forward a variation on this theme. They were not written by crackpots. One of the authors was a former German cabinet minister Andreas von Bülow, another was a journalist with a left-wing newspaper and the third was an ARD television journalist. Each one put forward a conspiracy theory implicating Americans or Jews. This prompted Der Spiegel, often hostile to Israel, to run a major story which dissected the conspiracy theories of today as a frightening indicator of public opinion. The twenty percent looks even worse when we realise that in the eighteen to twenty nine age group, the percentage rises to thirty five percent. In other words, younger Germans, often blandly assumed to be better educated and therefore, more immune to prejudice, do show an alarming receptivity to conspiracy theories.

Then, there is the recent EU survey of European opinion which concluded that about sixty per cent of Europeans believe that Israel is the single greatest threat to world peace - ahead of such “peace-loving” societies as Stalinist North Korea, the Iran of the Ayatollahs and various “rogue states” in the Arab world. The United States came in fourth. This revealed a very disturbing level of prejudice with regard to the perception of Israel as a “warmongering” state. Consider the historic parallels which are also equally troubling in that regard. In the late 1930s, one of the most damaging stereotypes regarding Jews was that they were driving Europe, and (especially the Western democracies) into an “unnecessary” war with Nazi Germany. This was a very common view, held in Britain, France, America and elsewhere. As if Nazi Germany was a great “peace loving” state! The image of the “war-mongering” Jew appeared during the high tide of appeasement in the 1930s. It did not wait for the creation of the state of Israel. It had nothing to do with Mr. Sharon. Let us be very clear about that. This is a much older anti-Jewish fantasy! Antisemites had already made Jews responsible for the First World War, before blaming them for the Second World War! One can observe something similar in the demonstrations in big European cities, including London in 2003, where we saw the million strong march - the protest against the Iraqi war – with banners also calling for the liberation of Palestine. At such demonstrations (and even in remarks made in the British parliament) bellicose Jews were being held responsible for the war in Iraq. There was also a slightly more subtle version of this conspiracy theory. I am sure you all recall the well-known member of the House of Commons who spoke about the “Jewish cabal” behind Tony Blair – the conspiracy which supposedly “explains” why Britain was involved in the Iraq war. This “Jewish cabal” is tied to another even more influential and powerful cabal of Jewish hawks in Washington. You can read all about it in the British press. We are in the known territorial waters of antisemitism. A lot of the discourse about the “Jewish lobby” in the United States is tinged with assumptions like these that belong to the classic stereotypes of antisemitism. I am talking about the belief in secret Jewish influence. Antisemitism feeds on the notion of Jewish power - a vast, sinister power exercised through financial clout, control of the media and shadowy political connections. Of course, one must not forget the popular myth that the Jews run America! I find that cliché more widespread in Britain (on the Right and Left) than it has been for many years. It is equally common in Spain, Italy, France, Germany and many other countries in Europe today. America is, supposedly, in the hands of a clique of powerful, influential, wealthy Jews. They are all connected with Israel, because these Jewish hawks, so we are told, are all Likudniks - supporters of Ariel Sharon. I will not honour that crude conspiracy theory with a rebuttal. But the lines between the Jewish and the Israeli lobby are constantly blurred and the connotations are always sinister. This is a discourse already rampant in the Middle East where it often assumes the ugly contours of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But is also expanding fast in Europe. This trend is not entirely new. There was a rhetoric like that about Jews in Britain and America that goes way back to the earlier part of the twentieth century, especially to the 1920s. Remember Henry Ford! Zionism and the state of Israel have given it new life. The Jewish State provided a catalyst or trigger. None of this was born yesterday. Like the blood libel, the image of the threatening Jew is embedded in the Christian popular culture of Britain and Europe since the early Middle Ages.

We also need to recognize what is relatively new, especially the Liberal/Left type of antisemitism. The flag under which so much anti-Israel rhetoric currently sails is the Human Rights banner. This is the civil religion of our time. Everyone has to pay obeisance to this secular god, even murderous dictators. Israel and the Jewish people are branded as systematic violators of this universal civil religion of Human Rights. If you were to visit the United Nations Human Rights Commission, or other bodies at the UN, you might well imagine that the small state of Israel was the world’s biggest serial violator of human rights. If you listened only to the discussions on the agenda in UN bodies, you would hardly know about the Russian war in Chechnya, and the hundred thousand victims there since the early 1990s. You would learn very little about Rwanda, Cambodia or other genocides since World War II, not to mention the ongoing war in Sudan that has cost nearly two million casualties since the 1980s; or what the Chinese have done in Tibet, or about the treatment of dissidents and deviants in Arab countries; or about the harassment of Christians in many countries from Egypt through to Pakistan and Indonesia. None of this would appear on the agenda on UN Human Rights Debates because the tyranny of steamrolling block votes ensures that will not happen. On the other hand, you would know a great deal about the Jewish state violating the human rights of the Palestinians. It is certainly important to discuss these issues. In Israel itself this is a matter of constant debate. In many ways I think it is fair to describe Israelis as gold medallists when it comes to criticising their own government. The idea that Israelis raise the issue of antisemitism to silence criticism of Israel is simply not true. Indeed, it is absurd. The empirical evidence flies in the face of that. Indeed, criticism of Israel has never been more vocal!         What is lacking in the Western media is sufficiently tough criticism of Islam and the Palestinians.

Discussion of antisemitism must proceed on its own merits. It has to be addressed as what it is – as a particularly malevolent and poisonous form of racism. But it is also much more than that. Antisemitism is a recurring prejudice with its own special characteristics, particularly powerful in European history. Since the Holocaust, Europeans have a special obligation to deal with it. That is true quite apart from the question of Zionism. Nobody in Israel is trying to obstruct criticism of the government. That argument is not only supremely cynical but is usually put forward in order to avoid discussion of antisemitism as a real phenomenon. Only in England is it more impolite to call someone an antisemite than to actually be one!

Finally, allow me to briefly address the question of anti-Westernism. This is obviously related to Middle Eastern forms of antisemitism. In Europe itself it would be more accurate to speak of anti-Americanism (rather than anti-Westernism) as an important catalyst for some contemporary antagonism to Jews. We have seen plenty of anti-American feeling in mass demonstrations and public rhetoric in Europe. Bush and Sharon have become like Siamese twins – joint personifications of two hated “rogue states” for many liberals in Europe. America and Israel have been merged together into one monstrous composite image of militarism, imperialism, unilateralism, interventionalism, globalisation and the flouting of international law. There are, I believe, some structural affinities between anti-Americanism, anti-Israelism and antisemitism. These similarities did not begin yesterday. They were commonplace in the ex-USSR and in Communist propaganda during the Cold War. They have been aggravated in the last three years by the American-led war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by America’s strong support of Israel which so many Arabs as well as Europeans, would like to weaken.

Anti-Americanism and antisemitism were already linked in the nineteenth century. You can find plenty of echoes in British, French and German culture. The Yankees were identified (like the Jews) with Mammon, economic individualism, coarse vulgarity and a materialist ethos which was unfavourably compared to the more hierarchical, traditional culture of Europe. Anti-Americanism on the conservative Right tended to be a form of cultural snobbery. On the Left, there was the umbilical cord between America and predatory capitalism – or what we would call globalization today - which can also be a synonym for the much despised Americanized mass culture. The same anti-materialist stereotypes that are now applied to America existed for centuries before that in the depiction of Jews.

America and Israel have respectively become the “Great” and the “Little” Satan. This is especially true for Muslims and Leftists. The current image of Uncle Sam blends and merges with the image of Uncle Shylock. Uncle Sam and Uncle Shylock have become one; Bush and Sharon have become one. This, too, feeds prejudices existed long before the current Palestinian war of terror against Israel or the assault of Al-Qaeda on the United States.

One final point. There is no doubt in my mind that there has been a significant rise in European antisemitism. This is true whether we are talking about violent incidents, threats, insults, graffiti or the harassment of Jews on the streets and in schools. In France today, it is sometimes impossible to teach the Holocaust in French lycées with Muslim pupils. It has become so serious that the French Minister for Education had to intervene to see what could be done about a situation when ordinary teachers are harassed for referring to Dreyfus, the Holocaust or Jewish victims of any kind. Sadly, many people in France, Britain and Germany have been intimidated by the stigma of Islamophobia if they dared to challenge any aspect of Muslim behaviour. The President of the French Republic, Jacque Chirac, who was in denial on the question of antisemitism for  over two and a half years, has now finally (at this late hour) realized his mistake. He has recently said that a threat to the lives of Jews of France is also a threat to the French Republic. It should have been said a long time ago. Better late than never. But the burning to the ground of a school in the suburbs of north Paris, along with the blowing up of the synagogues in Istanbul, has exposed the connection between terror, jihad and antisemitism. It is a deadly threat to civilization in Britain, Europe and the Middle East.

 

Questions

 Q: Are you afraid of caricaturing European antisemitism? I was correspondent in Jerusalem, followed by Moscow. My perception of antisemitism is Russian. Before I moved to Moscow I did not realise that many of the oligarchs, who are involved in the country’s economy, are Jewish, as have been many of the presidential candidates – in particular in the 1986 election, including Vladimir Zhiranovsky, the antisemitic one.

I also thought it worth mentioning Michael Howard’s election as the opposition leader. In the British press it was not really a factor that he is a practising Jew. I did notice it in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. It happened almost without comment, and I thought, quite significant.

 

Q: On campus we have seen groups on the extreme Left teaming up with Islamist organisations, such as the Muslim Association of Britain. And now we witness the disgraced George Galloway’s new party, forging links between the extreme left and the Muslim Association of Britain. Is this a problem? Is this going to mix the categories you were talking about, and lead to a new breed of antisemitism combining Islamist antisemitism and extreme Left anti-Zionism/antisemitism?

 

Professor Robert Wistrich

 Let me take those points in reverse order, starting with the situation on campus. I was a doctoral student in Britain (in the 1970s) when the “anti-Zionist” campaign began.  After the United Nations resolution of November 1975 – “Zionism is racism” – there was a movement on campus to ban Jewish societies on the basis that no platform should be given to racists. Zionists are racists”, Jews are Zionists, ergo Jewish societies should not be allowed to exist on campus! People have forgotten but our present situation is a continuation and aggravation of those same tendencies, which today have become mainstream. In the 1970s you already had a Palestinian/leftist alliance and Jews themselves were often in prominent positions in the anti-Zionist crusade. That has not changed; Jews in Britain and elsewhere can be counted on to do more than their fair share of Israel-bashing. Today you also have a Muslim-Trotskyite coalition, responsible for the huge demonstration in London, which showed that marginal groups are not so marginal. At first glance we are talking about an unnatural alliance. What is the hard Left (in terms of its own self proclaimed values) doing marching together with radical Muslims? Many things that it claims to believe are anathema to militant Muslims. The MAB and other Islamic organisations are not interested in the class struggle, or in the victory of the proletarian revolution! Socialism has nothing to do with Jihad. The guilt is even greater if you consider issues like the rights of women, feminism or homosexuality. In fact, we are talking about two different universes. Organisations in Britain like Al Muhajiroun are full of rank homophobia in addition to their antisemitism. They also have other values which ought to be anathema to the Left, but this is not the case at the moment. What has happened is that the issue of Palestine has emerged as the lowest common denominator, the bridge between the extremes. Along with anti-Americanism, anti-Israel feeling is the main cement linking Muslims to the hard Left. This is what creates the possibility of a political alliance.

In France the trend is even more striking. There is a prominent Muslim intellectual, Tariq Ramadan, once considered the bright star of a “moderate” Euro-Islam. He is a hero of the antiglobalists. Among his recent activities was the compilation of a short list of Jewish intellectuals in France who are allegedly “Sharonists”. I happen to know the names on his list, and none of them fit that category. Ramadan accuses these Jews of abandoning universalist concerns, of being hostile to Arabs, and caring only about the Jewish community. This is all nonsense. But because these intellectuals protested against the vicious anti-Israeli witchhunt, they were branded in this highly offensive way by a Muslim preacher who is himself an advocate of fundamentalism. Has there been any good news from France? Certainly, the government is taking a much tougher line and there have been some recent signs in Le Monde, Libération and the Nouvel Observateur to indicate a realization that antisemitism is dangerous and a grudging recognition that it is being facilitated by extreme antagonism to Israel and the negation of Zionism. Even The Guardian, judging by a recent editorial is having some second thoughts about this subject.

Let me add a word about the US president. Although a right-wing conservative, Mr. Bush is arguably the most radical American president for a century for daring to make the democratisation of the Arab Middle East a prime goal of American foreign policy. It is a bold, high risk policy. If it comes off it will reshape the history of the 21st century. The obstacles are certainly very considerable because of the way authoritarian Middle Eastern societies are structured at present. Democratisation may even bring to the foreground some ugly and frightening phenomena. We had a glimpse of that in Algeria in 1991. Nobody knows what will happen when the House of Saud falls, but it surely will. Nobody can say how long that will take. The implications may be huge for Western economies and for the Middle East as a whole. But what will come in its place? If it is an Al Qaeda style of Islam, it is certainly no improvement on Wahhabism. They are both equally poisonous. But the status quo has also been disastrous. At least President Bush realized that and he has really tried to face the challenges. So has Mr. Blair.

We do not know what is going to happen in Iraq, which has been made the test case by America and Britain for a more promising future path of Middle Eastern progress. I am still sceptical whether Western democracy will prove a workable solution in Iraq. But I do think it is important to fearlessly advocate the importance of democratic values and not to begin with the a priori assumption that Islam and democracy are incompatible. After all, we have the example of Turkey. One of the reasons why Turkey was recently targeted by Al-Qaeda is precisely because it is the one case in the Middle East where we have seen a reasonably functional marriage between Islam and democracy. That achievement could not have been possible without the secularist revolution carried out eighty years ago by Kemal Attatürk. Except for Tunisia, there have been no examples in the Arab world of anything approaching that. Turkey is far from perfect. But it is a remarkable secular experiment which is anathema to radical Islam. Turkey and Israel, not surprisingly, have an important strategic relationship. Europe should be more supportive than it has been thus far of Turkey’s pro-Western orientation.

Coming to the question of Russia – as you know - a part of that huge landmass looks to Europe, a part is Asiatic. I remember that when I wrote the three-hour film documentary The Longest Hatred in 1991, a disintegrating Communist Russia loomed large in our perspective about the dangers of a new kind of antisemitism. We talked about it then in the context of the end of the Cold War, the coming down of the Berlin wall, the democratization of Eastern Europe and the dangers of a fascist revival. There was the smell of pogroms in the air which fortunately did not materialise. There was an old-new Russian antisemitism - post-Communist as well as Soviet-style - which seemed alarming enough. You alluded to Zhirinovsky. His movement only a decade ago won twenty five per cent of the votes in the Russian elections (today he has about half of that popular support). He did have an antisemitic platform at that time which was an integral part of his ultra-Nationalism.

Under Putin, it seems to me, you have a paradoxical situation. The new tsar of Russia, is outwardly at least, quite favourable to a renewed flourishing of Jewish life. His relations with Israel are normal, perhaps even close in some strategic areas such as the fight against Islamic terror. It is true that under Gorbachev, and then in the Yeltsin era in particular, a number of Jews rose to the highest positions, particularly in the new capitalist economy. A lot has been written about the Jewish role among the oligarchs. Thus far, there has not yet been a great antisemitic backlash and mostly they have lost power. Putin has taken measures to strengthen his personal rule without openly playing the antisemitic card. But he knows that one of the reasons why his moves against the oligarchs have been very popular is that the Russian people consider most of these big capitalists not to be fully Russian. Without openly playing to that sentiment, I think Putin used it. But that is not the likely reason why he acted against them. The situation in Russia cannot be taken for granted, but it is still much better than during the Soviet period. Russian - Israeli relations have also been transformed for the better. Russia, Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and the Baltics are friendlier to Israel in some ways than the core countries of the European Union. Ten years ago, who could have envisaged that antisemitism and anti-Zionism would be less prevalent in Eastern Europe than within the democracies of the European Union? Who would have imagined ten years ago that Poland would show more understanding for Israel’s dilemmas than France? It is a remarkable transformation. But I believe that Europe must examine itself and ask why it is betraying its own values.

 

Q: Although you were careful to say that you wanted to make distinctions, you are bringing all sorts of things under the umbrella of antisemitism. If I were suffering from prejudice I might not care what the reason was. But if I am an analyst, I would want to know what the reason was. And if I wanted put it right I certainly need to know. So a kid in a Paris suburb throws a rock into a synagogue – why? Is it obvious? Is it self evident why? To me it does make a difference whether this kid imbibed antisemitism from his Dad, or from Al Jazeerah television, or whether he was simply watching Al Jazeerah and saw pictures of Palestine and was mad with anger, and goes out and throws a rock. To explain is not to condone. I am not at all saying if there is a political motive it is alright, and if there is not then it is not alright. If I was Jacques Chirac I would need to know, because he is pumping millions of euros into combating it.

Surely you believe that a large numbers of people on this planet should be able to believe, rightly or wrongly, that Israel is a serial violator of human rights, and that antisemitism has nothing to do with it.

I am astonished you brought anti-Americanism into it. Are we to say that antisemitism is self evidently part and parcel of the sentiment that leads these people to passionately condemn Bush and Sharon. Are you ruling out that large numbers of people are taking that position entirely on political grounds? I am not ruling out that antisemitism may be there somewhere, but linking “Uncle Sam and uncle Shylock”, I find absolutely extraordinary.

 

Professor Robert Wistrich

I am frankly astonished that you should find my analogy between anti-Americanism and antisemitism surprising. I think the main problem is that you are dealing with antisemitism as if it had no history. You are assuming that attitudes, feelings and sentiments towards Americans, Jews and Israelis are a straightforward outcome of objective political judgements about what is happening in the Middle East. Undoubtedly the here-and-now transmission of news is important in forming political opinions, but nothing happens in a vacuum. Part of what is labelled anti-Americanism is doubtless an indignant response by many Europeans and Arabs to the policy of the present US government. In the same way I realize that part of what is labelled antisemitism might be an emotional response to what Israel and its government is currently doing in the territories, in its settlement policy and treatment of the Palestinians. But that really does not account for many of the prejudices, the stereotyping and the anti-Jewish libels which I alluded to. Most recently we had the statement of the Greek composer, Theodorakis (he composed the Palestinian national anthem) who came out and said that “the Jews” are the root of all evil in the world. That is surely raw antisemitism. We heard Jose Saramago, the Portuguese author and Nobel Prize winner, compare Ramallah to Auschwitz. There are many such statements by prominent intellectuals and artists in Britain and Europe. I find them shockingly ill-informed and outrageous but they are becoming normative. That is deeply disturbing.

Let me come back to your first point, which I think is important. What are the motivations of militant Muslim immigrants from Algeria, or of those Arab youths who burn down Jewish schools or harass Jews on the metro, or on the street? Is this just delinquency? I remember that we heard from French government sources before the last national elections that there is no antisemitism in France. They claimed that this was just the activity of vandals from the suburbs; that it had nothing to do with antisemitism when Jewish targets were burned or attacked!

Of course, there is also social exclusion and prejudice against Muslims. There is anti-Arab racism. The Le Pen movement was primarily directed against the Maghrebin immigration. But the explanation that Muslims in France physically attack Jews out of solidarity with what happens in Palestine seems to me very superficial. There are many other causes for this violence. Of course Palestine serves as a trigger. People see the pictures of Israeli tanks and planes on their television screen. If they are Arabs who know Arabic they will listen to radio Monte Carlo, to Al Jazeerah or other stations from the Middle East. The anti-Jewish stereotypes come from the Middle East as well as the French media. They are reinforced by fundamentalist preaching in the mosques. All these things are contributing factors. So, too, is the general feeling of marginalization and rage among unemployed young Arabs in France.

But then you have to ask yourself - why don’t they go and burn down Christian churches? Why is it always Jewish targets? Why is it not even Israeli targets that they attack? They attack symbols of Jewish communal life. Is this pure chance? Surely not. This cannot be dissociated from the question of the prejudices which North African Muslims brought with them as part of their cultural baggage from the Middle East. The French authorities have finally begun to understand this danger and have decided – at least publicly – on a policy of zero tolerance for antisemitism. That is long overdue.

I should point out that Jews do not go around in France burning mosques, and if they did, heaven forbid what would happen! There might be a pogrom! But when Jews are deliberately targeted, people pretend that this is not antisemitism. That is surely a shocking evasion made even worse by trying to pin it on Israel’s actions in the territories. It is morally wrong to justify or “explain” actions taken against Jews in the Diaspora as a product of Israel’s policy in the Middle East. Why should Jews in France, Britain or anywhere else be victimised, harassed or threatened because of that? I remember the former French foreign minister Védrine impudently suggesting that Muslims in France feel a natural solidarity with Palestine, so therefore it is understandable that they express their anger. By burning down Jewish schools or synagogues? Many Jews have lost confidence in their children’s future in France because of this Muslim violence and the laxness of the authorities. That has now changed, but it may be too late. There is also a tougher policy in Britain though it is hindered by far too much “political correctness” about upsetting Muslim sensibilities. If people are afraid of speaking the truth then that is the road to disaster.

Regarding anti-Americanism, I was pointing to a structural affinity with antisemitism which seems obvious and incontrovertible to me. There is an overlap with the perception of Jews. Negative European political reactions to America and its policy in the Middle East also did not emerge out of nothing. One can go back to De Gaulle and his strategic choice of a Franco-Arab axis to counteract American influence in the 1960s. The French have led Europe down the path of an anti-Israeli policy for more than 30 years and in my view, the results have not been very positive.

 

Q: What would you like to happen? What would assure you that the problems that you have identified are being addressed? Do you see a connection between the general concern for broader anti discrimination policy, and antisemitism and islamophobia? I must confess that at the same time as acknowledging an increase in antisemitic language and sentiment in the public discourse in the UK, I am very conscious that there is a huge danger of anti-Muslim discrimination.

 

The Chairman – Stephen Rubin

Could I say that this organisation is incidentally fighting islamophobia as well, and we do count Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan as one of our members.

 

Q: Please clarify your references to Islamophobia.

 

Professor Robert Wistrich

Let me take this opportunity to clearly say that I do not regard Islamophobia as imaginary. I feel the same way about the unjust stigmatization of Muslims, about scapegoating their community as a whole, as I would about any form of discrimination. I try and make the intellectual effort to empathise with the fears and anxieties of Muslims. If I feel strongly about the ravages of radical Islamism or conservative Wahhabism (which is fundamentalist Islam) it is also a result of the disservice that I feel it performs to many law-abiding, peaceful and decent Muslims. Jews, like the majority society in Britain, need to find a style='mso-bidi-font-style:normal'>modus vivendi with reasonable Muslims. But nothing good will come from sweeping real problems under the carpet from fear of being falsely branded as an “Islamophobe” or “racist”.

I am troubled by the fact that in Britain and Europe leaders of the Muslim community do not distance themselves clearly from terrorism, antisemitism, or the ideology of violent Jihad. I think they can do much more, and they would be doing a great service to themselves and to their community if they had the courage to totally repudiate the criminal hijacking of Islam by jihadist killers. Regarding the future. You also asked about practical solutions, things we should aspire to see done. One of the most important things is to create a climate in which the silent majority of moderate Muslims will make their voice heard; in which a more peaceful form of Islam could marginalise radical, anti-Western and antisemitic Islamism. The latter is a threat, not just to Jews or Christians, but to Muslims themselves. We are talking about 1.2 billion people on the face of this earth – twenty five percent of humanity. It is of great importance to us all (including Muslims themselves) to prevent the body politic of Islam from degenerating still further into the abyss of Holy War and antisemitic hysteria. For Jews and Israelis this is an existential question. I have spoken to Muslims of a more moderate persuasion and I am convinced that common ground can and must be found. Britain and Europe can also do much more to press the issue with the relevant governments, the media, religious authorities, in schools and universities. Finally, let me say a word about the relationship between Islamophobia and antisemitism. You have probably heard about the report on antisemitism that was buried by the European Union funded Centre for Monitoring of Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna. I read their previous reports which dealt extensively with racism and xenophobia. Islamophobia was highlighted everywhere and various manifestations of discrimination in housing, jobs and education were pointed out. But there were no actual examples of antisemitism. Then they tried to suppress a report they commissioned which showed that some Muslims have been actively spreading antisemitism in Europe. How is this possible? Think of the French example, of Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Greece etc. You have ten Muslims to every Jew in France. Ten percent of the French population are Muslims, and yet the absolute number of incidents of aggression against Jews, has been far higher than against Muslims in the last three years. This shows how things have changed. That would not have been true in the 1990s. Antisemitism is currently a bigger problem than Islamophobia and its roots are much deeper. But the mechanisms of denial and lack of political will to deal with it is a problem that must be overcome.

The leaders of Britain and the United States went out of their way to say that the war against terror is not a war against Islam in order to counteract Islamophobia. In France and Britain, the government has bent over backwards to reassure the Muslim population. And I think that is as it should be. But unfortunately Jews were not reassured in this way until very recently. In France, for example, until a year ago, almost nothing was said about Muslims attacking Jews, in order not to offend potential Muslim voters. Certainly, one has to protect the rights of Muslims but what are they doing about educating their own community against antisemitism and anti-Westernism? This point has to be made very forcefully. We must not become prisoners of a politically correct discourse that sweeps difficult truths under the carpet, including the refusal to acknowledge that Islamists are propagating a poisonous form of antisemitism. It has to be vigorously countered. That is surely the moral and existential obligation of Europe today, just as it must cleanse itself of the antisemitic demons of its own past and stop pretending that the problem is being exaggerated.

 

The Chairman – Stephen Rubin

May I on behalf of everyone thank Professor Wistrich for coming along, we are most grateful; we know you have a very very busy schedule. And thank you everybody for coming, even those of you that don’t normally do mornings.