Andrew Stunell MP writes…Tackling anti-semitism at home and abroad

We may have had a peaceful summer at home but overseas the situation was anything but relaxed, not least in Gaza where the tension between Israel and Palestine spilled over into violence and bloodshed. Whatever your interpretation of events there, nothing can excuse the fact that the resultant anger and hurt felt by many was channelled by a few into violence against British Jews, leading to a 400% increase in recorded antisemitic incidents in the last quarter. That was a pattern repeated across Europe, which is why as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism I joined a delegation of MPs to Berlin and Paris in order to learn the lessons of the summer. Our findings will help to inform a new parliamentary report into antisemitism now being drawn up.

The visit to Berlin both reassured and worried me. There are certainly some serious efforts being made by the Government, Parliament, NGOs and the Jewish community to raise educational awareness about the dangers of antisemitism. The Bundestag had recently agreed to instruct a group of experts to analyse and report on antisemitism for the second time (somewhat mirroring the UK’s all-party antisemitism inquiry). However, the lack of concrete, reliable incident statistics was a concern as was partisan fighting over the right approach to combatting antisemitism. This helped to highlight for me both the importance of the UK’s Community Security Trust as a reliable source of incident figures and of our efforts to fight antisemitism on an all-party basis.

Although it was made clear to us that antisemitic incident levels have remained relatively constant (and are taken with great seriousness), we were told that the intensity of the incidents had certainly increased. Anti-Israel protesters were now chanting about Jews rather than Israel, foreign TV satellites were transmitting antisemitic messages into many homes and hate-mail was now being signed rather than sent anonymously. The situation led some Jews to conceal their identity in public and security-heavy communal buildings were the norm.

In Paris the situation seemed significantly worse. Although Jews only make up 1% of French society, 40% of racially motivated crimes last year were committed against them. We were told that Jewish students on one campus had their names scrawled on the University walls and required bodyguards whilst the Mayor of the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles compared the outbreak of violence on the streets over the summer to a civil war. The situation there became so desperate that police warned Jewish leaders that if protestors crossed their defensive lines, the Jews would have to fend for themselves.

We were told that amongst the contributing factors to French antisemitism were economic instability, the Middle East conflict and a failure to integrate immigrant communities on the secular model set out in their Constitution.  French political culture leaves little space for recognising differences from secular norms, leaving denial as the principal policy option.

Fortunately we in the UK do have a cross-party plan and it is imperative that we as Lib Dems are centrally involved in it. Whilst we must be careful to ensure there is always freedom of speech, debate and participation, including in intensely politicised and heart-felt issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so too we must be vigilant and ensure that the distinction between anti-Israel rhetoric and antisemitism is not blurred. We must all be responsible in our discourse and ensure that whatever Israel does or does not do, our Jewish co-citizens are not isolated or demonised. We must continue to work to ensure our society embraces the Liberal Democratic values we are rightly proud of and rejects racism whoever the target.

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* Andrew Stunell is the Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove, was a member of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into electoral conduct and is a former communities minister.

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  • Eddie Sammon 30th Oct '14 - 9:19pm

    This is good work by Mr Stunell. I am going to criticise both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but first of all let me start with the pro-Palestine side and how I’ve heard of at least one local resident resort to anti-semitism.

    Basically, he was privately spouting some religious theories that appear to justify a special kind of contempt for the jews. We need to look into these and see how widespread they are.

    Secondly, we need to also challenge the zionist extremists.

    I was unaware as to how bizarre anti-semitism can get until I heard some of these theories spouted by someone who otherwise appeared normal and well educated. We need to look into these – it’s more than people criticising the state of Israel or anything Hitler said. It will only be a tiny minority who hold such views, but we need to be aware of how big the problem is.

  • Helen Tedcastle 30th Oct '14 - 10:52pm

    ‘French political culture leaves little space for recognising differences from secular norms, leaving denial as the principal policy option.’

    This is a real problem and has led to the prosecution of women who wear headscarves in public spaces as well as generally alienating ethnic and religious minorities. French Secularism has become an insidious form of intolerance which masquerades as tolerance and ‘equality.’ Perhaps some are more equal than others.

    ‘Fortunately we in the UK do have a cross-party plan and it is imperative that we as Lib Dems are centrally involved in it. Whilst we must be careful to ensure there is always freedom of speech, debate and participation, including in intensely politicised and heart-felt issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so too we must be vigilant and ensure that the distinction between anti-Israel rhetoric and antisemitism is not blurred. ‘

    I agree, although we must remain ever-vigilant that tabloid headlines and hysteria from some politicians on the right, (Tories and UKIP) do not drive the discourse of dealing with integration and diversity.

    It is vital that there is a distinction made clearly between the behaviour of the Israeli Government in particular and Jewish people in general. The UK, with its traditional tolerance of religious diversity and Religious Education programmes in schools is in a better position to deal with prejudice than others. It is vital that this subject is well-supported and well-resourced in order educate young people as well as we might expect in other humanities subjects like History.

  • An interesting piece by Andrew which was no doubt written before yesterday’s events in Israel, which will not have helped the situation in Paris or anywhere else.

    Andrew points out that only 1% of French society is Jewish. A slightly larger figure than the percentage of UK society. Yet in both countries the identification by Jewish people themselves with the state of Israel leaves perfectly innocent people open to abuse and attack.

    Andrew is quite right to say that “..Whilst we must be careful to ensure there is always freedom of speech, debate and participation, including in intensely politicised and heart-felt issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so too we must be vigilant and ensure that the distinction between anti-Israel rhetoric and antisemitism is not blurred. “. But that is a two way street.

    Watching the news from Israel last night on ‘FRANCE 24’ the stories of extremists writing ‘Death to all Arabs’ on the walls of a school and seeing reports of the Israei military abusing Palestinian civilians (which is an almost daily event) one wonders how even the most Liberal and tolerant of observers can continue to make the distinction. When Israeli extremists call for the boycott of IKEA, and Swedes have been subject to on-line abuse by Israelis, simply because Sweden has recognised the State of Palestine one wonders why the country which asks us to draw such a distinction feels no compulsion to be equally civilised.

    The IKEA boycott story has resulted in some good jokes on social media but Israel might like to consider why Jewish communities around the world are subject to attack. If Israelis makes no distinction between Swedish Government policy and Swedish people and Swwdish companies why should the rest of the world be expected to have a much higher code of behaviour? If Israelis writing ‘Death to all Arabs’ on the wall of a school is a regular event in Israel is it any wonder that people in Paris who have Arab friends and relations fail to make the distinction between blaming a state and blaming a people?

  • ISHvinder Matharu 31st Oct '14 - 9:15am

    I would prefer our Knight, a man I have a great deal of respect for, to perhaps say “anti Bibi’s Government” not anti Israel. It is an important distinction.

    For instance, we are probably not anti Russia or against Russians in general, just anti Putin’s Russian Govnt

    Could I also add, that it important to fight all racism, not just the highlighted causes of Jews, Black and Muslims {not even a race}.

  • Andrew Stunell describes a very worrying situation and I have no doubt that a strong motivation for many of us to be in the Party is the strong stand it has always taken on all forms of racism. Certainly it was a major factor in me first becoming a Liberal in the 60’s. That was a time when anti-semitic comments were often heard even in polite society, when the Conservative Party was very hostile to people of colour and Labour was (just as now) trying to show it was just as tough as the Tories when it came to immigration. Public opinion has changed a great deal, helped a lot by legislation that helped to educate people. But still racism – including anti-semitism – rears its ugly head and seeks scapegoats. The Muslim community has been much criticised for being slow to tackle extremism in its midst – difficult because of the different strands of Islam and the lack of the kind of central organisation and leadership that the Catholic and Anglican churches have. The Jewish Community is different again and the Israel/Palestine issue is an ongoing discussion among Jews who belong to and are represented by widely differing views.

    An interesting perspective on this is to be seen in a recent blog by Micah Micah is someone who identifies himself clearly as a Jew but who is married to an Anglican Minister. Micah attributes much of the anti-semitism that is currently surfacing in this country to the way that the leadership of some of the most prominent Jewish organisations in this country often seem to defend Israel whatever it does and fail to take any opportunity to use their influence on Israel to good effect. Micah links much anti-semitism in the UK to the confusion that these organisations cause by linking their Jewishness so closely to the illegal and racist policies that Israel pursues towards its Palestinian subjects.

    This is not in any way to excuse anti-semitism, which I loathe, but to try and explain part of the reason for its growth at this time.

  • Yes, it is essential to distinguish between the actions and beliefs of Jews and the actions of the Israeli government – and there are many vociferous campaigners on both sides of the Middle Eastern conflict who are determined to blur or eliminate that distinction.

    However, as there is equally pernicious racism on both sides, I believe it would be far more productive for us as Liberal Democrats to campaign equally against anti-semitism and anti-Arab prejudice, in the UK as elsewhere – and to make it clear on every possible occasion that these are two sides of the same coin and should not be seen in isolation from one another. This will never be a popular message with those who seek to use real or perceived prejudice against one group to stir up prejudice against the other, but is their racially-driven assumptions that we should be challenging.

    PS I use “anti-Arab prejudice” because its victims are not necessarily Muslim. Most obviously, a large proportion of Arab victims of the Israel/Palestine conflict are Christian.

  • Jenny Tonge 31st Oct '14 - 3:43pm

    I abhor any form of racism. It ia a sign of ignorance more than anything else and maybe we need to look more closely what goes on in our schools, although when my kids were growing up I don’t remember any incidents at all either in the community or at their schools. My extended family is mixed race and religion does not raise its head amongst us thank goodness.
    What really does bother me however is what John Kelly highlighted, that is the unswerving support often from leaders in the Jewish Community for the Israeli government whatever they do, because it is ‘their’ Israel.
    We can all understand how they feel about ‘The Promised Land’, I feel bit like that too,with my Judeao Christian heritage but the present government in Israel is monstrous, runs an apartheid system within Israel and persecutesthe people of the West Bank and Gaza.
    In my opinion they have no intention of making peace or reaching a two state solution .
    It was Moshe Dayan who said, ‘what is wrong with permanent occupation’. That is their policy for the future and so the brutality will continue.
    The saddest thing is all for me is that our politicians do not have the courage to say enough is enough , join Sweden in its recognition of the Palestinian State and call for severe sanctions on Israel until it dismantles settlements, lifts the blockade on Gaza, allows Old Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine with shared Holy sites and allows the refugees to return if they wish to do so.
    Yes, it is a tall order, but it is the only solution and would show that we are consistent in calling for International Law to be applied equally whether we are dealing with President Putin, dictators all over the world, or Bibi Netanyahu and his gang in the Knesset.
    Yes,and I an proud to say that some of my best friends are Jews and I love them dearly and let no one challenge that.

  • Kerry Hutchinson 31st Oct '14 - 4:00pm

    Having worked with an Israeli NGO in the West Bank in the mid-2000s, it is indeed crucial to recognise that not all Israeli citizens, both Jews and non-Jews alike, blindly support their Government’s actions and policies in and towards Gaza and the West Bank. In addition to the Israeli NGO concerned, (the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, supported for many years by the EU), there are a large number of societal groups of Israelis who also campaign for the observance and application of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law by the Knesset in the way successive Israeli administrations deal with the Palestinians.

    What is of increasing concern, against this backdrop, is the growing tactic of condemning such groups as being either self-hating Jews or indeed of being anti-semitic. In other words, labelling critics of Israeli policies as practicing anti-semitism, in the hope thereby of neutralising them. All stakeholders and interested parties must in turn condemn this tactic because it stifles mature debate and is itself a tactic of prejudice.

  • Colin Rosenstiel 31st Oct ’14 – 12:39pm

    Colin, I hope I have not fallen into what you describe as “the usual trap”. Please elaborate if you can point to anything that I have said which indicates that I am in such a trap?

    I chose my words very carefully when I wrote — “.. the identification by Jewish people themselves with the state of Israel ..”

    I am pretty sure that I was not confusing ordinary Jewish people with those that you describe as the “gangster government” of Israel.

    It is, however, an all too obvious fact to anyone who reads the newspapers that many prominent Jewish people in this country, France and particularly the USA, always, at every opportunity, leap to the defence of the ” gangster government ” whatever atrocity it commits .

    This self identification is magnified out of all proportion by the very powerful lobby that works exclusively in support of the Government of Israel.

    As Jenny Tonge said in the House of Lords on Thursday —
    “……I am talking about the activities of the lobby, in this country and in America. AIPAC in America and BICOM here, plus the groups called Friends of Israel in supporting and cajoling and fundraising and launching websites and letter-writing campaigns and e-mail storms, and not supporting MPs or parties if they refuse to give Israel support.
    Those of us who challenge the lobby are threatened and disposed of by our leaders as best they can. David Ward, my colleague in the other place, is currently fighting yet another battle against the lobby as I speak…”

    It was not the government of Israel that painted “Death to all Arabs” on a school wall but people.
    It is not that “gangster government” of Israel that have taken to the social media in the last few days calling for a boycott of all things Swedish, it is people in this country and around the world who identify themselves with the State of Israel and rush to its defence whatever crime it has committed.

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