I am a proud Jew from London who has attended Shabbat (Sabbath) morning services in the state of Pennsylvania. My wife's good friend lives in Philadelphia, with her husband and children, so we have had occasion to visit them a few times and share the joy of the Sabbath with them.
The recent appalling attack, therefore, on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was particularly shocking and depressing. The eleven people who were killed, along with the six injured, were in synagogue to worship. They were doing a an ordinary thing, going about their lives.
But they were attacked for being Jews, in a despicable attack of antisemitism. It was the worst attack on the Jewish community in US history, in a land where over the years Jews have flourished and, on the whole, been embraced.
The Pittsburgh attack showed the ongoing potency of antisemitism across the world, sometimes called, the world’s oldest hatred. At the Council of Christians and Jews, which was set up by Archbishop William Temple and his Jewish counterpart in 1942, we have been running a campaign called "Still an Issue" since 2015.
Antisemitism is not one consistent body of thought, more a smorgasbord of different prejudices directed at Jews. It has understandably been compared to a virus that mutates. In a speech in 2002, former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks called it “the most successful ideology of modern times”, explaining: “Fascism came and went. Soviet communism came and went. Antisemitism came and stayed.”
There are three key points to note about contemporary antisemitism in the UK.
1. Antisemitism can come from anywhere
Whereas once it came from the far-right, its sources nowadays are far more complicated. It now runs across the spectrum to include the “New Left”, as demonstrated by the ongoing problems in the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour party.
Antisemitism also finds a welcome home in extreme parts of the Muslim communities in the UK. An ICM poll published in 2016 worryingly showed that British Muslims are far more likely to hold anti-Semitic views than the general British population. Unfortunately antisemitism and other hatreds have found expression on social media, and there have been traces across different areas of British public life from Parliament and university campuses to trade unions and even churches.
2. Extreme hatred of Israel can be motivated by antisemitism
It goes without saying that criticising the policies of the government of Israel is not anti-Semitic in itself. But holding Israel to different standards to other countries or denying its right to exist is.
Zionism, which is simply the belief of the Jewish people to have its own homeland, has become a smear and form of abuse in certain circles. In spite of this, it is interesting that there is an honourable tradition of Christian Zionism in Britain, which climaxed with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, inspired by the religious outlook of Arthur Balfour.
3. Antisemitism is growing in Britain today
Far from being a problem of the past, antisemitism is a growing phenomenon in Britain today. We must always take a deep breath and appreciate the overall context. Britain is one of the most tolerant countries in the world and, in general terms, has been a welcoming home for the Jewish community.
The picture, however, is not all rosy. The latest figures from the Community Security Trust, the charity which protects the Jewish community, showed over 1,300 recorded antisemitic incidents, a 3% increase from the previous year. Evidence of this troubling situation can be seen on the streets of north London in areas with a strong Jewish population. Indeed, when my two young children are dropped at their Jewish school every morning, they walk past two security guards. Similarly, when I attend synagogue every week, there are a number of volunteer and "professional" security guards on duty.
Signs of hope
Amidst the sorrow of Pittsburgh, there are signs of hope. Since the attack there has been an outbreak of solidarity and unity within the Jewish community.
In London, a vigil attended by the Chief Rabbi and senior politicians, was held just two days after the attack. Christian friends have reacted with empathy. The Archbishop of Canterbury tweeted: "We stand together in deep sorrow and prayer with Jewish people everywhere as they mourn the victims of the Pittsburgh attacks."
More strikingly perhaps, American Muslims have come to the fore, raising more than $120,000 for the families affected.
Antisemitism is not just a problem for Jews but for the whole of society. While the attack showed the worst of humanity, the support offered by Christian friends and others are a sign of sanity and hope in these anxious times.
Zaki Cooper is a Trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews
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