Viewing UK Anti-Semitism Through the Lens of ‘Civilization’
One of the issues in the recent U.K. general election was excessive immigration. Did this represent a burgeoning xenophobia within British society – an effort to scapegoat minorities for current economic ills?
Jews in the U.K. are asking similar questions.
Is anti-Semitism returning to daily British life? Are Jews welcome in Europe? Does criticism of Israel equate to anti-Semitism? What do repeated European attempts to outlaw kosher and halal meat mean?
If actress Maureen Lipman is reported to be considering emigrating from the U.K. because she no longer feels safe as a British Jew, can the government assure the community otherwise?
The British Empire exported civilization ethos during the period of Imperialism, and it was often seen as the embodiment of civilization. But pre – and post-Empire events can often challenge that view – especially when it comes to the Jews.
We begin with the Middle Ages, when England’s Jews were accused, without evidence, of murdering several Christians, including children. Religious motivations were ascribed. These blood libels, in part, led to the expulsion of Jews from England from 1290 to 1655. Later on, during the era of Jack the Ripper, the killer was at first assumed to be a Jew by many in the press and in ‘civilized’ society. Today the prospect of a new blood libel preys on Jewish minds – as a Liberal Democrat in the U.K. has alleged, without evidence, that Israeli soldiers harvest organs of earthquake victims.
The concept of a civilized society changed since World War II. Since then, no Western European countries have faced an imminent danger to their existence. Thus, these countries are averse to – and often oppose – any military conflict. While this approach is often laudable, many other times it is not.
For some countries, like Israel, taking up arms is the only way to defend and preserve civilization. The rest of the West seems to no longer understand what a precarious existence is like. Regardless of other issues – be it the Palestinians, missiles from Gaza, or the nuclear ambitions of Iran – the Israelis’ prime directive should understandably remain to secure the country’s continued existence.
This aversion to violence can also be found in the proposed ban on “ritual slaughter” – and replacing it with stunning animals. It is a move that would only apply to religious Jews and Muslims. It is imperative to look at the language employed. “Slaughter” is a violent term whose synonyms include barbarism, brutality, and a lack of civilization. “Stunning”, however, conveys a less violent process that hides the animal’s ultimate fate: butchery.
For Jewish communities, the term “ritual slaughter” re-invokes the blood libel. It is also reminiscent of a time fifty years ago in North America when hotels displayed notices reading “No dogs or Jews allowed” – and also evokes pre-Holocaust restrictions against Jewish life.
I do not believe the British are xenophobic – but they do discriminate against the uncivilized. This bias transforms into racism when applied unequally to analogous situations. Unfortunately, this is what is happening today in the U.K. regarding both Jews and the State of Israel.
There is an urgent need to understand the inherited and evolving notions of civilization in Europe in order to understand modern day anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Britain and elsewhere.