The New Anti-Semitism

In his massive new book, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0-19-929705-4, £25.00), Anthony Julius devotes two long and controversial chapters to the ‘new anti-Semitism’, which emerged (according to him) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in consequence of the Six Day War, and has become hegemonic in the 1990s and 2000s.

He sees this as the fourth in a line of English anti-Semitisms which he traces back to the early Middle Ages. The new anti-Semitism is characterized by an anti-Zionism which has secular and confessional (Muslim, Jewish and Christian) manifestations and is directed against the very existence, as well as the actions, of the state of Israel. For Julius, it would appear, to be anti-Israel is to be anti-Jew.

Julius himself makes little use of quantitative data in his book. However, against this background, it is interesting to note the latest in a series of international polls conducted, across 28 countries between November 2009 and February 2010, for the BBC World Service by the polling firm GlobeScan, together with the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. In the UK a nationally representative sample of 1,020 adults aged 18 and over was interviewed by telephone between 8 December 2009 and 15 January 2010. The GlobeScan/PIPA report will be found at:

Respondents were asked whether they thought a selection of countries had a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world. Attitudes to Israel were found to be widely negative, with 24 countries giving an unfavourable evaluation and just two a positive one (the remaining two being divided). The range in those indicating they had a mainly negative view of Israel was from 29% in India to 92% in Egypt.

The UK occupied a middle position, with 50% of its citizens having a mainly negative perception of Israel. This was identical to the average for all 28 nations, but significantly more than in the United States and Commonwealth countries, and rather less than among some of our nearest European neighbours (with 57% in France, 60% in Spain and 68% in Germany) and the five majority-Muslim populations surveyed.

Just 17% of adults in the UK had mainly positive views of Israel, the third lowest figure in UK citizens’ assessment of 17 different countries. Only Iran (10% mainly positive, 59% mainly negative, -49% net) and North Korea (13% mainly positive, 53% mainly negative, -40% net) fared worse, although Pakistan (-25%) was also poorly regarded.

The net -33% rating for Israel in the UK compared, at the other end of the scale, with +55% in the case of Germany and +47% for Japan, both former Second World War enemies. Other high figures were +54% for Canada, +43% for the UK itself (well, at least we have some self-esteem left), +37% for India and +32% for the European Union.

For a longer-term perspective on this issue, reference may be made to the essay by Clive Field on ‘John Bull’s Judeophobia: Images of the Jews in British Public Opinion Polls since the late 1930s’, Jahrbuch für Antisemitismusforschung, Vol. 15, 2006, pp. 259-300, and especially to the table on page 281 which shows British sympathies in the Middle East conflict between 1955 and 2006.   

Field’s summation of the opinion poll findings on attitudes to Israel was as follows:

  • Post-independence Israel has attracted its highest levels of sympathy from the British public when it has appeared in danger and in an ‘underdog’ position, especially in 1956 (Suez Crisis), 1967 (Six Day War), 1973 (Yom Kippur War) and 1990-91 (Gulf War)
  • Public support for Israel’s position in the Middle East conflict has steadily collapsed after 1967, from an average 52 per cent at that time to 18 per cent in 2002-06
  • Increasingly it has been felt that Israel should withdraw to its original frontiers, abandon the lands taken by military action since 1967, and dismantle the Jewish settlements on the West Bank
  • While strong opposition to PLO terrorism against Israel has been manifest, the British public has increasingly protested against Israel’s perceived disproportionate use of military might against its opponents, especially in Lebanon after 1982 and in the occupied territories; the Palestinians have also been steadily winning the moral and political arguments
  • Of very recent years Israel has started to be seen in Britain as a significant threat to world peace, and its actions against the Palestinians as adversely affecting Muslim attitudes towards the West
  • Even discounting the impact of the Middle East conflict, Israel’s standing on social, political and general measures has become exceedingly low in relation to many other countries
  • Anti-Israeli sentiment has probably marginally raised the general level of anti-Semitism, although most Britons are at pains to decouple the two phenomena and to stress that enmity towards Israel does not equate with hostility towards Jews

This last point, encapsulating a clear distinction between anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments, is one which Julius appears to struggle to comprehend, still less to accept.

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