LAST WEEK David Hirsh resigned from the Labour Party. He was, he wrote, fed up with being humiliated by anti-Semitism. “I have fought it for years, in the student movement, in the academic unions and in the Labour Party. I won’t subject myself to it any longer.” But the 51-year-old sociology lecturer, and author of a book called “Contemporary Left Anti-Semitism”, is not only worried by what is happening in the Labour Party: he sees a conspiratorial outlook spreading across the political spectrum. “When people talk about cosmopolitans, citizens of nowhere or the Rothschilds, I kind of think they are talking about me and my kids,” he says, “even if we don’t own any banks at all.”
He is not alone. A recent survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found that three-quarters of British Jews believe anti-Semitism is a problem, up from half in 2012. There has been a rise in the number of recorded anti-Semitic incidents, which range from graffiti to physical violence. The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity, counted 1,652 such incidents in 2018, the highest annual total since it began in 1984. In the past, anti-Semitic incidents have tracked events in the Middle East, with violence against Jews in the West mirroring wars involving Israel. This time that is not the case.
So far polls show no evidence of an uptick in anti-Semitism in broader British society. And British people are by any measure less anti-Semitic than those in most countries, notes Jonathan Boyd of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), a London-based think-tank. A study by his organisation in 2017 found that 5% of Britons could be considered anti-Semitic, with another 25% holding at least one anti-Semitic attitude.
But some worry that people may come to adopt more strongly held views if they are exposed to them in public life. And under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour Party has faced repeated accusations of tolerating anti-Semitism in its ranks. On February 27th the party suspended Chris Williamson, an MP, after a video emerged of him telling applauding activists that Labour had been “too apologetic” about anti-Semitism. The previous week Luciana Berger, a Jewish Labour MP, quit the party after a campaign of anti-Semitic harassment. Louise Ellman, from a nearby Liverpool constituency, has faced similar abuse.
On the streets of Ms Ellman’s constituency, Gemma, a 53-year-old IT lecturer and party member, argues that any problems in Labour “have been blown out of all proportion to suit other people’s agendas”. Steve Lawler, a 70-year-old pensioner waiting for a bus, believes that “it’s a coup, like a smear campaign by Labour Friends of Israel”, an organisation Ms Ellman helps run. He is hopeful that Mr Corbyn will be able to create a fairer society—“if Mossad doesn’t assassinate him before then.”
The JPR study found that people on the left were no more likely than others to hold anti-Semitic opinions. But the same was not true of those with ardent anti-Israel views. Many of the most high-profile cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party have arisen in debates about the politics of the Middle East. Party members sometimes then resort to anti-Semitism in an attempt to defend their side, often deploying cruder tropes based on notions of disloyalty or control of finance, the media or government, says Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, a representative group.
The rise in anti-Semitic incidents counted by the CST could be because victims are becoming more willing to record them. But many Jewish leaders suspect something else is going on. Social media not only offer a means to spread bile, they also help to bring people with different hatreds together. One analysis of discussion on a far-right website found that 60% of posts on feminism also mentioned Jews. And Dave Rich of the CST thinks some are taking encouragement from the failure to punish anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. “Certain views,” he warns, “are no longer confined to dingy rooms above pubs.”