Anti-Semitism and British Attitudes to Israel

“What is anti-Semitism? What is Zionism?” “Why is there such a focus on anti-Semitism in the media and politics now?” “What does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have to do with modern anti-Semitism?” These are some of the questions discussed in the successful Solutions Not Sides event at the JW3 Community Centre recently.

The Chair of the event, David Joseph QC and panellists Sharon Booth, Muhbeen Hussain, David Rich, and Guy Wilkinson helped provide fantastic insight and debate on the questions above and more. The speakers each opened with a few thoughts and then the audience engaged in a very productive discussion.

At the modern North London JW3 venue, a room with 80 chairs was fully booked to listen to a diverse panel discuss the sensitive and all-too-relevant topic of anti-Semitism. The panel was impressively knowledgeable and each had completely different perspectives on the topic. David, the Chair kept the discussion animated, and briefly mentioned some ideas he hoped would be covered in the evening’s discussion, such as the core problem of defining anti-Semitism, especially in relation to views about Israel. Sharon spoke first about some of the views held by school and university students that participate in Solutions Not Sides sessions. The audience was visibly shocked to hear that such young students were becoming polarised about Israel and Palestine in certain areas of the UK, with these feelings sometimes turning into both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic mentalities, and often springing from narratives and conspiracy theories propagated by hard-line political positions on both the right and left of the political spectrum, as well as in extremist religious circles.

Muhbeen’s perspective was illuminating as he recounted his journey learning to consider a variety of perspectives and viewpoints and how he hopes to help others in his community, particularly where there are deep-rooted issues of anti-Semitism, to understand other religions and ideas. He was an extremely relational and down-to-earth speaker and had the audience laughing, which was unexpected due to the serious nature of the topic. His cheerful demeanour, willingness to engage openly and honestly with the audience and other panellists combined with his respect for the Jewish communities to make his contribution to the panel particularly valuable.

The mood turned much more serious as it was David Rich’s turn to present his ideas. Due to his job he was able to shed light on how these dangerous attitudes manifest themselves in the lives of members of the British Jewish communities. David also provided a wealth of knowledge on Zionism and anti-Zionists and he and the other panellists and the audience engaged in a very enlightening discussion on the connections of anti-Semitism to anti-Zionism.

As a representative from the Christian Anglican community, Guy provided a valuable historical, as well as modern, perspective to the discussion. He discussed a broader view of the role of religion in society in general, and Christianity’s involvement in perpetuating anti-Semitism historically, as well as about various approaches and attitudes towards Israel in the light of the current situation in the Middle East. His view was pragmatic and clear about legitimate criticism of government policy, and unacceptable prejudice towards Israelis and Jews generally.

As the audience then engaged in discussions and asked questions, the atmosphere was very open-minded and questions were raised about religion’s role in nationalism, specifically in the case of Israel. One gentleman stood up from the back of the room and asked, “What makes the Israel-Palestine conflict so divisive as opposed to other land occupation and religious issues across the globe?” The ensuing discussion about identity politics in the UK was extremely interesting and helped the audience think more deeply about anti-Semitism and current religious discrimination against both Jews and Muslims. 

SNS is planning another event soon about Islamophobia - look out for more details towards the end of the summer!