Slogans like “Zionism is Nazism” and “Israelis are fascists” are most likely to be shouted by far-left radicals, of the type that perform the “weekly hajj” to throw stones and bricks at IDF soldiers at Bil'in. But they didn't invent those slogans – and neither did anyone else on the left, says Professor Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University.
“Those slogans – and that world view – was the stock in trade of the British elites, who spread stories about Zionism being totalitarian and Nazi during the 1930s and 40s.”
It's just one aspect of a long and rich history of Jew-hatred in Britain, says Wistrich, considered one of the world's leading experts on anti-Semitism, who is a frequent contributor to INN.
Britain, he says, has historically been one of the most anti-Semitic countries in Western Europe; not quite Germany, but far worse than France, for example. “Certainly today Britain is at the forefront of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism,” he says.
“For example, it's where the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement against Israel was first developed, and has been the most successful.” The headlines – British labor unions and universities banning Israeli products and academics, the British government's obsession with arresting IDF officers for “war crimes,” - are well known to Israelis.
Britain is also the world's fountain of disinformation and lies about Israel and Jews, says Wistrich, with the British media - “the quality press, like the Independent and Guardian, the BBC and other media outlets, the churches, etc. - spreading the worst caricatures and falsehoods about Israelis, how they treat Arabs, and the like.”
Wistrich, himself born in England – “this gives me greater insight into the nuances and meanings of press reports and attitudes,” he says – presented this history at a recent symposium hosted by Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA), titled “From Blood Libel to Boycott: The Changing Face of British anti-Semitism,” an historic evaluation of British anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism over the years.
And there is indeed much history to evaluate. Britain is not usually thought of as anti-Semitic country; it hasn't had a long history of pogroms, for example, although there was persecution and murder and York was the scene of a particularly cruel pogrom in the MIddle Ages. Although Jews were forbidden from living in the country for hundreds of years, it's very striking that Britain has had such an extensive history of anti-Semitism.
Britain was where the blood libel – which persisted in Europe for centuries and has had a revival in the Muslim world today (there was even one in upstate New York in 1928) was invented, Wistrich says. “William of Norwich was allegedly crucified by the Jews, to duplicate the crucifixion of Jesus. This was the first time in European history that such a charge was made, and it quickly spread throughout England, and then to France.”
Britain was also responsible for the first expulsion of Jews, in 1290, another “innovation” that was later copied by other European countries. And although Jews were not allowed to return for at least 350 years, British literature – from Chaucer to Shakespeare, who may never have met a Jew – was rife with Jew-hatred. “Most people see Britain as the birthplace of tolerance and democracy, which it may have been – but not for the Jews,” Wistrich says.
In modern times, British attempts to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel are well known. Although the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the “Arabists” in the Foreign Office – who were the vast majority and set British foreign policy – very quickly worked to drop their obligations of setting up a Jewish state in mandatory Palestine. They had no problem lopping off three quarters of the Mandate to establish the Arab mandatory state, Transjordan.
And as the Nazis closed in on European Jewry, British officials went out of their way to prevent Jews from escaping to the one place where they had a chance of survival – the Jewish communities of the Land of Israel.
The attitude of the British elites, both in the Land of Israel and in London, is striking. “There are many communications between Colonial Office officials in London and Mandatory officials in Palestine discussing the evils of Zionism and Zionists,” says Wistrich. “The Zionists were accused of being Nazi-like, mistreating Arabs and considering themselves to be the 'master race' of Palestine; the youth movements were compared to Nazi Youth; and the Jews were seen to be at the heart of a cabal that sought to take over the world.”
Among the worst offenders was John Bagot Glubb, known as Pasha Glubb, who took command of Jordan's Arab Legion during Israel's War of Independence. Glubb's hatred for Israel and Jews extended to his advocacy of the theory that modern Jewry is descended from the Khazars – another “gem” that was also embraced by British elites, and eventually the Arabs, as well.
Many Israelis attribute Britain's anti-Israel stances today to the large number of Muslims in the country – and the fear among ordinary Britons of what could happen to them if they don't toe the “Muslim line.”
But that influence is a bit overblown, Wistrich says. “Most demographers believe that there are between 2.5 million and 3 million Muslims in Britain – a substantial number, but less than the 6 million in France, whose official institutions and elites are far less hostile to Jews and Israel.”
No, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is something the British themselves have to take responsibility for. “Since 1945 – and especially since 1967 – Israel can do no right in the eyes of England,” Wistrich says. “Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism may not be official British government policy anymore, but among the elites and those with the most influence in society, it's all too common.”