Antisemitism Denial — An English Intellectual Speciality

A German translation of this article appeared in Die Presse (Vienna) on 7 November 2013. The original English text appears here with the author’s permission. Dr. Denis MacShane, a former British MP and Foreign Office minister writes widely on European politics. His Globalising Hatred: The New Antisemitism (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) appeared in 2008.  See also Defending History’s Denis MacShane section.


by Denis MacShane

England has the most provincial intellectual class in Europe. Very few professors (unless they are foreign language teachers or specialists in say French or Italian history) will speak and read a foreign language fluently. They do not pick up Le Monde, Der Spiegel or El Pais and wait, sometime for years, for a translation of a key work published in a European language to appear in London.

On the foundation of Israel, few English intellectuals appear to have heard of the Cambon Declaration which preceded the Balfour Declaration by several months and committed France to recognizing and supporting a homeland for the Jewish people on the east Mediterranean shoreline close to Jerusalem which had been a Jewish city for millennia. Of course the fact of the mandate going to Britain made the Balfour Declaration more important but one can read scores of contemporary polemical accounts of the creation of Israel without ever knowing that France was as supportive as Britain of the rights of Jews to create a homeland and state. But that requires some knowledge of French and some interest in history beyond England.

The argument that concerns over antisemitism which can be read daily in obnoxious tweets or with sly references to Jews controlling the media or world capitalism are somehow artificial and invented only to support the policies of the current Israeli government is a peculiar English obsession, a hobby-horse of marginal intellectuals in search of profile. One of these is Brian Klug who has been invited to a major Berlin symposium 8-9 November to represent British views on the problem of modern antisemitism.

As the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland has recently written, antisemitism in modern English discourse is coded and diffuse. “Unless antisemitism comes dressed in an SS uniform and doing a Hitler salute, we are regularly thrown into confusion. Suddenly we are in the seminar room, calling on experts to tell us whether or not this or that sentence was anti-Jewish, the debate usually ending without clear resolution. To add to the complexity, very often Jews disagree among themselves, with just as many willing to give the disputed word or deed a free pass as to condemn it,” Freedland wrote.

Into the latter category falls Dr. Klug who teaches at the Benedictine monks’ Oxford base called St. Benet’s Hall. In recent years he has made it a central element of his writing to attack anyone who says that modern antisemitism does exist and is real. To be sure there are Israel loyalists who denounce as antisemitic any questioning of Israeli state policy in relation to land occupied since 1967 and to the discriminatory treatment of others living under Israeli control. There is the invention of the ugly trope — the “self-hating Jew” — to condemn any Jew who does not uncritically support what the current rightist government in Israel does. But the more worrying category consists surely of the deniers that antisemitism exists today. As a non-Jew I wrote a book in 2008 called Globalising Hatred: the new Antisemitism (Weidenfeld and Nicolson). It was a follow-up to work undertaken by a Committee of Inquiry into Antisemitism set up by the British House of Commons which I chaired after standing down as deputy Foreign Secretary in 2005.

Both my book and the parliamentary inquiry revealed example of modern antisemitism in Britain which should be a cause for concern. Certainly the British government thought so as ministers adopted and today still apply many of the committee’s recommendations aimed at exposing and tackling modern antisemitism. Predictably the book was attacked by Brian Klug as a leading antisemitism denier. He, like others, is also obsessed with the European Union’s concerns about antisemitism. The EU’s Monitoring Committee definition of antisemitism elaborated in 2005 has rightly won praise as a major, scholarly and balanced effort to put into words what 21st century antisemitism consists of. It has been the object of a sustained attack by ideologies, notably Islamist, but also from anti-Israel leftists or trade unionists who want to eliminate from contemporary politics the concept that antisemitism still exists.

Klug is of course entitled to his views but his obsession with antisemitism denial weakens and distorts the current English discussion of antisemitism. Instead of a mature discussion about today’s European antisemitism — for example an examination of how far it is has been expunged from the Front National in France or its place in extreme parties like Jobbik in Hungary — endless time is wasted on whether accusations of antisemitism are invented by Israel to divert attention from its policies. As is well known the English Jewish community tends to caution and to avoid confrontation or differences with the English establishment. Thus the paradox arises that the non-Jewish friends of Jews are often pushed to one side while Jewish deniers of antisemitism like Klug are given a free run. That is the price paid for provincialism and the inability of English intellectuals to think and argue in universal categories and their unwitting habit of substituting pre-1939 dislike of Jews by modern dislike of Israel. In continental Europe there are more serious worries such as concern at the extraordinary declaration by parliamentarians on the Council of Europe opposing circumcision and equating it with female genital mutilation. To insult and patronize all Muslims, Jews and most American parents who circumcize their baby boys seems grotesque even by the standards of the wilder vaporings of European bodies.

There is also the permanent campaign by European rightists to equate Hitler with Stalin and promote the “Double-Genocide” devaluation of the Holocaust into just another massacre. This has led Baltic states to elevate Nazi collaborators and Jew-killers into the status of national heroes because they opposed the Soviet Union.

But in England the main obsession of many academics is with accusing people who raise concerns about antisemitism of doing so simply and solely as a form of pro-Israel advocacy. Klug leads that charge and in every sense is a very English intellectual. Meanwhile those who do not think the beast is buried will continue to watch and give witness to modern expressions of Jew-hate in whatever guise they appear.

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