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Reflections on the 2019 UK Election: Antisemitism in Europe

In the lead-up to Britain’s divisive general election on December 12, 2019, one particular and controversial issue seemed to be on the minds of many: antisemitism. Charges of institutional antisemitism were made against both the Labour and Conservative parties, while a Scottish National Party (SNP) candidate was deselected for posting antisemitic material online. But these allegations were directed especially at Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and at the ways in which he and other Labour party members handled them. 

As a Holocaust researcher who has borne witness to the spike in antisemitic discrimination in Europe (and elsewhere) over the last five years, I was pleased to see this issue finally being bought to national attention and taken seriously. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel that some members of the right and far-right outside the Jewish community were instrumentalizing antisemitism for the purpose of the general election, only to allow the topic to fade away into obscurity in the days following. 

The increasing presence of antisemitism within British politics is inextricably linked to the far-right turn toward nationalism in Europe, characterized by a rise in the discrimination of Jews and other minorities. While antisemitism does not uniquely belong to the political right or left, it is important that we recognize the significance of Europe’s rightward shift and the ways in which it normalizes the discrimination of Jews and antisemitic discourse. 

The newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemned Corbyn in a pre-election speech for being an “antisemitism condoner,” among other things. Yet Johnson’s own novel Seventy-Two Virgins (2004) describes a Jewish character with caricature-like “semitic” features, such as a “hooked nose,” and refers to election-rigging Jewish “oligarchs.” Other high-profile Conservative politicians who have used antisemitic slurs include the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who called two Jewish Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) “members of the Illuminati,” while the Conservative MP for Lincoln, Karl McCartney, retweeted racist and antisemitic posts from former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, for which he later apologized.

Endorsement for the Conservative party came from outspoken far-right British figures like Katie Hopkins, who blamed the 2018 Pittsburgh Massacre on “the Chief Rabbi and his support for mass migration across the [Mediterranean]” and called on Twitter for a “Final Solution” of Islam after the 2017 Manchester terror attack. These are precisely the kinds of comments that emboldened individuals to commit antisemitic hate crimes in the weeks leading up to the election, such as the violent beating of a rabbi in Stamford Hill and the abuse of a Jewish man and his son on a London bus

Despite its known history of antisemitism and racism, the Conservative Party, and some of its supporters, has strategically exploited antisemitism to target Labour while failing to address bigotry within its own ranks and facilitating Jewish discrimination elsewhere in Europe. Johnson has shown continued support for, and has actively defended, antisemitic European far-right parties, such as Poland’s PiS (Law and Justice) party and Hungary’s Fidesz (Hungarian Civic) party, led by Jarosław Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán respectively. The openly antisemitic and anti-Muslim far-right extremist group Britain First claimed recently that 5,000 of its members have joined the Conservative Party in the weeks following the general election. The appeal of the Conservative Party to a far-right organization like Britain First demonstrates its bolstering of extremist politics that have targeted Jews elsewhere in Europe. 

Like other forms of ethnic, religious, and racialized discrimination, antisemitism is a structural issue as well as one that manifests in individual instances of prejudice and persecution, and is not just a modern or contemporary phenomenon. This means it cannot be invoked only when politically convenient; rather, critical conversations about the treatment of Jewish people should be sustained and ongoing. All forms of antisemitic discrimination need to be investigated and challenged, whether they occur on the streets or within political parties.

The World Jewish Congress has reported “an alarming rise in antisemitism across the globe in recent years” aided by “the growth of extreme far-right parties in Europe.” Like those in Poland, Hungary, and across the continent, these European parties promote the sovereignty of the nation at the expense of minorities, and have taken advantage of the increasingly fragmented European Union to bolster their populist appeal. Their positing of a homogenous society in preference to one that is multicultural has had a direct and profound impact on Jewish life. Renewed hostility toward Jews—which has also been fuelled by neo-Nazi activity—as scapegoats for economic and migration-related problems in these countries has made Jewish people feel unwelcome and fearful for their safety.

A 2019 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights recently found that 90 percent of European Jews consider antisemitism to have risen in their home countries over the last five years, while antisemitic hate crimes in England and Wales have more than doubled in 2018-19 compared to the previous year. Despite this, and despite the increasingly commonplace antisemitic harassment and abuse in Britain and Europe, discrimination against Jews rarely receives the serious attention it deserves from the mainstream media (beyond the attention it does get from tabloids eager to exploit slurs against the left, for instance).

The aforementioned report reveals some notable differences in how and where the discrimination of Jews takes place between EU Member States. Antisemitism on the internet and via social media platforms is increasing across Europe, and also manifests in public spaces, politics, and the media. Jews in Britain, however, have expressed particular concerns about discrimination in the political sphere in the last two years. The report states that “a large majority of respondents” in the UK as well as in Hungary and Poland “consider antisemitism in political life to be a problem,” whereas respondents from France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands deem antisemitic hostility on the streets to be more prevalent. 

Britain’s particular form of antisemitism also differs from those in parts of Europe where a greater degree of Holocaust self-scrutiny is involved. Ruling European parties associated with the far-right have helped to drive contemporary antisemitism and Holocaust denial via minimizing, and even revising, their antisemitic pasts while delegitimizing self-critical attempts to expose uncomfortable memories of the Holocaust on their own territories. 

In Central and Eastern Europe, where the Holocaust largely took place, the memory of Jewish murder and persecution is still being brought to light after the collapse of communism in 1989 ended Soviet-era censorship. In recent years, a number of authors, artists, and filmmakers have sought to represent the localized killings of Jews outside the camps in these post-communist territories and the complicity and collaboration of some gentile neighbors in their murder and dispossession.

Such is the case in Poland, where the Jewish population was almost totally annihilated during the war, and where the (now-decriminalized) Holocaust law of 2018 prevented the attribution of Nazi crimes to the nation. Contemporary Polish films like Władysław Pasikowski’s Aftermath (2012) and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) have proven controversial in their exposure of Polish murder and dispossession in wartime pogroms like that of Jedwabne in the summer of 1941, in which Jews were burned alive in a barn by Polish villagers.

These works tend to elicit two types of response by audiences: Some are pleased to be uncovering their previously repressed national histories and others are affronted by it. Pasikowski’s film, for instance, has been praised by many for its uncompromising depiction of wartime Polish behaviour and for the implicit lines it draws between this repressed past and contemporary denial and antisemitism in Poland. Yet it has also been attacked by the right-wing media and press for its portrayal of Poles as perpetrators as well as victims during the Holocaust years. Polish Catholic actor Maciej Stuhr even received “antisemitic” abuse and death threats for his role as a Pole sympathizing with Jews in Aftermath.   

This particular media response applies to the works of other countries where local complicity took place, like Hungary or Romania—the latter home to director Radu Jude, whose 2018 film I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians deals with the Holocaust on Romanian soil. The film—a dark comedy that undermines nationalist mythologies and satirizes Soviet heroism—reconstructs the mass shooting of Ukrainian Jews by Romanian soldiers in the 1941 Odessa Massacre in order to confront Romania’s dark past and resurgent antisemitism. As Keith Watson points out in his recent review of the film, “Most disturbing of all is the idea put forth in the film’s conclusion: that one could present the truth to the public in all its brutality and horror, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

Kenneth Stern, who drafted the International Holocaust Remebrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, wrote in a recent article that “antisemitism thrives best when leaders stoke the human capacity to define an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ and where the integrity of democratic institutions and norms (such as free speech) are under assault.” While it might be difficult to believe that no one would care if the violent antisemitism of their own nation were revealed to them, as in Jude’s Holocaust film, the more structural processes of Jewish othering are not always easy to detect. To be allies to Jewish people, it is important that the European public harness a greater awareness of structural antisemitism as well as overtly antisemitic politicians and political parties, and their very real impact on how the Jewish community is treated.

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How to cite this page

Baker, Emily-Rose. "Reflections on the 2019 UK Election: Antisemitism in Europe." 7 January 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 6, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/reflections-2019-uk-election-antisemitism-europe>.

Bacon's standard map of Europe, 1923. Relief shown by hachures and spot heights. Shows steamship routes and time zones. Published by Weber Costello Co. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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