If we don't tackle dinner party anti-semites, we're no better than the racists who called me 'Paki'

Paki. It’s a hard, ugly word, and it’s one I heard too many times in the high streets and playgrounds of the 1970s and 80s. Today it’s considered completely unacceptable, sitting alongside the N-word in the dictionary of bigotry. I’m sure many of you will even have done a double-take simply when you saw it in print. After all, such racism, prejudice and hatred has no place in decent society.

At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. But as almost any British Jew will be able to tell you, the truth is very different. Antisemitism is making a comeback right here in the UK. In August, the Community Security Trust reported that the number of antisemitic incidents had reached the second-highest level in recorded history. In London the figure leapt by an appalling 62 per cent.

I know that hatred, bigotry and discrimination remain a fact of daily life for far too many people in this country. But what makes the recent surge in antisemitism stand out – and what makes it particularly worrying – is the number and range of people who are prepared to ignore it, excuse it and, worst of all, indulge in it.

Some are the usual suspects – the hate preachers, the far right groups, the Holocaust deniers. But then there are the ‘dinner party antisemites’. The respectable, middle-class people who would recoil in horror if you accused them of racism, but are quite happy to repeat modern takes on age-old myths about Jews. Who can’t condemn the murder of Jewish children in France without a caveat criticising the Israeli government. Who demand that a Jewish American artist sign a declaration of support for Palestine if he wants to perform at a festival in Spain.

I can’t remember the last time I spoke to a Jewish friend or colleague who hasn’t, at some point, found themselves sitting awkwardly at a party while a fellow guest railed against the international ‘kosher conspiracy’.

As for mainstream politics, the situation is best summed up by a tweet sent from a recent debate in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency: “Meeting now dissolving into an open argument about whether randomly blaming Jews for things is antisemitic”.

Some say this doesn’t matter, that it’s only words. That the best way to deal with abuse is to simply ignore it. They couldn’t be more wrong.

For one thing there’s the obvious trauma this kind of abuse causes to its victims, trauma that is only amplified by efforts to downplay the problem.

More than that, the mainstream embrace of low-level, casual bigotry creates fertile ground in which the noxious weed of antisemitism can take root and grow. Just as one broken window in a neighbourhood, left unrepaired, leads to a climate in which vandalism and decay is seen as a normal part of life, so casual antisemitism, left unchallenged, leads to an atmosphere in which extremism, and then violence, will thrive.

And it’s also a problem for society as a whole. Casual bigotry and lazy stereotypes create division. They put people in boxes, build barriers between us. As long as we define other people by their differences rather than recognising what we have in common, we’ll struggle to build solid, coherent communities.

The Government is taking concrete action to tackle antisemitism. For example, we’ve already provided well over £13 million for improved security measures at Jewish schools, synagogues and community centres. But I don’t want to see any minority group forced to live behind walls and under guard. That’s why it’s so important that all of us tackle the attitudes that fuel such prejudice. Our new plan for tackling hate crime of all kinds – launched in July – sets out some of the steps we’ll be taking to achieve this.

But we all need to get better at speaking up when we see antisemitism. I know that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us. We’re British, after all – we don’t like making a scene. My dad, who came to this country from Pakistan, used to joke that he knew he’d become British the first time someone trod on his foot and he apologised to them. But this simmering, lingering prejudice against Jews can only be stopped in its tracks if we call it out for what it is. Racism.

We mustn’t allow ourselves to think that prejudice is something limited to foul-mouthed thugs on the streets of our inner cities. Sometimes the problem is much closer to home. Sometimes, the problem is people just like us. And if we don’t take a stand against it, we’re no better than the racists who felt free to call my family ‘Pakis’ all those years ago.

 

This essay appears in ‘Lessons learned? Reflections on antisemitism and the Holocaust’published by the Holocaust Educational Trust and Community Security Trust on 25th September