Monday, 16 November 2015 16:50
Published at Middle East Monitor
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Does that headline and opening sentence make you feel uncomfortable? No? Perhaps this will.
“In some Jews’ hearts these vile gunmen are bringing forward the day of Jewish domination. Secretly they may look forward to that.”
The above quotes are taken, respectively, from articles by Sebastian Shakespeare in the Daily Mail in September, and Kelvin MacKenzie in the Sun newspaper on Monday, post-Paris terrorist attacks. I have, as you have probably already guessed, made some slight alterations to the original text. The word “Muslims” has been replaced with “Jews”. The swap is not merely to highlight the universal nature of prejudice and stereotype, but to remind us of a historic context.
Imagine my redactions as a time machine and we have gone back to 1946. The King David Hotel has just been bombed in Jerusalem, killing 91 people, mainly civilians, at Britain's headquarters in the Palestinian Mandate. The perpetrators were Jewish terrorists, who, impatient for the state of Israel to be established, had decided to kill innocent civilians.
Contrary to the myths that pervade today, large sections of the British public were hostile to Jews before, during and even after the war, goaded by contemporary polemicists of the Shakespeare and MacKenzie kind, and brainwashed by slanted news coverage in publications like the Daily Mail. Jewish immigration was restricted even in the face of pending, contemporaneous and post-genocide, mainly because Jews were considered “unassimilable”. The parallels with today's Syrian refugee crisis are uncanny.
I have no doubt that Kelvin MacKenzie and Sebastian Shakespeare would have been “warning” about Jewish immigration to Britain if they had been working in the 1940s. They would have denied they were being anti-Semitic, of course, but merely pointing out facts. After all, Jews really were carrying out terrorist attacks against British subjects in London, Rome, Cairo and Palestine. Even the White House was sent letter bombs by the same group of Jewish terrorists. Yet just as we do now, the actions of a few resulted in prejudice being dished out against the many.
Bigotry is irrational and timeless; it simply attacks the weakest target at any given time, with only scantly plausible justification. First it was the Jews accused of political conspiracies or terrorism; then it was the Ugandan Asians, who were described by one British media outlet as “parasites” and greeted at the airport by Brits waving placards saying “Go home”; now it is the turn of the Muslims of the Middle East, and even those who are British citizens. Little or no effort is made to understand them, or even to talk to those who are being criticised. How many pundits who criticise Islamists and jihadists so hotly have ever even met one? How many have spent time with conservative Muslims, to test their jaundiced assumptions that they support terrorism?
I despair when know-it-all commentators puff up their chests and declare patronisingly, “Islam is not the problem, Islamism is”, as if this is some sort of extraordinary insight that demonstrates their expertise in these matters. Then you read the accompanying article and discover that they think Islamists are exemplified by Al-Qaeda, Daesh/ISIS or Nigeria’s Boko Haram instead of those groups being, by sheer lack of numbers, the radicals on the extreme fringe.
Take Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for example, which may have well over a million members, with which the British government has, despite its best efforts, failed comprehensively to find any evidence of links to terrorist activity. Or take the “jihadi revisionists” of the late nineties, Egyptian Islamists who convinced thousands of other Islamists to lay down their arms and enter peaceful politics. Or the ordinary peaceful Islamists in Britain today, some of whom have risked a great deal to negotiate the safe release of numerous Western hostages from ISIS and other militants’ hands, only to return home to be smeared by the government and a pliant media as “non-violent extremists”.
This persistent myth that much of Britain was never actively hostile to Jews fleeing the Holocaust prevents serious introspection today about the level of Islamophobia currently gripping Britain. Until the reality of our collective prejudice at that most desperate time in European history is recognised properly, writers like Sebastian Shakespeare and Kelvin MacKenzie will continue to believe that their bigotry is rationalised through present circumstances.
This history denial was exemplified by a recent article in the Daily Express: “Outrage as UN compares not accepting more Syrian refugees to refusing Jewish people in WW2” thundered the headline. The piece was on UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordan’s Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, who reminded the world about, “The 1938 Evian conference, where countries including the UK, US and Australia said admitting large numbers of German and Austrian Jews would strain their economies and societies.”
In response, Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash labelled Hussein's comments “deplorable” and claimed: “Britain took in a huge number of Jews and stood against Hitler. It is not appropriate to use that kind of analogy against those who saved Europe from the kind of abominations that were being perpetrated by Germany.”
It is an absurd claim by Cash, given that before the Jewish refugee crisis, Britain had no immigration controls whatsoever and introduced its first visa system specifically to reduce the flow of refugees from Germany and Austria, who were predominantly Jews. Both Roosevelt and Churchill were keen not to give the impression that the war was being undertaken to save Jews, for fear of provoking an anti-Semitic domestic backlash.
As Leon Silver of East London Central Synagogue, which stands close to the much-defamed East London Mosque, puts it, “What was said about Jews then, they are saying about Muslims now.” The memory of the Holocaust has, certain inaccuracies excluded, produced a near impenetrable legal and moral shield against anti-Semitism for Britain's Jews. Why then, are Muslims suffering in the exact same way that the Jews once did? It's time for a new rule: if you wouldn't say it about a Jew, please don't say it about a Muslim.
You can follow the author on Twitter @AlastairSloan