Recent comments by members of the British Labour party have prompted a much needed and overdue public debate regarding anti-Semitism among British politicians, its festering within the British establishment, and its effect on British policy towards Israel.
These unpleasant comments – ranging from associating Hitler with Zionism to blood libels claiming the Islamic State is an Israeli creation – do not necessarily reflect, however, a change from the traditional British mindset or the political bon ton.
The position of the British government is and has been pro-Arab since the early days of the British Empire. Britain is responsible for crowning and educating many members of the Middle East’s royal families and founding many of the region’s post-colonial monarchies, as well as establishing many of their national petroleum companies that are strategically designed to cater to British interests. These relations are maintained through a constant flow of economic, military, political and cultural exchange initiatives. For decades, the majority of Gulf and Arab royalty and military elite have been educated in Oxbridge and Sandhurst, leading to strong personal connections with the British upper class. Britain is also heavily invested in Middle Eastern economies and politics. British citizens, technicians, managers and investors may be found in every oil-producing country in the region from Iraq to Oman. Late model British weapon systems and aircraft are found in Arab states’ order of battle.
In addition, some 100,000 British troops served in Palestine during the latter years of the Mandate period and relations with the Jews struggling to establish a Jewish state were often highly toxic. Much like the American experience in Vietnam 20 years later, the residue of Britain’s failed attempt in Palestine has had a lasting political and social impact on a significant sector of the population.
The Electoral Factor
The first rule of politics is that all politics are local. In 2016 Britain that translates into one very simple fact – expressing anti-Israel views will gain a politician votes among Muslims. Demographics dictate that politicians pander to the Muslim minority rather than the Jewish one. While Islam is the second largest religion in the United Kingdom, practiced by over three million people and rising, the Jewish population in the UK is less than 300,000 and in decline. Politicians are faced with a seemingly simple choice regarding their pool of potential voters.
The relatively muted Jewish communal response to overt expressions of anti-Semitism may be attributed to the nature of the Jewish community in Britain. Anglo Jewry is first and foremost communal. It does not necessarily include a national or ethnic element, a dominant feature in American Jewry. Minimizing the national element also means that British Jews are less emotionally invested in the state of Israel and are not as likely to publically object to criticism of the Jewish state, even when it serves as a disguise for anti-Semitism. On the contrary, they are at times likely to voice fierce criticism of Israel in the hope that this reaffirms their ‘Britishness’.
Taken together, these elements provide some perspective on current revelations of the latent anti-Semitism in some dark corners of the British body politic and show that if there is something rotten in the kingdom, it has in fact always been so. The only thing that has changed is that it has now reached a point where it is legitimate to say these things out loud and in public.