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It May Be Halloween, But It's No Time For Witch-Hunts

29/10/2014 10:42 GMT | Updated 28/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Sometime around 1952 my grandparents bought a 1939 Nash. They named it Efsher - a Yiddish word meaning 'maybe'. In the case of the Nash, maybe it would go today, maybe it wouldn't. My grandfather Jerry Wayne, a US actor and singer who a couple of years earlier had outsold Frank Sinatra, who had been resident singer of the day's equivalent to The Late Show, and who was once voted the best dressed man in America, was now adjusting to a different standard of living. He had been called in front of Joseph McCarthy's House of Un-American Activities Committee, and he'd refused to name names.

He didn't talk of these times much - or perhaps I was too young before he died to ask the right questions - but my father's memory of his politics was that he was a socialist. Not a communist, but not willing to be cowed by McCarthy's ever more insistent demand that all Americans think like him. Perhaps this was particularly salient because only a few generations earlier, Jerry's own relatives had left a narrowing Europe. And so, he took to the still-welcoming folk circuit, and bought a Nash.

I remember learning about this period of modern history as a teenager. I remember being stunned that it was so recent. Then learning about China's Cultural Revolution. Then waking up to the world of newspapers and seeing similar repression, or worse, still alive and kicking all over the world. I remember noticing how quickly and seamlessly words can turn to actions. Thank goodness I lived in Britain, I thought.

But everybody likes a good witch-hunt, not just at Halloween. Somebody to blame, somebody at whom to channel our darkest most unacceptable thoughts that somehow, through a temporary zeitgeist, are made palatable. And so it is, again, in London, in 2014.

Of course the Jews have always been a favourite, and the odd anti-Semitic incident over the years has done nothing more than simmer at the back of my consciousness - nothing too devastating, nothing too urgent, nothing to worry about. My grandfather was only gently urged to change his name from the too-Jewish sounding Krauth he was born with. Only a few times have I heard somebody utter a complaint of stinginess in the form of 'Don't be a Jew'. But as more sinister events - small though they may remain - have started to occur frequently, nearby, and to people I know, it has become increasingly difficult to retain that confidence. Gaza has removed the lid from a prejudice it seems was only ever just below the surface. Of course now that our spotlights have shifted towards Iraq and Syria it is tempting to simply forget about the summer's explosion of anti-Semitism, to reduce it, to fob it off as a strange blip. But the latest in the UK's shameful run of incidents came only last week in the - somewhat under-reported - anti-Semitic twitter abuse of Labour MP Luciana Berger. Beginning with one obscene Hitler-related tweet by a since jailed troll, it is tempting to dismiss this as the random outpourings of one deranged man, and return to our cappuccinos. But the episode has since escalated into a wave of copycat abuse. Meanwhile last month, a Borehamwood Sports Direct security guard told two Year 7 boys (wearing the uniform of their Jewish secondary school) that "no Jews" were allowed. And a few weeks ago another man pleaded guilty to a racially aggravated public order offence after shouting anti-Semitic abuse on a Golders Green bus. Apparently, the traffic was the fault of the Jews. How many 'random' incidents does it take before we perceive them as rather less arbitrary?

At a recent fundraising event for the Holocaust Education Trust I found myself seated next to a Holocaust survivor. Aged 94, she was a little deaf but entirely nimble. I asked her about her experiences. She showed me the number tattooed onto her forearm. She told me how she had lost almost all of her once large and vital family to the Nazis. How clothes, health and humanity were stripped from them. How she had been in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. How when she was finally liberated and came to Britain, she felt she was coming from hell to heaven. How things have since changed. I asked her about the summer's rise in anti-Semitism thinking - hoping - that she would not see this as terribly worrying, that these rumblings were still a far cry from those first warning signs that now, looking back at history, it is hard to believe the Jews of 1930s Europe could have missed. But instead, she reiterated how back in 1939 they never would have imagined the violence of the Holocaust, they never dreamed anything would happen to them. That it began with words.

Speaking at this event, Michael Gove brilliantly summed up the willful "relativisation, trivialisation and perversion" of the Holocaust that was intrinsic to so much of the pro-Palestinian commentary that took place during Israel's conflict with Hamas this summer. There are those who complain that it is not possible to criticize Israel without being labeled an anti-Semite. But here's the thing: irrelevant of the rights and wrongs of the conflict, when 'Israel' and 'Jew' are conflated, a line has been crossed; when signs pronouncing 'Hitler Was Right' accompany marches, a line has been crossed; when placards shout 'Hamas Hamas, Jews to Gas', the line is no longer even in view; and when both informed and less informed pundits assert over dinner conversation that Gaza is like a concentration camp, they are taking part in the willful denigration of the Holocaust, negating it in an attempt to remove the stigma, making a false equation, and justifying Jew-hatred.

Palpable anti-Semitic incidents aside, we all saw the summer's anti-Israel boycotts. By the Tricycle Theatre who refused to host the Jewish Film Festival if it received funding from Israel. Against Israeli performers - can you imagine pushing a Russian/Chinese/Syrian actor out of the Edinburgh Festival because of the perceived actions of their state? Against Israeli produce, prompting some supermarkets to remove their entire range of kosher goods. After writing about my own criticisms of Israeli policy during the conflict, I somehow found myself on a Friends of Al-Aqsa mailing list urging me to join the boycott, as though critiquing Israel went hand-in-hand with undermining the livelihoods of ordinary Israelis and restricting the rights of Jewish people in England to access kosher goods. Or as if it blinded me to the two-sided nature of a conflict in which one group wishes to wipe Jews off the face of the earth. In response to another article, nothing to do with Israel, I was called a Nazi on a website where it was also noted that I am Jewish. The air is uncomfortable.

Having spent the last few years mired in research for my novel After Before, some of which is rooted in the Rwandan genocide, it is only too clear to me how quickly words and ideas can spill into actions. Political propaganda, a climate of hatred being justified, and allowed, and a need for a scapegoat was all it took. Neighbour turned on neighbour, friend turned on friend.

But that was far away in Africa.

The frightening rise of IS, who have drawn members from our very shores, should alert us to the naivety of that kind of thinking, to the shrinking nature of the world and the insidious character of its modern conflicts. Meanwhile my dinner companion at the HET fundraiser is enough reminder that Europe has never been immune.

Of course Jews are by no means the only targeted group, but as a British Jew, this year has felt different and uncomfortable. Whether it is in the boycott of careers, like my grandfather's, the demonization of beliefs, the marginalization of specific groups, or worse, witch-hunts lead only one way. To intolerance, bigotry, and discrimination. What begins with words ends with actions. And when prejudices become 'allowed', or even part of the day's fashion, we are lulled sleepwalking into what comes next.

It is time to wake up. In different ways many of us have done it, uttered sweeping, dangerous slurs - the "don't be gay" type comment is one I have heard unchallenged far too often. But it is the urgent responsibility of each of us, right now, to be precise about what speech we employ, to be aware of the impact of the words we choose, and to be vigilant about what we will accept from others. Any language that represses or stigmatizes should simply not be acceptable in a civil society. And glib prejudices must not be allowed to flow unchallenged over dinner conversation.

Until we can say we have achieved this, we must only hope that there are enough Brits willing to stand up to and reject prejudice wherever and whenever and to whomever it occurs. That witch-hunts are reserved for Halloween. And that there are enough of us as stubborn as my grandpa. Until then, it might be time to trade in for a Nash.