History demonstrates that it only takes a slight twist of the dial to move from a situation where Jews must think twice before displaying their Judaism in public to one where Jews are officially obliged to display their Judaism in public: And although no one is seriously suggesting we're approaching yellow-starred levels of intolerance in this country, when Jewish community leaders in London (as in Paris, as in Amsterdam, as in Berlin, as in Stockholm, as in Oslo, as in so many other European capitals) begin warning the conspicuously faithful to be careful before venturing beyond their front doors, you have to wonder where all this is headed. What's happening Over There is now happening Over Here. Anti-Semitism of a distinctly continental variety- systematic, ideological, toxic, predatory- is on the march in Britain. A precious tradition of tolerance is being squandered, and squandered prodigally.
Because British anti-Semitism has until recently been a quieter and politer affair than its European counterpart, it's easy to forget that we were once innovators in these matters: Medieval England was the first nation in Europe to witness a widespread outbreak of the Blood Libel (the canard that Jews murder Gentiles to use their blood in some impious ceremony or other); the first nation in Europe to require Jews to distinguish themselves with a Jew badge; and, ominously, the first nation in Europe to impose a Final Solution on its Jewish problem (the mass expulsion of English Jewry under Edward I in 1290). Even so, and since their readmission under Cromwell in the 17th Century, the collective experience of Britain's Jews has been relatively benign: Relative that is to the fate of their continental coreligionists suffering deportation, persecution, or extermination under totalitarian regimes of the left and the right. As the old joke had it, "anti-Semitism means hating the Jews more than necessary"- and even in the interwar period, with anti-Semitism the motive force behind entire mass movements across the rest of Europe, comparatively few in Britain were prepared to put in the effort. Anti-Semitism scarcely got any louder than a corybantic rant from Oswald Mosley, or the background hum to an agreeable dinner party at Cliveden. We seldom heard the sound of the synagogues being smashed.
By the 1980s, anti-Semitism in Britain was semi-confidently written-off as yesterday's racism, a relic superstition with little or no political clout. There was a time when Jews occupied a good third or more of Mrs Thatcher's top tier of government without provoking any conspicuously popular anti-Semitic reaction (disregarding a wheeze of disapproval from the crumbling Harold Macmillan, who quipped from his deathbed that the problem with the Thatcher Cabinet was that there were "not enough old Etonians and too many old Estonians"). That time was not so long ago. That things have changed so quickly- that anti-Semitism is now back in season in this country- is not the novelty here. The history of the Jews has always traced the same circle, interglacials of tolerance punctuated by spasms of persecution. Rather, the innovation today is the depth of the hate, and its source: No longer the old foe on the far right, but the far left and its Islamist bedfellow.
Matters came to a noisy head during the Gaza War of the summer of 2014, when much of the anti-Israel hysteria nationwide glinted with an unalloyed Jew-hatred. There exists a weighty and sublimely pointless literature about the difference between so-called Old Anti-Semitism (religious, racial, xenophobic) and New Anti-Semitism (political, anti-Zionist, Third Worldist); but lately this academic fine-tuning of distinctions between various shades of hate has become practically and provisionally meaningless. Among a long litany of prejudices, anti-Semitism robed as anti-Zionism (when it even bothers to dress for the occasion) is now uniquely acceptable, even respectable, in a style quite without precedent in these hyper-sensitive, judgment-phobic times. Society has given itself a free pass, an ideological Rumspringa, where canards, tropes, and stereotypes totally forbidden in any other context can be affixed to Israel (and, by extension, the Jews) with impunity.
For a long time we in Britain have looked with distaste at all manner of horrors happening not so far away and prided ourselves with no small amount of smuggery on the notion that It Couldn't Happen Here. Well, anti-Semitism of the vilest sort IS happening here: And the survival of an entire community stands at hazard. Headlines in serious newspapers talk about Jews "escaping" Britain, as they are "escaping" France. There is open discussion- even from Jewish commentators, especially from Jewish commentators- about the end of Jewish life in postwar Europe, as if we are approaching the predetermined and inevitable climax to some historical cycle. For the first time in more than a generation, British Jews are having to worry for their personal and collective safety, not to mention their collective future. Keeping their heads down is no longer enough. And while after each and every Islamist atrocity we are warned- and warned incessantly- of the dangers of an anti-Muslim backlash, the fact remains that in Britain, in 2015, it's the Jews who are double-bolting their doors.