London is an amazing place, full of vitality, intensity, foreign tourists and residents, a patchwork of pluralism. Talk to the average person, and nothing seems amiss: this cab driver, having driven in London for 40 years, sees no significant change in the neighborhoods he travels through; this financier sees no signs of intimidation; this shopper, this tavern-hopper, this man on the bus, lives in an interesting and relatively normal world. A superficial walk through the [Regent’s] park gives the distinct sense of normality.
But talk to the Jews, and you get a different story. The International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists held a conference here this week. The topic: Democratic and Legal Norms in an Age of Terror. Panels discussed everything from the Goldstone Report, to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, to “universal jurisdiction” (lawfare against Israelis brought in foreign courts). Here, in the Khalili Lecture Theatre of the SOAS (School for Oriental and African Studies), Jewish lawyers discussed a grim reality whose only public appearance on an everyday basis is the drumbeat of calumny that a boisterous elite — NGOs, journalists, academics — rain down on Israel.
Perhaps the most startling of the sessions concerned the BDS movement. Jonathan Rynhold, from the BESA Center at Bar Ilan, and Anthony Julius, author of Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, both presented a picture of British anti-Zionist activity whose intellectual and moral foundations were profoundly irrational, a dogmatic will to stigmatize and destroy Israel that responded to no argument about proportion (what about other places?) or reason (you make no moral demands of the Palestinians). And behind that lies a much weightier volume of negative feeling, a kind of unthinking animosity that expressed itself in its most banal form when a woman explained to Julius: “We all know why the Jews are hated: you marry among yourselves and live in ghettos like Golders Green and Vienna [sic].” In so doing, she put her finger on the most widespread subtext for hostility to Jews – “they think they’re the chosen people.”
Daniel Eilon, an English barrister, explained to me one of the mechanisms. It isn’t real anti-Semitism. In fact, most of the stuff that comes out against Israel is intellectually hopeless — phony narratives based on fantasy “facts.” This is really just good old-fashioned Jew-baiting. It’s saying things in all righteous innocence that you know will hurt the Jews to whom you address the criticism. The problem for the Brits (and the Europeans in general), he pointed out, is that historically, there’s never been a particularly high price to pay for Jew-baiting. Now there is.
What my friend referred to with this last remark is lucidly analyzed by Robin Shepherd in his recent book, A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel. The elephant in the room, of course, is radical Islam — the people who interpret being “chosen” by Allah as a charter to dominate the world and submit everyone, willingly or not, to Islam. They’re the people no one dares bait; and they’re the folks who take full advantage of every deference to press for more. Daily aggressions from violent gangs constantly expand the territories where the Queen’s writ does not run. In tempo with the retreat of British law and enforcement, Sharia advances from internal community affairs (explicitly on the model of Jewish religious courts) towards the policing of community boundaries and claims on the state for special treatment. The British — like so many other Western nations –mainstream the extremists and marginalize the moderates. As Nick Cohen put it: “The world faces a psychotic movement and won’t admit it to themselves.”
A documentary filmmaker reveals a double assault on freedom of speech: on the one hand, everyone is terrified of peers calling them Islamophobes; and on the other, anyone who does something negative on Islam puts his or her life in danger. When I respond animatedly to her point, she looks around nervously and signals for me to lower my voice. How often did my British informants tell me in hushed tones about being intimidated!
News agencies send their journalists to special courses in self-defense for how to deal with hostile situations. How much of this responds to the pervasive dangers of doing journalism in Muslim countries, and how often does it come up in those areas where the Queen’s writ does not run? One such journalist who works for the BBC reports that when a mob turns ugly, they are told to stand back to back, palms open, pointing down and out — a posture of non-threat, but also one of subjection.
And of course, the best protection is positive coverage. Most of the time, “but we’re from the BBC” works to allay Muslim hostility: it’s code for “we’re on your side.” But for some crowds, even that’s not enough.
The result of this pervasive intimidation that comes from both peers and enemies is a body politic that feels no pain. Like a victim of CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain), the British public receives only vague hints of the assaults on its body. A widespread omerta operates in the mainstream news media, guaranteeing that many, if not most aggressions go unreported, or in a code — Asian street gangs — that only those looking for clues will notice. Aggregator sites online offer deeply disturbing collections of news items.