Britain's political class is debating its attitudes towards Jews and the Jewish state.
Consider British Prime Minister David Cameron, who recently jumped on the anti-Israel bandwagon by declaring that Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into a "prison camp." Or consider Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who has a long history of bashing the Jewish state. Or consider many British opinion shapers, whether on the political left of right, in government, the media or academia, who have for years exhibited an unhealthy obsession with Israel.
Or consider Queen Elizabeth. Although she has been on the British throne for almost 60 years, during which she has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries, she has never made an official visit to Israel. (Nor, for that matter, has a single member of the British royal family.)
The row started after Israeli President Shimon Peres told Tablet Magazine, a Jewish online publication, that Britain has a Jewish problem. In an interview with Israeli historian Benny Morris, Peres said there that has always been something "deeply pro-Arab" and "anti-Israel" in the British establishment. Asked whether this was due to anti-Semitism, Peres replied, "Yes, there is also anti-Semitism. There is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary." He added: "There are several million Muslim voters [in Britain], and for many members of parliament, that is the difference between getting elected and not getting elected."
In the face of a media storm, Peres later clarified his remarks, saying that his comments were taken out of context, and that he "never accused the British people of anti-Semitism." Nevertheless, his comments hit a raw nerve and unleashed an angry wave of denials from all sides of Britain's political spectrum.
On the Left, for example, Labour MP Denis MacShane, who chaired a parliamentary inquiry into British anti-Semitism in 2005, said Peres was mistaken: "While there has certainly been a growth of anti-Semitic attacks in the UK and too many MPs and civil servants refuse to acknowledge the growth of neo-anti-Semitism, I do not consider Britain to be an anti-Semitic nation any more than it is an Islamophobic nation, despite some ugly words and actions against both Jews and Muslims."
Labour politician Diane Abbott described Peres's comments as "rubbish" and said, "It is a confusion that people make all the time between a criticism of the policies of the Israeli government and criticism of Israel itself."
On the center-right, Conservative MP James Clappison, who is vice-chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel, a British parliamentary grouping, said, "Mr Peres has got this wrong. There are pro- and anti-Israel views in all European countries. Things are certainly no worse, as far as Israel is concerned, in this country than other European countries."
Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said, "Shimon Peres was wrong: If anything, Britain has the strongest philo-Semitic tradition in Europe." He added: "The idea that anti-Semitism is unusually prevalent in Britain is wretchedly ahistorical."
But not everyone agrees.
In a new book titled "Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England," Anthony Julius, a prominent British lawyer and academic, methodically shows how anti-Semitism has been part and parcel of British society for almost one thousand years, from medieval times until today. Julius dedicates several chapters to contemporary British anti-Semitism (also called the new anti-Semitism), in which anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel is used to conceal thinly veiled hatred of Jews. Julius says the new anti-Semitism, which gives traditional anti-Semitism a new respectability, constitutes the greatest threat to Jews in Britain today.
Those concerns are echoed by the Community Security Trust (CST), which has been tracking a sharp rise in attacks against Jews in Britain. In its latest annual report, the CST says it recorded 924 incidents against Jews in 2009, an increase of almost 70 percent from 2008. There were 124 violent anti-Semitic assaults in 2009, the highest number ever recorded by CST, and a rise of 41 percent from the 88 violent assaults in 2008. The monthly number of physical assaults and incidents of verbal abuse and racist graffiti in Britain has soared from 10-20 incidents in the 1990s to 40-50 now.
The CST report shows a close link between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, with the number and proportion of incidents having a political motivation rising significantly in 2009 compared to 2008. In 2009, 293 incidents included references to Israel and the Middle East, 212 of which made reference to the Gaza Strip. 175 of these incidents showed anti-Israel motivation, as well as involving clear anti-Semitic content, motivation or targeting. This is a large rise from 2008, when 90 incidents made reference to the Middle East and 62 were anti-Israel as well as anti-Semitic.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also reports a connection between anti-Zionism and British anti-Semitism. In a survey titled Attitudes Toward Jews in Seven European Countries, the ADL found that one in five Britons admitted that Israel influences their opinion of British Jews, and that the majority of those said that they felt "worse" about Jews than they used to.
Efraim Karsh, the renowned scholar of Middle Eastern history at King's College in London, says that anti-Semitism within the ranks of British officialdom is to blame for nearly 100 years of essentially anti-Zionist policies that have done great harm to modern Israel. In an essay titled "Shimon Peres and the Jews," Karsh dismantles Britain's national mythology about its special relationship with Israel. He writes that although Britons often claim that Britain has been the midwife of the Jewish state, "the truth is that no sooner had Britain been appointed as the mandatory power in Palestine, with the explicit task of facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national home in the country in accordance with the Balfour Declaration, than it reneged on this obligation." Karsh argues that Britain's treatment of Zionism and Israel has always been highly duplicitous, and that the anti-Israel mindset is still very much alive today.
Britons will take issue with the assertion that Britain is an anti-Semitic country. But they cannot convincingly refute Shimon Peres's observation that the British establishment has long had an uneasy relationship with both the Jews and the Jewish state. Nor can they deny that the new anti-Semitism, which deliberately blurs the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, is moving into the mainstream. And this says a lot more about contemporary Britain than it says about Israel.