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Antisemitism is something you get used to – but we shouldn't have to

How can we end antisemitism if we don't fully understand what it is?

An illustration of a star of david being attacked

Image: Eleanor Bannister

In February last year, a new statue was unveiled in Winchester of a woman in medieval dress holding the hand of a small child. The statue has Hebrew writing around its plinth and is situated on Jewry Street, which hints at its purpose: this is Licoricia of Winchester, one of several prominent Jewish moneylenders in medieval England. By the time of her death in 1277, Licoricia was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Jews in the land. Her money helped to pay for the construction of Westminster Abbey, but she lived at a precarious time for English Jews, who were restricted from practising several trades and forced to wear special badges that identified them as Jews in public. There were several massacres of Jews around the country and in 1290, just 13 years after Licoricia was murdered (the identity and motive of her killer was never solved), all of England’s Jews were expelled by royal decree. They would not return for over 350 years. 

On the same day in 2022 that the statue of Licoricia was unveiled in Winchester, three Jewish schoolgirls were travelling home from school on the London Underground. Another group of teenagers approached them. “Are you Jewish?” they demanded, before kicking one of the girls. “If you don’t reply we are going to smash your face.” 

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This is antisemitism: the unbroken thread of prejudice, discrimination and hatred towards Jews that spans the 800 years separating Licoricia from those teenagers on the Northern Line. One reason antisemitism keeps happening is simply that it always has done. We may be a modern, liberal, diverse nation, but stereotypes about Jews are embedded deep in our culture and language, found in our best-loved literature, woven into the fabric of our society and present in so many of our unthinking assumptions. As Jewish people will tell you, antisemitism happens every day. 

It has certainly happened to me, and to most other Jews I know. Whether it’s snide remarks about rich Jews (I’ve had my fair share of those) or being blamed for whatever Israel has done that week, antisemitism is just something you get used to – but we shouldn’t have to. 

I’ve worked in this field for almost 30 years, researching antisemitism and working to stop it, and I’ve learnt never to be surprised by where it pops up next. This is both an ancient prejudice, and very modern. Take Kanye West: late last year the rap artist started to make the strangest claims about “the Jews”, that they are responsible for, among other things, “financial engineering”, planned parenthood, his own career problems and Barack Obama’s grey hair. He isn’t the only one. Amnesty International, the BBC, Donald Trump, Facebook, anti-vaccine protesters, the Royal Court Theatre, Port Vale FC and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream have all stumbled over this particular hazard. It seems that few people really understand what antisemitism is, how to recognise it or what to do about it. In fact, around 40 per cent of people in Britain don’t know what the word ‘antisemitism’ means. 

Then there is the more sinister part of this story. Jews have been murdered in synagogues, schools, shops and museums in Europe and the United States. Jewish people have been attacked on the streets of London and anti-Jewish hate crimes have hit record levels. Perhaps most worrying of all is that younger people in Britain, who in many ways are less racist than their elders, are nonetheless more likely to believe spurious conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the banks and the media. Social media has a lot to answer for. 

This is despite the fact that everyone agrees anti-Jewish prejudice is a bad thing. We’ve just had Holocaust Memorial Day, when institutions up and down the country hold memorial events, tweet hashtags and pledge never to allow such horrors to happen again. But antisemitism does keep happening. We may live in an age of cancel culture, but stumbling into anti-Jewish stereotypes shouldn’t be seen as an irredeemable sin. We are all products of our society and these beliefs have been around for centuries. It is no disgrace for anyone to find themselves reflecting that reality; even some Jewish people fall into antisemitic ways of thinking at times, however strange that sounds. 

My hope is that my book will help to make sense of all of this, sound a rallying cry and suggest some practical ways to push antisemitism back to the margins. Tackling antisemitism ought to be firmly embedded within wider anti-racist initiatives and education, but if we don’t know where it comes from, what it looks and sounds like, and why it keeps reappearing, we haven’t got a hope. The answer, surely, is to try to learn from the past and build a less hateful world. What other option do we have? 

Everyday Hate by Dave Rich book cover

Everyday Hate by Dave Rich is out now (Biteback, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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