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Address to the third Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem

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For the Jews of Europe, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Take British Jewry as an example.

In the past twenty years we have built more Jewish day schools than ever before in our 355-year history. Culturally, a community deemed moribund a generation ago boasts a cultural centre, a community centre in the making, Jewish Book Weeks, arts, music and film festivals, and an adult education event, Limmud that has inspired offshoots in fifty other centres throughout the Jewish world.

Jews have achieved prominence in every field. Both Parliamentary Speakers, in the Commons and the Lords, are Jewish. We have had, in recent years, two Jewish lord chief justices, Jewish heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, a Jewish editor of The Times and Jewish leaders of both the Conservative and Labour parties. Not only are Jews respected: so is Judaism. The Jewish moral voice has become a significant part of the national conversation.

These are astonishing achievements. But they are clouded by the disturbing phenomenon of a new antisemitism spreading like a virus across Europe. This cries out for explanation. After all, after the Holocaust, if there was one thing on which people of goodwill throughout the world agreed it was: Never again.

The entire post-war culture of the West – of the world – was tilted in that direction. Out of the determination that there should never be another Holocaust came the United National Declaration of Human Rights, the concept of a “crime against humanity,” the idea that racism is a vice, the movement for interfaith dialogue and the historic shift in Christianity known as Vatican II, Nostra Aetate.

How then did antisemitism return to the very nations that pledged themselves never to repeat it? The cynical answer is that it never died; it merely went underground. There is a small shred of truth to this, but very small. As a line of reasoning it is deeply misleading. For the new antisemitism is only secondarily aimed at Jews as individuals. Its real target is Jews as a nation in their national home: Israel.

What has happened in our time is an extraordinarily subtle phenomenon that can only be understood by travelling back two centuries to the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution. For centuries Europe had been disfigured by crude, theologically driven Christian anti-Judaism. Jews were accused of poisoning wells, spreading the plague, desecrating the host and killing Christian children. Jews were not the only victims of the Church. Witches and heretics were burned as well. Then, following the Reformation, Christians started killing their fellow Christians in Europe’s great wars of religion.

That was when thoughtful people said: Enough. They created the rise of science, the age of reason, the doctrine of toleration, and eventually the emancipation of hitherto disenfranchised minorities, including the Jews. It was the most enlightened age in European history, and it was at this precise time, in Paris, Berlin and Vienna, the most sophisticated centres of all, that a new form of hate was born, racial antisemitism, the deadliest virus the West has ever known, leading otherwise ordinary, decent human beings to do, or remain passive witnesses to, unspeakable acts.

That was not a simple phenomenon. The antisemitism of the nineteenth century was not the crude anti-Judaism of the Church. Similarly the new antisemitism of the twenty-first century is not the racist antisemitism of the nineteenth. It is not directed against individual Jews but against Jews as a nation. It is not spread by conventional means but by the new technologies of communication – websites, emails, blogs and social network software – that are almost impossible to monitor and control.

Its most brilliant, even demonic, stroke has been to adopt as its most powerful weapons the very defences created against the old antisemitism. It accuses Israel of the five cardinal post-Holocaust sins: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. It is subtle, sophisticated and devastatingly effective.

It is designed to mislead, and it works. Israelis and American Jews see it as a threat to European Jewry, which it is, but only secondarily. The real target is Israel. It is an attack on Israel where it is most vulnerable, namely the opinion-forming classes of Europe. If Israel is delegitimated in their eyes, that leaves only America, and the shrewd judgment of Israel’s enemies is that, when it comes to supporting Israel, in the long run America will not go it alone.

This is a chess-game more long-term and coldly calculated than people realise. It aims at the destruction of the Jewish state. To counter it will call for a coordinated global Jewish response beyond anything thus far envisaged. Nor is it a battle that can be fought and won by Jews alone. Without allies, Jews will lose and Israel will lose.

This means reframing the argument. For antisemitism is always the symptom of something more pervasive, an unresolved tension within a culture, that targets Jews but never stops with them. It was not Jews alone who died at the hands of medieval Christianity, Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia: it was freedom itself.

The same will be true in the twenty first century. Those who deny Jews or Israel their freedom will lose, or fail to gain, their own.