Learning from the past to effectively fight anti-Semitism today
The best way to fight anti-Semitism is to focus on fighting anti-Semites, and never to be tempted to blame their victims.
A recently published report into anti-Semitic incidents in Britain in 2021 made for alarming reading. A total of 2,255 incidents were recorded by the Community Security Trust (CST): the highest ever number reported to the organisation in a single year.
Eight percent of the incidents involved violence, and a small number of these involved extreme violence. One hundred and eighty two of the incidents were at schools and affected Jewish students or teachers. There were 82 desecrations of graveyards or synagogues, and these demonstrate why, dismayingly, Jewish schools and community organisations in Britain require significant security measures.
The most common type of incident documented in the CST report involved people using the conflict in Israel and Palestine in May 2021 as an opportunity or excuse to harass Jewish people. These made up 826 of the incidents – 37 percent of the total – examples of this included cars draped in Palestinian flags being driven around Jewish communities while abuse was shouted at residents. A new source of anti-Semitism in recent years has also been the COVID-19 pandemic. Online, anti-Semitic ideas about COVID, vaccines and other topics proliferate rapidly.
As anti-Semitic murders in recent years in France and an attempt to attack a synagogue during a service in Halle in Germany in 2019 have shown, Britain is not a more dangerous place for Jews than other Western European countries, but the CST report shows that anti-Semitism in Britain is a challenge and a threat, and that Jews are being targeted in their neighbourhoods in anti-Semitic incidents.
In contrast to previous eras, Western European states themselves are now unlikely to engage in anti-Semitic actions, but anti-Semitism persists in society and in politics, as can be seen in the attitudes of French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, and in the anti-Semitism directed against some female Jewish Labour MPs who challenged the party’s leadership on their handling of anti-Semitism during Jeremy Corbyn’s time as leader. CST’s report and other recent incidents, such as the taking of hostages in a synagogue in Texas by a British citizen in January this year, show that anti-Semitism can still pose a grave danger to Jews.
The need to consistently challenge anti-Semitism clearly remains, and the Wiener Holocaust Library in London’s forthcoming exhibition, Fighting anti-Semitism from Dreyfus to Today, is a timely examination of the wide range of ways in which Jewish groups and others have fought against anti-Semitism in the more than a century since the Dreyfus Affair galvanised anti-Semites and their opponents in France.
The passions ignited by the Dreyfus case – which saw the arrest, trial and imprisonment of Jewish French army officer Alfred Dreyfus on false charges of espionage – disproved the idea that in the late 19th century, anti-Semitism was a thing of the past. The same can be said about the situation in Western Europe today, and our exhibition draws upon the Wiener Holocaust Library’s archival collections, originally gathered to challenge anti-Semitism in interwar Germany, to document the fightback in Britain, France and Germany over the past 120 years.
Fighting anti-Semitism traces the separate but intertwined national histories of anti-Semitism and the struggle against it in Britain, France and Germany. The Wiener Library itself has transnational roots, as it was founded by a German Jew whose goal was to warn the world about the threat posed by the Nazis. Anti-Semitism in the form of post-war Holocaust denial, which was so prominently and successfully refuted at the Irving-Lipstadt libel trial in London in 2001, emerged from transnational anti-Semitic networks based in both Britain and France. Our exhibition shows that this work across borders, practised by both anti-Semites and anti-anti-Semites, already existed at the time of the Dreyfus Affair, and continues to this day.
The exhibition also explores the various methods that have been used to challenge anti-Semitism over the decades, including the use of public debate in the press, work to monitor and document the activities of anti-Semites, as well as demonstrations, sabotage and street fighting. Today, those fighting anti-Semitism sometimes use modern methods of intelligence and dissemination, but the underlying principles of the work of fighting anti-Semitism remain.
The Dreyfus Affair can be seen as marking the early stages of a century of anti-Semitism in Europe, in which the mass murder of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust was the central event. The library’s exhibition explores and connects some key moments of this history, focusing upon the actions and strategies of those who fought anti-Semitism.
In France, the engagement of prominent individuals in Dreyfus’s defence, such as Emile Zola in his famous essay J’accuse, led to an unprecedented mobilisation of both committed anti-Semites and committed anti-anti-Semites. In Germany and Holland in the 1930s, the library’s founder Dr Alfred Wiener and others produced fact sheets and other materials to help people engaged in the struggle against anti-Semitism. They also monitored, documented and disseminated information about the activities of the Nazis. During the Holocaust, Jewish resisters fought the genocidal anti-Semitism of the Nazis and their collaborators in partisan groups, armed uprisings, underground rescue missions, and in efforts to preserve records of Jewish life and culture.
In Britain in the 1930s and 1940s, anti-fascist Jewish groups such as the 43 Group fought back against fascists on the streets, such as Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and the union movement in places like Dalston in East London and through undercover work to infiltrate the fascists.
Our knowledge of the activities of anti-Semites has often been gained through the work of those who fight against it, as can be seen in the photographs on display from the collections of the library’s predecessor organisation, then based in Amsterdam, which record the proliferation of anti-Semitic street signs in Germany in the mid-1930s.
Also on show in the exhibition are documents from the CST archives and the Board of Deputies of British Jews archives, part of which is held at the Wiener Holocaust Library, including photographs showing fascist meetings and desecrated graves and extensive documentation collected by the Board of Deputies about British neo-Nazi Colin Jordan.
This timely exhibition focuses on the fight against anti-Semitism and in doing so also provides many examples of manifestations of anti-Semitism since the time of Dreyfus. We hope to challenge widespread ignorance about what anti-Semitism is. Too often, people do not recognise familiar myths and stereotypes as anti-Semitic, despite the many valiant efforts of Jews and non-Jewish allies to expose falsehoods and debunk slanders. Also too often, Jews are blamed for the anti-Semitism inflicted on them, a pattern that also affects other minority groups.
If there is one thing that we hope people will take away from this exhibition, it is that visitors will be inspired by the many examples of anti-anti-Semitic activity on display and realise that the best way to fight anti-Semitism is to focus on fighting anti-Semites, and never to be tempted to blame their victims.
Fighting Antisemitism from Dreyfus to Today is a major new exhibition at The Wiener Holocaust Library in London, opening on March 30, 2022.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.