More than a question of numbers

Joseph Finlay takes an in-depth look at the new Community Security Trust report on antisemitism in Britain in 2023 to assess how useful its approaches are and how accurate it is.

More than a question of numbers

From Jewish Socialist No 79, Spring 2024

On 15th February 2024, the Community Security Trust (CST) published its annual report on antisemitic incidents for the year 2023. It attracted substantial media coverage: “The Explosion in Hatred Against Jews in Britain”, raged the Daily Mail’s front page, while The Times led with “Worst Antisemitism for 40 Years Since Atrocities”. This coverage was no surprise. At least since 2015, antisemitism in Britain is big news. And news demands sensation. While antisemitism falling or remaining static is not news­worthy, a rise always is. To the casual reader it must seem like there is a permanent antisemitism “crisis”.

It was not always so. Statistics were first collected in 1984, when the Community Security Organisation (CSO – later renamed CST) was formed as a quasi-autonomous unit under the Board of Deputies’ umbrella. It was funded by the Group Relations Educational Trust, led by 62 Group veteran, Gerald Ronson. The decision to begin recording incidents was probably motivated by the American Anti-Defamation League (ADL) doing so in 1979, and also attempts by the Greater London Council (GLC) to collect hate crime data in London in the early 1980s. In this era, the Board of Deputies preferred to play down antisemitism, painting it as a fringe phenomenon. It was more likely to be the Jewish Socialists’ Group bringing incidents of antisemitism to light. The CST recorded around 200-300 incidents per year in the 1980s and 1990s.

 

Categories of incidents

In 1990 it refined the method, creating the categories it still uses to this day: Extreme Violence; Assault; Damage and Destruction of Jewish Property; Threats; Literature; and Abusive Behaviour. They collate incidents in these categories to give a total figure. In 2023 that total was 4,103, a 122% increase on 2022, and it is these two figures that have attracted the most coverage.

Extreme Violence (GBH or threat to life) has remained, thankfully, rare, with zero or a handful of incidents in each year. Assaults (which include spitting, throwing objects or attempts at such) have risen from around 20-40 a year in the 1990s to 80-120 from 2004 and higher still in the last five years, with 266 in 2023. Damage and vandalism has remained fairly static at around 50-80 incidents a year. Questionably, in 2023, the CST included in this category 53 incidents of tearing down or otherwise damaging posters of the Israeli hostages “as it was Jewish people who printed and put them up, and the majority of the posters’ subjects were Jewish too”.

Antisemitic Literature (now including mass email) incidents have remained similarly constant: around 20-30 per year, with 22 in 2023. Sometimes the literature recorded is antisemitic only in passing, without specifically being targeted at Jews, as in a bizarre case study of a leaflet addressed to Muslims in Manchester on whether or not cat food must be halal, which quotes a Hadith with an anti-Jewish element.

 Antisemitic Threats remained in the 20-30 per year range from the 1990s to 2010s, rising to 80+ from 2014, and a large jump to 305 last year. These are serious incidents that we should be concerned about. Clearly they have risen and continue to rise. There are likely to be some incidents where the victims were targeted because they were identifying themselves with Israel, rather than because they were Jewish; the report does not give enough information to know either way. If so, this would not count as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)”, in the words of the Jerusalem Declara­tion on Antisemitism (JDA), as it would be targeting someone, or something, because of a political position. But the majority of incidents in these categories would likely meet the JDA definition and thus should be counted as antisemitic incidents.

 

Amorphous incidents

These, however, represent 775 incidents: 19% of the headline 4,103 figure for 2023. (In 2022 there were 323 incidents from these categories.) The remaining 3,328 “incidents” fall under the amorphous Antisemitic Abuse category. The CST tells us this is comprised of “antisemitic emails, text messages, social media posts and comments”, targeted antisemitic letters to individuals, as well as “antisemitic graffiti on non-Jewish property”. In each case these stop short of being threats – otherwise they would be recorded in that category.

Of these 3,328 incidents, 36% took place online. More than half of the online incidents occurred on Twitter/X. How can the CST justifiably count such incidents as part of a specifically UK total? The internet is international. In most cases it is impossible to state which country a post or email originates in. The individual reporting the incident to CST may be UK-based (whether or not it was directed at them) but the author could be anywhere. And yet, it is this Antisemitic Abuse category that has driven most of the rise of antisemitic incidents in the last 15-20 years, since the birth of social media in the mid-late 2000s created new ways for people to communicate and be unpleasant to each other.

 

Politicisation

It is in this incident category that the greatest risk of politicisation occurs; here the CST records incidents as antisemitic, which many Jews and experts on antisemitism would not. The CST report rarely quotes individual incidents (when it does, these are usually the most obviously antisemitic ones) but there have been so many controversies in recent years in which borderline or even wholly justifiable points have been treated as examples of definite antisemitism. To state just a few types of these: comments about Israel killing children being treated as a “blood libel”; allegations of Israeli power viewed necessarily as a conspiracy; any comparison, whether nuanced or not, between Israel and Nazism ruled immediately out of court; political criticism of Jewish figures automatically assumed to be on account of their Jewishness. There are inevitably examples of such politicisation in the report, not least because 43% of the incidents reported related explicitly to Israel/Palestine and the current crisis.

I don’t doubt that many of the incidents in the Antisemitic Abuse category would be seen as antisemitic by most Jews or scholars of antisemitism. But a substantial number, perhaps even the majority, would be much more contested. The wider point, however, is the fact that wildly different types of incidents are collated into a single total, implying that they are all essentially alike and of equal danger. Is this wise? Surely, assaults, threats and desecration of synagogues are much more worrying than conspiracy theories and Israel/Nazi comparisons on Twitter? This collation masks the most serious cases: in each of 2020 and 2021, there were three cases of extreme violence against Jews; in 2022 there was one. If anything should be in the headlines, it should be that. The totalising of vastly divergent phenomena seems designed to perpetuate the ongoing “moral panic” over antisemitism, and to induce the government to combat it through ever more draconian and politicised methods.

The CST is not even the worst offender in terms of politicising antisemitism and in counting unremar­kable discourse as antisemitic. There is the upstart Campaign Against Antisemitism, founded in 2014, which axiomatically treats anti-Zionism as anti­semitism; the unhinged Twitter fringe of Labour Against Antisemitism; and the highly questionable new “academic” London Centre for the Study of Antisemitism, led by the “activist sociologist” David Hirsh.

To its credit, the CST discounts as antisemitic many of the incidents that are reported to it; 2,185 were rejected in 2023. That this figure is so high demonstrates the level of paranoia in the British Jewish community and the tendency to assume the worst. Despite this care, the CST is not immune from the politicisation of the community in general. It is counting as antisemitic things that would not have been widely recognised as such in earlier decades.

One example is the phrase “Free Palestine”, which accounted for 427 incidents. The CST rightly “does not consider this sentiment to be inherently antisemitic” but reports that in these cases “it was directed at Jewish people or institutions purely because they were Jewish”. I oppose directing it at random people who present as Jews, but I want to know more. Were any of them carrying Israeli flags or other Israeli insignia at the time? If it was on social media, did they have a history of pro-Israel posts? If either was the case, then directing the phrase at them would be a reasonable form of political speech.

 

7th October timeline

A more concerning form of politicisation in the report is the use of a 7th October timeline. The CST reports that it first recorded an incident, apparently inspired by the Hamas attacks, at 12.55pm on that day, when a vehicle with a Palestinian flag attached and an occupant shaking their fist drove past a synagogue in Hertfordshire. It continues by noting 416 incidents in the week after 7th October, claiming that because these happened so soon, “it was the Hamas terror attack, rather than Israel’s military response in Gaza, that sparked most of the antisemitism in this country”. This is simply incorrect. Israel’s military response in Gaza began on 7th October. Within a few days Israel had killed as many Palestinians in Gaza as Hamas had killed in Israel on 7th October. It is entirely probable that antisemitic incidents (or alleged antisemitic incidents) between 7th and 14th October represented misplaced responses to Israel’s military campaign, not grotesque attempts to celebrate Hamas’s massacre.

One non-Israel related concern about the report is its use of ethnic monitoring. It says that in about a quarter of incidents it “obtained a description of the ethnic appearance of the offender”, telling us that, of these, 38% were white, 12% black, and 33% were “Arab or North African appearance”. The CST is keen to point out that, in the past, the majority of perpetrators have been white, but adds that in the period from 7th October to the end of 2023, 32% were recorded as white and 41% Arab or North African, emphasising the increased culpability of the latter groups in the incidents of this past of the year. Should the CST be recording ethnic descriptions in this way? It strikes me as unnecessary and unwise. These are not ethnic descriptions but racial ones, imposed from without rather than self-defined. The figures for the last four months of 2023 draw on very limited data – 1,281 incidents out of 4,103 – to cast blame on a group that is heavily racialised in contemporary society, adding to the popular right-wing narrative that Arabs or Muslims are the main sources of extremism and antisemitism. It is controversial enough when the police do this ethnic monitoring; worse when a private security group that seeks to protect one particular ethno-religious group does it.

 

An alternative approach?

On reading the report, the reader is assaulted with an unceasing barrage of statistics. How much does this really tell us about contemporary antisemitism? Does it make us safer? We have become so used to these annual reports, and the resultant hysterical media coverage that we presume antisemitism has to be recorded in this way. But it does not. The practice began in 1984. We have no comparable data from earlier decades but from press reports, memoirs and oral history we can safely conclude that antisemitism was historically much higher, certainly in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. It is not clear that the granular collection and publication of such statistics, with all their inevitable flaws and tendencies towards politicisation, actually helps make people less antisemitic, which is surely the goal.

More substantively, how wise is it for separate bodies to record racist incidents against one particular group only? Can we really do antiracism in siloes, with each group focused only on attacks on their particular community? Wouldn’t it be better to have broad-based antiracism organisations, to try and record racist hate crime in general, and to offer community-based approaches to combatting it? Such organisations would be less prone to the politicisation I have described; they would fight the conflation of any diaspora group with the government of another country, working together against the structural racism of the British state. Such an approach would reject the British government’s philosemitic embrace and assert that our interests lie with all racialised minorities who fight for justice both at home and abroad. It would be better for everyone, and, ultimately, good for the Jews.

Photo: Antisemitic graffiti daubed on a wall.

Posted: 21 March 2024  |  Published in: Jewish Socialist JS79
Topics: antisemitism, cst report, antisemitism in britain