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Britain’s Institutional Judeophobia

For Britons who have been following the controversy surrounding the recent publication of a particularly nasty political cartoon in the Chicago Tribune, there has been a distinct sense of déjà vu.

As press reports have it, the paper became — unwittingly, it claims — the vehicle for an antisemitic canard. That, at least, is how it appeared to fair-minded observers who opened their May 30 issue to find a hook-nosed caricature, wearing a Star of David — presumably Prime Minister Sharon — being coaxed along the road to Middle East peace by American dollars.

Across the pond, unfortunately, sections of the British media have been doing so much of this kind of stereotyping that a new term has been coined to describe the phenomenon: “institutional Judeophobia.”

What is Judeophobia? By definition, it is the “hatred or fear of Jews” — akin to xenophobia, with the same dual meaning — the outcome of which, whether deliberate or not, is to create a wider animus toward Jews, and in particular the State of Israel.

Institutional Judeophobia does not mean that every journalist and editor at these media outlets, or even a majority of them, hates or fears Jews. Nor does it mean that there is an active anti-Jewish conspiracy across sections of the news industry. What it does mean is that practices sometimes slip through the routine of newspaper work that amount to bias, or are hurtful to Jews.

Judeophobia is a virus evident in certain “left-liberal” elements of the British news media. Judging by the Chicago Tribune cartoon, this disease has now spread to the United States. It took a 10-day-long barrage of public criticism before the paper admitted in a June 8 editorial that it “had failed to recognize that the cartoon conveyed symbols and stereotypes that slur the Jewish people and that are offensive.”

Typically, as in the case of the Chicago Tribune, institutions where such “accidents” occur are quick to deny any malicious motivation. They maintain that no ill intent was at play, leaving unwitting prejudice as the most likely culprit. In the case of the Chicago Tribune, the hurt, and its institutional component, became clear when the Denver Post chose to run the same cartoon — even after the controversy erupted. Such “accidents” occur with disturbing regularity in the British left-liberal media, which openly admits that in regard to other minorities it operates a self-censorship in the name of political correctness and anti-racism.

In diagnosing the virus of institutional Judeophobia, it is important to note that the disease is not based on the biological or “scientific” racism of the Nazi-style antisemitism. It is neither eliminationist nor genocidal; it is not even a deep-seated, visceral hatred of individual Jews. Rather, it is an institutional process in which the Jewish community — both in Britain and the United States — suffers discriminatory treatment as a result of poor quality control and editorial oversight, and consequently is not given the same concern and protection as other “deserving” ethnic and religious minorities.

Sometimes the warning signs of institutional Judeophobia are so obvious that the failure to prevent it suggests, at best, negligence — at worst, an abject lack of concern — about the consequences. Last year, the New Statesman — the flagship British weekly magazine for the liberal-left intelligentsia — infamously put incendiary classic antisemitic iconography on its front cover, which featured a gold Star of David stabbing the Union Jack under the headline “A Kosher Conspiracy?”

In one fell swoop, the magazine evoked the classic canards of treachery and dual loyalties. The New Statesman, which regards itself as a bastion of anti-fascist activism, employed the lame defense was that it failed to recognize the harm that would be caused, and moreover, was ignorant of the Nazi historical-political provenance of the iconography and the slogan.

Nevertheless, when analyzing the conduct of communications media it is imperative to recognize that it is the political outcome and consequences — the effect of the message transmitted to thousands of readers — that is the issue, not the particular psychology of the individual perpetrator.

Fortunately, institutional Judeophobia involves a mindset that is not yet widespread in “Middle England” or “Middle America.” But the virus festers among certain cognitive elites within the liberal-left news media and elsewhere. It is characterized by an obsession with, and vilification of, the State of Israel — and Jews in general, as a consequence of their strong sense of attachment to Israel. It is an assault on the essence of the Jewish collectivity, both in terms of a Jewish sovereign state in its ancient homeland, and the nature of robust, emancipated and self-aware Diaspora communities.

The discriminatory outcome of this campaign of vilification is the demonization of Israel, and by association, Jews wherever they may live. This new phenomenon of Judeophobia comfortably co-habits with the use of disparaging stereotypes about Jews, evident in the Chicago Tribune cartoon, that are a throwback to old and discarded forms of antisemitism.

Beyond simply being bigotry, such demonization contributes to an atmosphere that is hardly conducive to constructive dialogue over Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. It is another obstacle on the road to peace in the Middle East, as well as good community relations in the United Kingdom and United States.

So what should be done to stamp out institutional Judeophobia in the Western liberal media before it morphs into the really dangerous antisemitism that plagued early 20th-century Europe?

To begin with, we can no longer tolerate ex post facto apologies for hurt caused by ignorance. Institutional Judeophobia has reached a level where a detoxification program is required. Simply put, practices need to change within these media organizations.

A serious, focused, pro-active campaign of prevention needs to be carried out as well. Large and small communities have ample human resources to carry out seminars to educate editors so they can spot classic antisemitic stereotypes and iconography before they get into print or are broadcast. Trainee journalists and those in journalism schools need to be fully informed about traditional forms of prejudice against Jews and the typical arguments used by bigots so that they can avoid using or reproducing them in their columns.

Most importantly, consciousness-raising and educating must begin with some of the more unaware Jews who work in the general media and academia. Too often they fail to spot offenses by their colleagues or even to intercept offending pieces prior to their dissemination in the public space.

As in so many other areas of life, self-awareness and sensitivity training about institutional Judeophobia need to begin at home.

Barry Kosmin, executive director of the London-based JPR/Institute for Jewish Policy Research, and Paul Iganski, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Essex, are editors of “A New Antisemitism? Debating Judeophobia in 21st Century Britain” (Profile Books, 2003).

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