‘I love Hitler’ was how John Galliano began his rant. He then told his audience that people like them, their forefathers, would have been gassed. Some have suggested this was because of fashion’s desire to shock.
Most of us wouldn’t be so charitable.
Julian Assange has been reported as suggesting that the editor of the Guardian is part of a Jewish conspiracy of writers against him.
And Charlie Sheen has also been accused of antisemitism this week saying he hated Chaim Levine though he has strongly denied the accusation and has received support from, er, Mel Gibson.
What is going on? If people in the public eye can give vent to such feelings, how prevalent is antisemitism more broadly?
The Community Security Trust, a charity which monitors attacks on the Jewish community, says that last year there were 639 incidents of violence, threats or abuse against Jewish people in the UK. This was a drop on the previous year, though still the second highest total since they began collecting records in 1984 and a rise on 2008.
The CST is measured in its response. Mark Gardner of the CST said about this year’s figures: ‘antisemitism is not the most important thing in British life, but clearly there is a significant problem’. That doesn’t mean he is complacent. Far from it. He believes the situation is certainly worse than a decade ago but is also clear that it is not the whole story of the Jewish experience in the UK.
Antisemitic comments are not just a story of the comments but also of the reaction. It is one thing to make such comments but the measure of a society is how it responds. Galliano was immediately sacked. Others who have engaged in racist comments – remember Ron Atkinson a few years ago – also lost their jobs. That probably wouldn’t have happened a generation or two ago but it would be wrong to be complacent about this.
It has become fashionable to attack political correctness as a symbol of an excessively uptight society where people fear making jokes or being pounced upon by the thought police. But words matter, and tone matters. Over the years we have changed the terms used in everyday life. This change in vocabulary is important because it signals what is acceptable and what isn’t. There may be times when political correctness has gone over the top but let us not fall for the attack on it, because the change in vocabulary that has happened over the years has been overwhelmingly in the progressive direction.
And that also means that the laws we pass are an important signal of where we stand as a society. Laws against race hate and for the advancement of equality – most of them passed by Labour governments – exist for a very good reason.
Galliano and others illustrate what the CST has found out at a community level. That there is indeed a problem out there. The law has a role to play. But far more important is how we view what these people say. And that is an ongoing battle.
This article by Pat McFadden MP appears online here.