Challenging intolerance has never been more essential

Abigail Morris, Issue 118/06, p15, 01.06.2018
There is no doubt that antisemitism is increasing
I have been very resistant to the idea that antisemitism is on the rise. I’ve really tried to gainsay those pessimists. But I have to say that there is no doubt that antisemitism is increasing: in February the Community Security Trust, a charity that protects British Jews from antisemitism, reported a 34% rise in violent assaults against Jewish people in 2017. And this is not Jews saying that criticism of Israel is antisemitism.

It is hatred and negative stereotyping of Jews. It’s a complicated form of racism that can be tricky to spot. Racism is often directed at powerless or marginalised groups, and Jews are seen as a largely successful and integrated community. However, it is as pernicious as any other form of racism.

We work hard at the Jewish Museum London to counteract antisemitism and confront negative stereotypes. Our exhibits, temporary exhibitions and public programming focus on the positive contribution made by Jews and other diverse groups. The museum is a safe, non-religious place where people from all backgrounds can come together to ask questions and break down barriers.

We run an award-winning schools programme that reaches more than 18,000 children in the museum and many thousands more in outreach programmes. We have successfully partnered with inner-city schools and, by request of their teachers, ones in more deprived areas. We operate a learning policy that encourages the children, 97% of whom aren’t Jewish, to ask or say anything through innovative anonymous question formats. We want it to be a space that doesn’t condemn anyone for their views. Our programmes never talk directly about antisemitism but instead challenge prejudice in more subtle and deeper ways.

One of the sessions we run is with Holocaust survivors. The children are deeply privileged to hear first hand from a “witness” – and it never fails to move them and help them revaluate the shocking events both past and present.

There are many lessons to be learned from listening to Holocaust survivors. But maybe one of the most important ones is that before the war, they felt secure. Most of them were comfortable, well established and integrated into European societies. None of them could have imagined the horrors that would destroy 80% of European Jews, the hatred that would lead to the murder of six million Jews, half of whom were children.

So when Jews talk about antisemitism now, it is worth remembering the very real fear that they all live with. They may appear confident and secure, but they know how things can develop and how antisemitism may start with words but can end with murder. At the museum, we challenge hatred and intolerance in all its forms and I believe we are a beacon of light in this increasingly fragile world. Our role has never been more essential.

Abigail Morris is the chief executive of the Jewish Museum London