In the wake of the furor caused by former London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s assertion that “Hitler was supporting Zionism before he went mad”, polling agency YouGov released a fresh survey of the British public – the poll surveyed 4406 adults on April 29, 2016, and was weighted to represent the general public – who appear to accept the proposition that anti-Zionism is indeed a form of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, such opinions were not spread evenly across demographics, with noticeable pars between age brackets and party affiliations, which could prove consequential.
Respondents were asked whether “hating Israel and questioning its right to exist” is anti-Semitic. Perhaps surprisingly, absolute majority (53%) concurred; only 21% disagreed, while 26% replied “don’t know”.
The data revealed differences between the attitudes of supporters of different major parties. Conservative Party voters were overwhelmingly likely to agree that hatred of Israel is anti-Semitic, with 63% in favour and only 17% against. In a sign that aggressive anti-Zionism has not taken over the Labour Party electorate, despite the hostile attitudes of its leadership, Labour voters were virtually as likely as the average citizen to consider hatred of Israel anti-Semitic. Instead, supporters of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) were the least likely to agree with the sentiment – but even here, at 48%, nearly half of voters agreed.
The poll also asked whether criticizing the Israeli government is anti-Semitic: 9% of respondents said yes, as against 60% who said no and 31% who declined to answer. The results were published the same day that Israel’s new ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, clarified on the BBC that “of course people have the right to criticize the government… Israeli citizens do it every day”. Nevertheless, these results too showed a partisan split, with Conservative voters most likely to consider criticism of Israel anti-Semitic, and Labour the least alongside the Liberal Democrats and SNP.
The data also revealed a generational gap in attitudes towards anti-Semitism: the older the respondents, the more likely they were to concur that hatred of Israel and questioning its right to exist is anti-Semitic, well above the national average. Respondents over 60 were overwhelmingly likely to concur (63%), whereas fewer than half of millennials did (43%). Notably, there was no discernible difference between age groups in denying that hatred of Israel is anti-Semitic. Rather, the gap is explainable by younger respondents answering that they “don’t know” the answer.
Indeed, the older generation appears to be more attentive to allegations of anti-Semitism: whereas only 19% of millennials think that anti-Semitism is a “very big” or “fairly big” problem in the Labour Party, 33% of seniors think so. Similarly, whereas 18% of millennials thought that Ken Livingstone is “very” or “fairly anti-Semitic”, 39% of seniors feel the same way.
The data offers key insights for campaigners against anti-Semitism in Britain.
First, Israel is – to an extent – a partisan issue in the UK. One cannot extrapolate from these narrow questions, but a gap certainly exists in attitudes towards Israel between voters of the country’s two major parties, Conservative and Labour. There is certainly a gulf between the parties’ positions under the present leadership, but the extent to which the partisan gap is permanent feature in the electorate will require further polling.
Second, Scotland presents distinct challenges from the rest of the UK. It is the region of the UK where citizens are least likely to accept hostility to Israel as anti-Semitic, although those saying that it is still outnumber dissenters by two-to-one. Nevertheless, with Scotland becoming politically more vocal as a distinct polity, one can expect that political figures will feel less restrained to express open hostility to Israel by the perception that challenging its right to exist is anti-Semitic.
And third, public support for the belief that aggressive anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic cannot be taken for granted. Younger Britons are more skeptical: unless awareness is increased in the younger generation, it will decline over time. The present crisis in the Labour Party – on Monday, three councillors were suspended in five hours for anti-Semitic remarks on social media – presents an opportunity to help the public connect the dots and understand why hatred of Israel is anti-Semitic. Once the public interprets the demonization of Israel, including the boycott movement, as anti-Semitic, it will be much easier to explain why these agendas ought to be repelled.