After the devastation of Gaza, international sympathy for the Palestinian cause has probably never been higher, and that is to be welcomed. There is a serious caveat, though: and that is that well-meaning solidarity for a people who have suffered discrimination, dispossession and death cannot be allowed to justify vicious hatred of Israel or of Jewish people around the world. This should not need to be spelt out. Genuine advocates for Palestine are implacable in their rejection of anti-Semitism and have no need to defend themselves against any such charge.
But there has been an alarming rise in anti-Semitic incidents by perpetrators who, however falsely, drape themselves in the Palestinian flag. In north London, a convoy of cars covered in just such flags drove through areas with many Jewish inhabitants, blasting out unprintable threats. According to the Community Service Trust, a UK charity, there has been a 500 per cent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the past few weeks. In America there has been a similar spike, with the words "Free Palestine" and "Die Jew" often horribly linked. After a series of unprovoked physical attacks on men wearing yarmulkes in the US and in Europe – one thought he was going to be killed – it is clear that it is not safe for people to wear clothing identified as Jewish in public. This is appalling.
It may be said that these crimes were committed by bad actors who were misusing the Palestinian cause. That may be true. But what about the tolerance of anti-Semitic words and imagery at demonstrations? At a mass gathering in London on Saturday, one placard bore a picture of Jesus carrying the cross, with the words “Do not let them do the same thing today again”. Why did no one nearby insist that such anti-Jewish propaganda, along with all the signs mentioning “Hitler” and “the Nazis”, be removed and destroyed?
Similarly, I heard no one interrupt the speaker who called on the crowd to “march on Marks and Spencer". What could be more quintessentially British than dear old M&S, which supplies me with home comforts such as sultana scones and hot cross buns even in my home in Kuala Lumpur? But no. To this speaker, because the firm’s founders were Jewish, it is “like the Israeli embassy on the high street” and should be boycotted and picketed. It takes a particularly circuitous logic to see how threatening the livelihoods of ordinary Britons would improve the lot of Palestinians one bit.
As a child in the Britain of the 1970s, it seemed to me that anti-Semitism belonged in the past, with a history so abhorrent that it could never be revived. Jewish people, I thought, had become just another minority like my fellow Catholics of Irish descent. Later, as a student, I became aware that it lived on, but more as a nasty little prejudice often among the upper and upper-middle classes, and rarely mentioned except in company assumed to share this vice.
Today, however, it is obvious that a virulent anti-Semitism is thriving all too well, and finding fertile ground in a section of the anti-imperialist left. There could be many explanations for this, but I have my own theory about why people who ostensibly vehemently oppose racism of every kind may be susceptible to this.
Part of the problem may be that it has been so long since there was an Israeli government that appeared properly committed to a two-state peace process, that the distinction between “Israel” and an Israeli government has been lost. Many of those angry with successive administrations now see the country as a whole as the issue. And they don’t just dislike it. They loathe it.
In this context, I don't believe it's useful to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa, even though two respectable organisations, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem and Human Rights Watch in the US, have now done so. (I exempt from this anyone who is Israeli, as they certainly have the right to call their country whatever they want.)
This is because South Africa was different. It was a pariah state by the end. The world wanted the white supremacist regime to be overturned, and it was. If Israel, on the other hand, were to treat its Palestinian citizens equally and negotiate the birth of an independent state on its 1967 borders, it could still – just conceivably – end up electing Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister. This would not be an outcome that would sufficiently satisfy hardline critics of Israel.
Moreover, it must be recognised that there are all sorts of shades of opinion in Israel, which painting it as nothing more than an apartheid state does not. There was a time, it should be remembered, in the 1960s and 70s when it was much admired as a country where social democracy had succeeded triumphantly.
Treating Israel like apartheid-era South Africa risks demonising it as uniquely evil. If you believe that, it is not a big step to ascribe the same sins to all who support or identify with the country in any way. And if you are not an anti-Semite by then – because many Jewish people unsurprisingly have a special place in their hearts for Israel, even as a romanticised ideal and not the compromised reality of the past few decades – you may have had a narrow escape.
This may be an overly charitable explanation for why some have drifted into an anti-Semitism they themselves cannot acknowledge. Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe, instead, many have fallen prey to a grotesque but ancient bigotry that I have never been able to understand.
What is crucial, however, is to maintain the distinctions between the actions of an Israeli government; a populace that contains multitudes – as does the Jewish diaspora; and a state that has the right to exist just as surely as Palestinians deserve their own. So cheer the outpouring of support for Palestine. But be sickened – yes, be shocked to your core – that Jewish people around the world once again fear for their safety, and possibly their lives, for no reason but they are Jewish.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National