The cowardly murder of Jews in France and Denmark, in conjunction with terrorist attacks designed to shut down discussion, is justifiably a cause for more than a passing concern. Europe may be witnessing the dawn of a period where extra steps must be taken to defend citizens against those who will resort to physical force to silence those who offer biting, challenging or difficult critiques of their own points of view or religious beliefs.
In this moment of soul searching, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has inserted himself into the debate, all but declaring Europe as a lost cause and hopelessly anti-Semitic. In a speech following the Copenhagen attacks, he went as far as to call for a mass exodus, urging European Jews to emigrate to Israel.
Studies have shown that anti-Semitic attacks did increase between 2013 and 2014 but an inspection of British attitudes towards Jews, whose number in the UK is just over a quarter of a million, belies Netanyahu’s doom-mongering.
As part of a yet to be published study of 2,774 British people in the summer of 2013, we asked respondents what they thought of a variety of groups, institutions, and countries on what is known as a “thermometer scale” that ranges from a freezing rating of 0, a moderate score of 50, and a warm rating of 100.
The mean scores offer no evidence that Jews are viewed any more negatively than other groups. Respondents give them an average ranking of 62, just below the average evaluation of 63 given to Christians and gay people, and above the score of 55 given to Asians. The biggest concern though was the response to questions about Muslims. An average score of only 42 raises suggests the integration of Muslims continues to be challenging.
Although all this may be bad for news for the political narrative Netanyahu wishes to create, Britons are able to differentiate between attitudes towards the state of Israel, whose foreign policy is hotly debated, and Jews. Even before the recent Israeli incursions into Gaza, Britons gave Israel an average rating of only 40.
As we find with other contentious foreign policy matters, the British public is not stupid. States and entities that pursue controversial policies are almost always rated lower than their people. For example, the British rate Germans, Italians and the French more warmly than coldly, but give the European Union a score of just 38, one point less than Israel.
Perhaps the most surprising finding of this survey though is that the correlations between attitudes towards Muslims, Jews, and Israel are all positive. So, feeling warmly towards one group is associated with feeling warmly towards another (and vice versa), even though Muslims and Jews and Muslims and Israel are too often depicted as sworn enemies.
The volatile situation in the Middle East, along with American and British incursions into the affairs of nations in the region, make for tense times. Retaliatory attacks by terror groups that strike at the heart of the ideals held dear by liberal Western societies don’t appear to make matters any easier. But our findings suggest that scaremongering about widespread antisemitism may be rather wide of the mark – at least in the UK.
Although there is a segment of the British population that might harbour animosity towards religious minorities, data suggest that a considerable segment of the population is more than open to peaceful co-existence with religious minorities.
What’s more, the significant and positive correlations reported for feeling thermometers measuring affect toward Muslims and Jews suggests that there will be a core group of citizens who will support minorities regardless of differences of opinion they may have with specific religious beliefs. In challenging times, this gives reason to believe the European glass is more half full than half empty, at least in Britain.