David Cameron on Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism

The British prime minister says he would be "heartbroken" if his country's Jews ever felt compelled to leave home.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

When I met not long ago with David Cameron, the prime minister of Great Britain, I knew that he had repeatedly and publicly professed concern about the safety of his country’s Jewish citizens, but I did not know that he was thinking deeply about the nature of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism—in a similar manner to Manuel Valls, the French prime minister, who is Europe’s leader in combating anti-Zionism and Judeophobia. (You can read more about Valls and his opposition to anti-Zionism here.)

In my conversation with Cameron, parts of which appeared in my April cover story on the future of European Jewry, he made it clear, in much the same way that Valls made it clear, that the issue of anti-Semitism ought not to be the concern of Jews alone. He stressed that he is worried that the international movement to declare Israel an illegitimate state—with its contention that Israel’s existence as an independent, Jewish-majority safe haven is morally unsupportable and should therefore be brought to an end—shares characteristics with anti-Semitism. In light of what is happening in Europe—not only the kind of anti-Semitism that prompted me to write the cover story, but also the slow vanishing of the line that separates anti-Israel discourse from straight-up anti-Semitism—I thought it would be worthwhile to post longer excerpts of our conversation.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You’ve been speaking out about anti-Semitism fairly regularly. What is motivating you?

David Cameron: It is so important for European countries, post-Second World War, to prove that they can be successful multiethnic and multiracial democracies. I think we in Britain have had great success in avoiding the hatreds and prejudices of the past.

Goldberg: But you have this unease in large swaths of British Jewry, a feeling that something is going awry. It’s not as serious a feeling as it is in France or other countries on the continent, but it’s there. Is this fight not being won?

Cameron: The Jewish community in Britain makes an incredibly important contribution to our country. It is so well-integrated into every part of life. What is frightening at the moment, because of the rise of Islamist extremism, is that you see a new threat—a new anti-Semitism—and not the traditional anti-Semitism. Look, there’s always been some difficulties between religions in European history. But this is a new scale of threat against Jewish communities. I don’t think in Britain we have all the answers, but we’ve been quick off the mark in stopping the hate preachers coming in. We have to clear up the problems you find on campus, we’ve got to go after incitement and hatred and violence, we’ve got to do more work with the Jewish community to help them protect themselves. And we’ve been doing these things.

Goldberg: What do you think when you read stories in the papers about Jews saying they’re contemplating leaving?

Cameron: It’s not surprising that when you have these attacks taking places across Europe, you hear from some people in Jewish communities the question, "Is it safe here?" I don’t think they’re particularly saying that about Britain. In Britain we’re working as hard as we can to make people feel safe. But I can quite understand why Jewish people in Britain, or anywhere in Europe, ask these questions after what happened in the Holocaust. So I think in Britain we’re taking the right approach, tackling anti-Semitism, emphasizing the contributions of the Jewish community, and all the rest of it. It’s something that needs renewed attention.

Goldberg: Are there things that Israel could do that might ameliorate some of this tension?

Cameron: I start from the position that it is unfair and wrong to lay at the door of Jewish communities in Europe the policies pursued by the government of Israel that people might not agree with—it’s completely wrong.

Goldberg: Is there a bright line in your mind that separates anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism?

Cameron: As well as the new threat of extremist Islamism, there has been an insidious, creeping attempt to delegitimize the state of Israel, which spills over often into anti-Semitism. We have to be very clear about the fact that there is a dangerous line that people keep crossing over. This is a state, a democracy that is recognized by the United Nations, and I don’t think we should be tolerant of this effort at delegitimization. The people who are trying to make the line fuzzy are the delegitimizers. And I have a very clear view, which is that if you disagree with the policies of Israel, fine, say so, but that is never a reason to take that out on Jewish communities. We have to be very clear about threats—this is a dangerous line that people keep crossing over, that says that anti-Zionism is a legitimate form of political discourse.

Goldberg: When, in your mind, is criticism legitimate?

Cameron: It depends on how you define it. Is it a legitimate view for people to attack the government of Israel for building settlements or not immediately establishing a two-state solution? Of course people hold that view. I think the two-state solution is needed. I don’t support settlements, but this all has to be negotiated.

Goldberg: Is there sometimes an overreaction to legitimate criticism?

Cameron: People have every reason to be concerned because you’ve got several things happening at the same time. You’ve got the poisonous narrative of Islamist extremism, which is targeting Jews generally. You’ve got specific attacks in Europe. And you have the rise of anti-Semitism on campuses or in public life, including sadly in Britain in some cases. Plus, you’ve got the issue of delegitimization being pushed, the boycotts of the state of Israel by universities and the like, and soon you add all these things up and you can see why some in the Jewish community are very concerned.

Goldberg: Do you think you’ll ever face a situation in which large numbers of Jews look for the exit?

Cameron: I read your piece about Manuel Valls, in which he talked about the threat of a France without Jews, and I thought it was fascinating. The way he put it was very powerful, and it resonated with me. I would be heartbroken if I ever thought that people in the Jewish community thought that Britain was no longer a safe place for them. I think we are miles and miles away from that, but I understand the concerns they have and I think we’re addressing them.