by Aaron Feigenbaum
Anti-Semitism is commonly thought of as hatred of the Jews as a racial and/or religious group, but in today’s politically volatile climate, this age-old phenomenon has, in many cases, taken on the guise of anti-Zionism. One of the regions most afflicted with this new politically charged anti-Semitism is the once liberal, tolerant Western Europe where opinion polls indicate that anti-Semitism is at its highest levels since the Nazi era. It is also seeing a sharp uptick in physical attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions.
While other regions such as Eastern Europe and the Arab world have higher levels of anti-Semitism, these regions are traditional anti-Semitic strong-holds that are not expected to change anytime soon. Contrast this with Western Europe where anti-Semitism was supposed to be a thing of the past but is now making a resurgence due to high levels of Muslim and right-wing extremism combined with tough economic conditions. We now see that the region prized as the bastion of liberty, democracy, and equality is slowly becoming anything but for the Jews living there.
The Anti-Defamation League’s most recent comprehensive survey on Western European anti-Semitism indicates a whopping 24% of the population harbors some kind of anti-Semitic belief. These polls presented 332,000 randomly chosen Europeans with anti-Semitic statements such as “Jews are more loyal to Israel than this country” and “Jews have too much power in the business world.” In fact, out of the 11 statements included in the poll, these two statements were the two most widely believed anti-Semitic stereotypes. Looking at the data by country, Greece and France, at 37% and 69% respectively, are far and away the most anti-Semitic countries. On the other hand, Denmark, U.K., Holland, and Sweden all score below 10% but still show an increase from previous years. The takeaway from this poll is not only that anti-Semitism in almost every Western European country is experiencing a significant increase in the prevalence of anti-Semitic opinions, but also that these opinions are couched in criticism of Israel and Zionism.
The ADL’s findings are complemented by an EU government study in which large majorities of Western European Jews felt that anti-Semitism was on the rise. Not surprisingly 29% were considering emigrating. Indeed, the Jewish Agency for Israel reported almost 3,300 Jews leaving France for Israel last year, a 72% increase from the previous year. Over 2,000 have left France so far this year.
France is now one of the most notorious anti-Semitic hot-spots in the world. Attacks on Jews have gone up sharply in addition to shul bombings, hate mail, and anti-Semitic graffiti. Some of the more notable cases of Muslim anti-Semitism there include the brutal kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi in 2006, the attack on the Jewish day school in Toulouse in 2012, and the Sarcelles riots last month in which Jewish businesses and shuls were vandalized and looted. A major cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France is Islamic extremism and racism, especially among young, often poor immigrants from North Africa.
However, we should be careful not to say that anti-Semitism is caused by poverty. At most, poverty is a catalyst for pre-existing anti-Semitism. The resurgence seems to have been prompted by the immigrants’ parents and imams (Islamic clerics) who taught them to hate, the anti-Israel media, extremist politicians, “anti-racist” groups who are often anything but, and a government which hasn’t responded adequately to this growing threat.
Nor can we say that this alarming trend is merely a reaction to recent events. Yonathan Arfi, vice-president of CRIF (the French Jewish council), “utterly rejects” the notion that the recent surge in anti-Semitism is due to the Gaza conflict. Rather, “The Muslim anti-Semitism we see today is mainly the result of an extreme interpretation of Islam and a corresponding culture which promotes hatred of Jews and which often conflates Jews with Israel/Zionism.”
But anti-Semitism in France is far from restricted to the Muslim community. The well-known French “comedian” Dieudonne has done, perhaps, more than anyone else to popularize and “normalize” anti-Semitism in French culture. His vile, thoroughly anti-Semitic “jokes” (if they can so be called) have crossed virtually every line of decency and have gained him both popularity and infamy throughout the country. Such “jokes” include him portraying an Israeli settler as a Nazi and creating the quenelle which can be described as a reverse Nazi salute. The French government succeeded in shutting down his TV show earlier this year and several major French cities have banned him from performing. Despite his setbacks, he is still supported by a fairly significant 16% of the population as of the last poll.
As for the U.K., we see a country that is near the bottom of the ADL’s list yet whose anti-Semitism levels are some of the fastest rising in Western Europe. According to CST (a British Jewish advocacy group), there have been over 200 anti-Semitic incidents just in the past six weeks throughout the U.K. The U.K. is also notable for the widespread adoption of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions program. Just last month, the U.K.’s largest labor union endorsed the movement, joining several universities and teacher unions who had already done so years before.
Sweden, which has the lowest rate of anti-Semitism in Western Europe, has seen its share of significant anti-Semitic incidents. Most notably, the southern Swedish city of Malmö has been an epicenter of anti-Semitic incidents including Molotov cocktails being thrown at a Jewish cemetary and physical and verbal attacks against Jews. A 2009 soccer match between Israel and Sweden in which Israel won erupted into one of Sweden’s largest anti-Israel demonstrations. What’s worse is that the former mayor of Malmö, Ilmar Reepalu denied that there were attacks on Jews in his city. Judith Popinski, a Holocaust survivor who found refuge in Malmö during the war, said that “Malmo reminds me of the anti-Semitism I felt as a child in Poland before the war. I am not safe as a Jew in Sweden anymore.”
Germany, the birthplace of Nazism, has also been affected by the anti-Semitic tidal wave. Much like France and the U.K., anti-Semitism in modern Germany comes mostly from Muslim immigrants and their descendants. Where Germany differs though is in the strict enforcement of its regulations against anti-Semitism, some of the toughest in Europe. A pro-Palestinian rally in Germany does not feature Israeli flag burning or any overtly racist slogans (especially not pro-Nazi ones). Yet despite the government’s praiseworthy efforts, anti-Semitic feelings still run deep. Outright racist slogans still make their way into the demonstrations. An imam in Berlin openly called for the destruction of the “Zionist Jews.” Violence and vandalism against Jews, Jewish businesses, and shuls is happening more frequently.
Greece has traditionally been hailed as the birthplace of democracy and Western civilization but now has the unfortunate distinction of being the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. Greece faces two of the biggest threats to its way of life it has ever seen. However, these threats do not include Islamic extremism (at least not to any significant degree), but rather the quasi-fascist, openly pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Golden Dawn Party as well as the crippling economic conditions which helped give that party political power. To give one of the more notable examples of this dangerous party’s anti-Semitic outbursts, their spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris, sporting a swastika tattoo, read from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in parliament without protest. The party’s leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos is a Holocaust denier. A Golden Dawn MP recently praised Hitler and promulgated the notion of a one-race Greece. As of this year, the party holds about 7% of the seats in Greek Parliament and about 10% of the seats in the European Parliament. Golden Dawn got 16% of the vote in the Athens mayoral election this year.
While the violent, gangster-esque Golden Dawn are a threat to the couple-thousand Jews living in Greece, their hatred has mainly been directed against Muslims and immigrants. Violent attacks against Jews and vandalism of Jewish property are quite rare compared to France which leads the continent in anti-Semitic violence. Jews are routinely blamed in Greece for causing the financial crisis but statements of this kind more often than not don’t materialize into violent actions.
Overall, while it’s unlikely that Europe will once again plunge into the nightmare world of Nazism anytime soon, these times are certainly the worst we’ve seen since that horrible era. Criticism of Israeli policy does not in and of itself constitute anti-Semitism. After all, Israel is a democracy and its government is routinely criticized by its citizens as would be the case in any other democracy. However, much of what we’ve seen in Europe and elsewhere crosses the line. Criticizing the recent operation in Gaza is one thing but lumping Israel and the Jews into the same category, much less associating Israel with Nazism, is when mere political rhetoric becomes hate speech. Hate speech should never be tolerated and it’s shameful that the governments of Europe have failed to stem the tide.
Because of government inaction, some Jewish Europeans such as those belonging to the French branch of the Jewish Defense League have decided to form a vigilante militia to patrol the streets and protect Jews and Jewish property from anti-Semitic rioters. The community felt that it had no alternative. This highlights the fact that governments should be doing much more to not only protect their Jewish populations, but also to better educate young people and root out jihadist elements before the riots start. If the governments of Europe truly want to show they’ve learned the lessons of the Holocaust, they’ll stand up for what’s right and commit themselves to eliminating anti-Semitism once and for all.
(Sources: ADL, The Guardian, Haaretz, Algemeiner, Forward, NY Times, France 24)