Rising anti-Semitism in Europe

Spiked, an independent journal about prejudice, recently published this very troubling article on the spread and increasing acceptability of anti-Semitism throughout Europe.  Ranging from virulent anti-Jew statements to boycotts of Jewish businesses, anti-Semitism is becoming rampant and according to the author Europeans are responding with a “see nothing, hear nothing” attitude.  The sociologist author attributes renewed hostility towards Jews to many causes.  These are some that struck my attention:

  • Mutation of anti-Israel sentiment into anti-Jewish sentiment, even before the most recent events in Gaza, and despite the fact that the majority of Jews are not Israeli, or strongly Zionist,
  • Overt expressions of anti-Semitism by some Muslim youth, who don’t subscribe to Europe’s historically hush hush approach to anti-Semitism following the Holocaust,
  • The need to find a scapegoat during the economic downturn and the supposed association between the financial crisis and American Jews.

Regardless of Europeans’ feelings on Gaza, which as a thinking Russian Jew I have mixed feelings about, it is abominable that Europeans are using Israel’s latest policies as a pretext to turn against Jewry in general, not to mention, to contend that Jews got what they deserved during the Holocaust!  (I lost most of my family in the Holocaust and we have nothing to do with Israel’s policies).  Of course such extreme proclamations are rare, but it is problematic that they are not being called out and denounced.  At moments like these, I thank the lucky stars (and my parents) that I’m in the US where I never feel like I am hated for being Jewish.

Below are excerpts from the article, which I recommend reading in its entirety if you have the time.

There is considerable evidence that in recent years anti-Semitism has acquired greater visibility and force in Europe. Over the past decade, and especially since the eruption of the conflict in Gaza, anti-Israeli sentiments have often mutated into anti-Jewish ones. Recent events indicate that in Europe the traditional distinction between anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiment has become confusing and blurred.

So recently, during a demonstration against Israel’s actions in Gaza, the Dutch Socialist Party MP Harry Van Bommel called for a new intifada against Israel. Of course he has every right to express this political viewpoint. However, he became an accomplice of anti-Semites when he chose to do nothing upon hearing chants of ‘Hamas, Hamas, all Jews to the gas’ and similar anti-Jewish slogans. Many people who should know better now keep quiet when they hear slogans like ‘Kill the Jews’ or ‘Jews to the oven’ on anti-Israel demonstrations. At a recent protest in London, such chants provoked little reaction from individuals who otherwise regard themselves as progressive anti-racists – and nor did they appear to be embarrassed by the sight of a man dressed as a racist Jewish caricature, wearing a ‘Jew mask’ with a crooked nose while pretending to eat bloodied babies.

Increasingly, protesters are targeting Jews for being Jews. They have agitated for the boycott and even harassment of ‘Israeli shops’, but in practice this means boycotting and harassing Jewish-owned shops, such as Marks & Spencer (some of whose stores have been barricaded by anti-Israel protesters) and Starbucks (a number of whose coffee shops have been attacked in London and elsewhere). Some protesters in Italy don’t share the linguistic subtlety of those ostensibly calling for a boycott of ‘Israeli shops’. Giancarlo Desiderati, spokesman for the trade union Flaica-Cub, has called for a boycott of Jewish businesses in Rome. A leaflet issued by his union informed Romans that anything they purchase in Jewish-owned shops will be ‘tainted by blood’.

Here, there is an almost effortless conceptual leap from criticising Israel to targeting Jews. Desiderati pointed out that his organisation had already called for a boycott of Israeli goods before taking the logical next step of demanding a boycott of Jewish shops. He said that his union was drawing up a list of Jewish shops, ‘though it might be better to publish a list of streets in which a majority of the shops are Jewish and ask people to avoid those streets when shopping’ (2).

Anti-Semitism in Europe is not simply a rhetorical pastime of Islamists or pro-Palestinian protesters. In Britain, Jewish schoolchildren have been castigated for belonging to a people with ‘blood on their hands’. Their elders sometimes face intimidation and regularly report being subjected to verbal abuse. What is most disturbing about these developments is the reluctance of European society to acknowledge and confront acts of anti-Semitism. Take the riots that broke out in Paris on 3 January. If you relied upon mainstream media reports, you would never have known that groups of youngsters were shouting ‘death to the Jews’ while throwing stones at the police. In this instance, expressions of anti-Semitism were not even properly reported, much less confronted and challenged in public debate.

Probably the saddest example of this accommodation to anti-Semitism comes from Denmark. Historically, Denmark has been one of the most enlightened societies in Europe. During the Second World War, it stood out as a country were the Nazis could find virtually nobody willing to collaborate with their anti-Jewish policies. It is sad, therefore, to read reports today about Danish school administrators who recommend that Jewish children should not enrol in their schools. It began last week, when Olav Nielsen, headmaster of Humlehave School in Odense, publicly stated that he would ‘refuse to accept the wishes of Jewish parents’ who wanted to place children at his school, because it might create tension amongst the Muslim children. Other headmasters echoed his refusal to school the children of Jews, claiming that they were putting children’s safety first. Whatever their intentions, these pedagogues were sending the powerful message that, in the interests of ‘health and safety’, the ghettoisation of Jewish children can be an acceptable and even sensible idea.

The most worrying dynamic in Europe today is not the explicit vitriol directed against Jews by radical Muslim groups or far-right parties, but the new culture of accommodation to anti-Semitism. We can see the emergence of a slightly embarrassed ‘see nothing, hear nothing’ attitude that shows far too much ‘understanding’ towards expressions of anti-Semitism. Typically, the response to anti-Jewish prejudice is to argue that it is not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israeli. Sometimes even politically correct adherents to the creeds of diversity and anti-racism manage to switch off when it comes to confronting anti-Jewish comments.

Many public figures blame Spain’s economic crisis on America’s influence over the global financial system. This outlook appears to be underpinned by a diffuse sense of frustration about our uncertain world, where invisible forces can come to be personified in the image of the caricatured Jew. This sentiment is inadvertently fostered by the Spanish Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which is profoundly hostile to Israel, and by the Spanish media’s frequent reluctance to distinguish between Israel and Jewish people. Cartoons that are critical of Israel in Spanish newspapers and magazines sometimes depict medieval anti-Semitic caricatures. At a dinner party in late 2005, Zapatero let rip against Israel. He was overheard saying: ‘Es que a veces hasta se entiende que haya gente que puede justificar el holocausto.’ In English: ‘At times one can even understand that there might be people who could justify the Holocaust.’ (10)

According to one interesting study of anti-Semitism in Europe, prejudices are ‘projected backwards to justify behaviour towards Jews in past conflicts’. The study says that ‘in this context, anti-Semitic arguments today frequently serve the purpose of rejecting guilt and responsibility for the persecutions of the Jews [in the past]’ (13). This approach is most notable in societies that were deeply implicated in the persecution of Jews during the Second World War; according to various surveys, the idea that Jews were responsible for their own persecution was supported by 30 per cent of respondents in Russia, 27 per cent in the Ukraine, 35 per cent in Belarus, 31 per cent in Lithuania, and 17 per cent in Germany in 2004 (14).

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