The investigation of Sunday’s shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussel is still ongoing, and assessments regarding the motive are varied, but Belgian authorities say the attack, which is being investigated as a terror incident, has anti-Semitic characteristics.
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Until all the details are known, the act of violence in the heart of Europe joins the successes of the far right across Europe in Sunday’s elections for the European Parliament in painting a difficult picture for Europe’s Jews.
The official seat of the European Parliament is in Strasbourg, but most of its activity takes place in Brussels. In the next five years the city’s Jewish community can expect to encounter politicians from all over Europe with very controversial opinions.
Still, a meticulous examination of the election results does not point to a wave of anti-Semitism sweeping the continent.
The National Front in France is sending 24 members to Strasbourg. Britain’s UK Independence Party, members of which have been caught making repeated racist remarks, won 24 seats.
Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn enters the European Parliament for the first time, with three seats- one seat more than the Sweden Democrats, another party with neo-Nazi roots that has undergone a drastic image change in recent years — concealing most of its ultranationalist characteristics, but not its opposition to immigration.
The extreme-right, anti-immigration Danish People’s Party won 26 percent of the votes, making it the largest party in Denmark.
But in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party lost ground, as did Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, which lost one of its two representatives. Austria’s Freedom Party doubled its strength, to four seats, however.
And, for the first time, Germany’s neo-Nazi NPD is sending a representative to Brussels: Udo Voigt, who recently told Reuters, “We say Europe is the continent of white people and it should remain that way.”
Despite Sunday’s election gains for far-right parties, according to the latest report on the issue by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, published last month, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe actually declined last year.
The center, at Tel Aviv University, is headed by Prof. Dina Porat. And while the Anti-Defamation League’s Global 100 Index found that 24 percent of Western Europeans held anti-Semitic attitudes, it is hard to find a direct link to the election results.
The index scores in France and the United Kingdom, where far-right parties swept the EU polls, were 37 percent and 8 percent, respectively. And Greece and Sweden, both of which voted to send parties with a neo-Nazi past to Strasbourg for the first time, were on either end of the Global 11 Index, at 69 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Another measurement of the threat felt by European Jews is immigration to Israel. While in most countries on the continent the number of Jews coming to Israel declined between 2012 and 2013, in France the number rose by nearly 50 percent, to 3,200, and so far this year the pace is only increasing. France had the most anti-Semitic incidents in the world, according to the Kantor Center report, but perhaps it can shed light on the situation throughout the continent.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front and the daughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has made tremendous efforts to shed the party’s anti-Semitic image. And while her father suggested last week that the deadly Ebola virus could solve Europe’s immigration problems, his daughter has successfully rebranded the party as protecting “ordinary citizens” from both the bureaucrats in Brussels and mass immigration from Africa.
In France as in other EU member states, the makeovers of the far-right parties included removing most of their anti-Semitic features to focus on fear of the “Muslim threat” to the continent.
Many French Jews are still repelled by the National Front, and German Jews are certainly shocked by the neo-Nazis’ gains in their country (even if they had more to do with the lowering of the electoral threshold than a significant rise in support for the NPD).
But a significant proportion of the anti-Semitic incidents in France and elsewhere in Europe are a product of anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslims, linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and not “old-school” Christian anti-Semitism.
Until Saturday’s attack in Brussels, the worst anti-Semitic attack in Europe in recent years was the 2012 killing of four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse by a Muslim extremist.
The shared fear of Muslims has not yet led major Jewish organizations to lift their boycotts against dubious politicians in far-right parties.
But the common interest is clear, and the wall is more porous than it once was, as seen in the increasingly close ties between the extreme right in Europe and in Israel.
The first sign of this was in late 2010, when to the chagrin of Austrian Jewish leaders MK Ayoob Kara (Likud) met with the head of the Austrian Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache. In March, a visiting delegation from Belgium’s Vlaams Belang met with Liku deputy cabinet minister MK Ofir Akunis.
Over the next five years the new far-right can be expected to make a lot of noise in Brussels, but most European Jews will probably not be particularly upset by that.
Sunday’s European Parliament elections, coming as they did after years of serious economic crisis on the continent, were largely a referendum on the common European project.
The success of the rightists, who in addition to xenophobia proudly carry the flag of opposition to the EU, is a warning light for the future of this ambitious enterprise.
But we must remember that they are still the smallest bloc in Strasbourg, and that their weak showing in most EU member states will limit the influence they can wield.
Another interesting finding from Sunday was that, for the first time, voter turnout did not decline and even increased slightly. That suggests that the far right’s success were the result of its recruiting new voters.
The question is what the counter-responses will be to the success of the xenophobes in Brussels. If the EU manages to overcome the challenges of the coming years and makes it to the next scheduled election, in 2019, will the opponents of the ultra-nationalists match their success in signing up new voters who will balance out the support for the extremists?