How (Not) to Fight the Wave of European anti-Semitism

The tendency of Israel’s right to unfairly accuse the European mainstream of delegitimizing Israel is morally despicable and has calamitous consequences for Israel’s political standing.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe was the Newsweek cover story earlier this month.
The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe was the Newsweek cover story earlier this month.Credit: Screengrab
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

The Gaza War has led to a wave of anti-Semitic incidents, demonstrations and utterances in Europe that is genuinely worrying. They range from Muslims who chant anti-Semitic slogans to right-wingers who scream that Jews should be gassed.

The phenomenon was by no means limited to the streets – the intelligentsia has participated as well. Just some examples: Italian philosopher and former politician Gianni Vattimo said on a radio show that he would love to shoot some Zionists and that Europe should raise money to help Hamas get more rockets, and Spanish playwright Antonio Gala wrote that it wasn’t surprising that Jews have been expelled so many times in their history.

There is no doubt that European governments in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Britain and the other countries where anti-Semitic incidents occurred need to react quickly. If the phenomenon is allowed to spread without a sharp reaction from both security forces and the judiciary, European Jews will soon find themselves in an impossible situation. Already now there are European cities in which Jews do not wear a skullcap on the street and ask their Israeli friends not to speak Hebrew in public, a situation that is utterly intolerable.

So far the obvious: No civilized person of any nationality, creed or race could think otherwise.

It is of great importance to realize that European mainstream media have reacted accordingly. All major German and French newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations I have followed have addressed the anti-Semitic incidents with utmost seriousness, and condemned them emphatically. Leading intellectuals like prominent German sociologist Ulrich Beck have written extensive analyses of these recent events, and the governments are reacting accordingly: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said that an attack on French Jews is an attack on France, and many German politicians have reacted similarly. German officials who spoke to me on condition of anonymity think that not enough arrests have been made and sentencing needs to be swift and exemplary, and it is to be hoped that this profoundly worrying wave will be brought under control.

But I am also deeply worried about one way of addressing this wave of anti-Semitism that could be destructive and catastrophic. Israel’s right-wingers have claimed for a long time that all criticism of Israeli policies, particularly the occupation, is really an expression of anti-Semitism. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the leading voice in bemoaning that Israel’s very existence is delegitimized when Israel is criticized. And the right-wingers, who are trying to legitimize their colonialist positions on the West Bank occupation, will now make disastrous abuse of the wave of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe to say “We told you so!” and see these developments as further reasons to continue their disastrous policies. Nothing could be worse, and nothing could be more harmful for Israel.

A closer look at the European media shows that there have been many voices, particularly in Germany and France, whose media I follow closely, who have said that the criticism of Israel’s actions in Gaza has been disproportional and that Israel is indeed often singled out unfairly. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of respected mainstream media have voiced outrage about the anti-Semites’ tendency to accuse Jews as a group for the actions of Israel’s government. The European mainstream is certainly critical of many of Israel’s actions but it harshly condemns anti-Semitism, and it supports Israel’s right to self-defense, even if many of them think Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks have been disproportionate.

The tendency of Israel’s right to unfairly accuse the European mainstream of delegitimizing Israel – and even more its hints, and sometimes outright accusation that this mainstream is anti-Semitic – is morally despicable and has calamitous consequences for Israel’s political standing. Israel has many friends in Europe who care about us, but think that the occupation is morally untenable and disastrous for Israel’s future.

Israel is justified in pointing out that its actions are scrutinized disproportionately when compared to the actions of Russia, China and even more, of course, when compared to the genocidal actions in Syria, both by the Assad government and now by the barbarian hordes of Islamic State. But we must by all means refrain from alienating Israel’s friends and allies by disqualifying their criticism of Israel’s actions as anti-Semitic. Bennett, Lieberman and company may think that Europe is irrelevant to Israel, a proof of nothing but their lack of statesmanship and understanding of Israel’s long-term existential and strategic needs. Israel will be under sharp criticism in the months to come, and we will need our friends in Europe no less than those in the U.S. to defend us against one-sided attacks and accusations.

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