Anti-Semitism in Europe: A Crisis, but Not Yet a Catastrophe

Riots in Paris, cries of 'Jews to the gas' in Berlin and an Italian call for a 'Nuremberg Tribunal' for Israel have yet to trigger a Jewish exodus from Europe.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A pro-Palestinian protester displays a burning Israeli flag during a banned demonstration in support of Gaza at Place de la Republique in Paris, France, July 26, 2014.
A pro-Palestinian protester displays a burning Israeli flag during a banned demonstration in support of Gaza at Place de la Republique in Paris, France, July 26, 2014.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Two weeks ago, a secret emergency meeting was held in Jerusalem, chaired jointly by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose cabinet portfolio includes the relationship between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky. On the agenda was the outbreak of anti-Semitic attacks on Jews across Europe in the wake of the Gaza conflict. The meeting was attended by representatives of government departments and major Jewish organizations operating in Europe. They heard assessments from the leadership and security bodies of some of the European communities, and from experts in Israeli agencies who have a brief to monitor the physical safety of Jews around the world and discreetly assist communities at risk.

Little role for Israel

No conclusions were reached at the meeting. As of now there is little Israel can or perhaps should do. The rash of attacks on Jews, vandalism of synagogues and homes, and virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric is being confronted energetically by police, local authorities and national governments. The level of violence, while unprecedented in decades, is not yet causing a scared exodus – no-one is chartering planes for an airlift. But something has changed.

Those who have been monitoring levels of anti-Semitism in Europe for years are struggling to put their finger on what exactly has changed in recent weeks. Looking back at the last 15 years, the current wave of attacks is just the latest in a series beginning with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, and repeating itself with each round of violence in Gaza, the West Bank or Lebanon. So what is different this time?

‘Jews to the gas’
It isn’t just the large number of cases of attacks and vandalism of synagogues across the continent, including firebombings in Germany and France, the anti-Israel demonstrations in Paris that swiftly turned into riots outside synagogues and Jewish-owned stores, the cries of “Jews to the gas” in Berlin, and of course the hundreds of cases of verbal abuse of Jews on the street and on social networks.

It wasn’t only Turkey’s President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who compared Israel to Hitler and called upon the local Jewish community to condemn the Jewish state. In other countries Jews have come up against the demand to distance themselves from Israel. The Tricycle Theatre in London refused to host the U.K. Jewish Film Festival because the organizers would not end their cooperation with the Israeli embassy. Italian historian Angelo d’Orsi called for Israel to face a “Nuremberg Tribunal” and said that he used the term Nuremberg “to shock the Italian Jewish community,” which has become “a mouthpiece for the Israeli government.” The popular Spanish newspaper El Mundo published an article by playwright Antonio Gala saying, “It’s not strange they (the Jews) have been so frequently expelled.”

“It’s worse than any previous period we can remember. Worse than the waves after Operation Cast Lead and the Marmara incident,” says Richard Goldstein, operations director at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, where he closely follows the situation of Jewish communities in Europe. “Intimidating demonstrations in numerous places in Europe, often leading to attacks on Jewish businesses and synagogues – we haven’t seen things like this for decades. On the other hand, there have been sudden waves like this in the past and afterwards things went back to normal. It’s hard now to predict how things will look once Gaza calms down. But it looks like a red line has been crossed where many don’t make the distinction between Israel and Jews anymore.”

In the last eight years Europe has seen a series of murders of Jews and Israelis – starting with the kidnap, torture and murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris in 2006. In 2012 four French-Israeli Jews were shot outside a Jewish school in Toulouse. The same year five Israeli tourists and a local driver were killed in the explosion of a bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. Two and a half months ago four people were murdered at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Other plans to carry out terror attacks on Jewish targets were foiled.

All these attacks were carried out by Muslim assailants but the motives were different. The gang that murdered Halimi tried to extort money from his family. The Burgas bombing has been linked to Hezbollah while the Toulouse shooting was done by a radicalized French civilian acting on his own. So was Mehdi Nemmouche, the alleged shooter from Brussels who may have been acting with some connection to the Islamic State, for which he fought in Syria before returning home.

The connection between the radicalization among large Muslim communities in western Europe and the wave of anti-Semitism cannot be ignored. But at the same time generalizations are very dangerous. Most Muslims in these countries are ordinary citizens trying to get by, without much interest in politics. And most of those who take part in demonstrations supporting Gaza do not overstep the line between legitimate protest and violence. They or their parents emigrated from a wide range of countries; most are not even Arabs. In Britain many are of Pakistani origin, in Germany a large number are Turkish, and in France they are predominantly from the Maghreb.

Sociologist Keith Kahn-Harris, whose recent book, Uncivil War, explores the connection between the Jewish community and Israel, says that “while there are other, much bloodier conflicts taking place in the Middle East, they are between Muslims, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a non-Muslim side who are seen by Muslims in Europe as colonialist occupiers. It’s easier therefore for Muslim Europeans who have found it hard to integrate to identify with the Palestinians.” The blurred distinction between Jews and Israelis has led to absurd scenes like the flying of Islamic State and Palestinian flags together at demonstrations and on the gates of a housing estate in East London.

The anti-Semitic dynamic changes between countries. In France and Belgium it is fueled by the frustrations of young Muslims living in poor suburbs. In Germany the new anti-Semitism blends in with the old neo-Nazi elements. In Britain it feeds off parts of the radical left who see Israeli Jews as colonialists. In Spain, Italy and Greece the Judeophobia feeds off resentment towards the global financial system, which is widely blamed for these countries’ economic woes and deep recession. In Hungary, where there are very few Muslims, anti-Semitism is part of a wave of ultra-nationalism sweeping the country. And across Europe, the rise of anti-EU parties has also led to a repudiation of the vision of a borderless, tolerant, multicultural continent, which in many cases has also brought a return of the oldest European hatred.

So far the violence against Jews has been met with a tough response from the authorities, including even a temporary ban on anti-Israel demonstrations in France. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said anti-Semitism was “an attack on freedom, on tolerance and on our democratic state.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that “to attack a Jew is to attack France.” The foreign ministers of Germany, Italy and France issued a joint statement condemning all forms of violence. In Sweden, a local Muslim politician was forced to resign after saying that “in Palestine our brothers are being slaughtered by the Jewish pigs.” As Daniella Peled wrote last week in Haaretz, in Britain, pro-Palestinian organizations have tried, with some success, to prevent demonstrators using placards comparing Israel to the Nazis, and called upon their supporters not to harass Jews after leaving the protests.

It’s important at this stage not to exaggerate the seriousness of the incidents or to confuse legitimate, even angry, protests against Israel and violence towards Jews. Most of the anti-Semitic incidents have been on the Internet or in speech; actual physical violence has been relatively limited. Only a few months ago, some Jewish organizations were warning about a terrible wave of anti-Semitism about to befall the Jews of Ukraine following the revolution in Kiev. Aside from a few isolated cases, it has failed to materialize, and both sides in the Ukrainian conflict, the pro-western Kiev government and the pro-Russian separatists, have made efforts to show that they are protecting Jewish communities.

The Jewish Agency has made much of the fact that aliyah from France has doubled over the last two years. Agency chairman Sharansky wrote last month in the London Jewish Chronicle that “we are seeing the beginning of the end of Jewish history in Europe.” But even if 6,000 French Jews immigrate this year to Israel, it will only be 1 percent of the Jewish community there.

“It’s a mistake to connect the large aliyah from France solely with anti-Semitism,” says a senior Agency official. “They are leaving mainly for financial reasons and have planned this over the course of years. No one sees an anti-Semitic incident and comes to Israel the next day.”

Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a letter to Jewish communities around the world, thanking them for being “a source of great strength for the people of Israel” during the last two months. The ties between Israel and European Jewry have probably never been stronger, but at the same time, 99 percent of European Jews choose to continue living there, and in many places are undergoing a fascinating cultural renaissance. They are aware of and worried about the rise in anti-Semitism, but as yet there doesn’t seem to be the fear of a pogrom right around the corner. No one is sleeping with their bags packed, ready to flee to Zion. Even the most ardent Zionists among them are concerned not to be held accountable as Jews for the actions of the Jewish state.

Anti-Semitic incidents in Europe: A breakdown.

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