Is It Good for the Jews?: Anti-Semitism and the New Europe

There are lots of different ways to talk, and think, about European anti-Semitism, and most of them have been heard at one time or another over the past year.

You can look at the jihadist murders of Jews in Brussels, Paris, and the Danish capital of Copenhagen over the past 12 months, and in Toulouse, in southern France, three years ago, and at the murder of Ilan Halimi in Paris in 2006, and conclude that Europe generally, and France in particular, has a problem with homicidal anti-Semitism.

You can look at the thousands of Jews who have left France in recent years, traumatized by successive anti-Semitic murders and wearied by the weekly grind of anti-Semitic abuse, threats, and violence that rarely makes the international news, and wonder if Jews have a future in Europe at all.

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You can look at the electoral success of the neo-fascist Jobbik in Hungary, and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, and the far-right National Front in France, and worry that Europe has forgotten the destruction wrought on the continent by fascism and Nazism, with all their attendant anti-Semitism, during the last century, and is destined to repeat the errors of its own history.

Or you can listen to the heartfelt and compelling support for European Jewry expressed recently by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron, the leaders of the three most powerful states in the European Union, and feel reassured that Jews, despite the attacks they suffer and dangers they face, are nonetheless valued and protected in the new Europe.

You can look at National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who regularly tries to appear philosemitic and to distance herself from the party’s fascist past, even at the cost of breaking from her own father, and—whether she is sincere or not, whether this is cosmetic or not—you can wonder what it means, that in order to be electable she feels compelled to reach out to French Jews.

And you can look at a city like London, where new Jewish schools and community centers thrive, where Jews play a full role in a diverse, multicultural city, and where the prospect of the United Kingdom electing its first Jewish Prime Minister (Ed Miliband) since Queen Victoria sat on the throne was barely discussed (outside Jewish circles, of course) during the recent election, and imagine that anti-Semitism is something in the margins, an unfortunate relic of outdated prejudice that only rarely intrudes upon the daily lives of ordinary Jews.

Or, most confusing of all, you can imagine that all of these things are true, and accurate, and are happening simultaneously in today’s Europe, and that the good and bad stories about anti-Semitism and Jewish life in Europe do not even contradict each other. And you would be right to do so.


The problems are real enough. Jihadists pose a grave threat to Jewish life, and the jihad in Syria and Iraq, so easily accessible for European jihadists who wish to travel back and forth between their homes and the battlefield, means that this threat will endure for years to come. Neo-Nazis have seats in the European Parliament for the first time in its history, and the economic and immigration crises of the eurozone mean that populist (and in some cases, anti-Semitic) parties of the far right and far left will continue to attract support in future elections.

Whenever Israel fights its periodic conflicts with Hamas or Hezbollah, Jews in Europe will feel the backlash. In July and August 2014, as the bombs and rockets began to fly between Gaza and southern Israel, anti-Semitism started its predictable rise in European cities. In France, riot police were needed to protect synagogues and Jewish shops were burnt out. In Britain, the highest-ever number of anti-Semitic incidents was recorded. In Germany, chants of “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” were heard coming from anti-Israel demonstrators.

These outbreaks of anti-Semitism are most acute during times of conflict, but their background hum has a more permanent feel for many Jews. In 2013, before the most recent Gaza war and before the Paris and Copenhagen and Brussels attacks, 60 percent of Swedish Jews told opinion pollsters that they always or frequently avoided wearing or carrying anything in public that might identify them as Jewish. Forty-nine percent of French Jews and 45 percent of Belgian Jews said the same. These figures were lower in other parts of Europe, but Jews in those places look to France and Belgium and wonder if that is where their own societies are heading. Such fears are not compatible with what European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor calls a “normative Jewish life.”

It would be easy to imagine that this anti-Semitism is uniform and ubiquitous, but what is striking about anti-Semitism in Europe is how much it varies from place to place. A snapshot of this asymmetry can be seen in a series of experiments conducted during the past six months, in which various journalists donned Jewish garb and walked the streets of European cities, accompanied by people wearing hidden cameras to record any anti-Semitic comments (or worse) from passersby. This was done in London, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Rome, Copenhagen, Manchester, and Bradford, and the results show the danger in trying to squeeze the story of European anti-Semitism into a single narrative.

In London, the journalist failed to elicit a single hostile comment, having spent an entire day walking through different parts of the city. In contrast, the reporter who walked through Manchester and Bradford, two cities in northern England, recorded ten different incidents of anti-Semitic abuse in an hour of filming. All came from people of South Asian appearance—which, in the neighborhoods where he was walking, invariably means Muslims. In Paris, anti-Semitic catcalls, threats, and some physical intimidation were experienced. In Berlin and Stockholm, the Jewish-looking journalists heard no abuse at all. In Rome, threatening comments were outnumbered by those (non-Jewish) people who shouted “shalom.” In Copenhagen, where a Jewish security guard had been murdered outside the main synagogue in February, the response was a mixture of abuse and—literally—a hug from a stranger.

These confusing snapshots are repeated in other ways. Synagogues and Jewish schools across Europe now operate behind fences, gates, and, in some cases, armed guards. Yet come to London during the festival of Chanukah and you will find Europe’s largest chanukiah in Trafalgar Square, alongside an equally outsized Christmas tree. It has become tradition that the chanukiah will be lit by the mayor of London, while a Jewish school choir sings to a crowd of several thousand Jews and non-Jews who happily munch on doughnuts. The police and the Community Security Trust (CST, the UK Jewish community’s own volunteer security organization, for which I work) are present, of course, but it all takes place in an easy, relaxed, and very public atmosphere. And while the current mayor, Boris Johnson, has an uneventful relationship with London’s Jews, this particular celebration was initiated by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, a left-wing politician with a long record of conflict with the Jewish community due to his views on Israel.

While successive mayors of London have taken steps to make Jews feel that they belong in the city’s multicultural patchwork, Europe’s leaders have also been queuing up to wrap Europe’s Jews in a broader embrace. Angela Merkel said that fighting anti-Semitism is “every German’s duty,” and French Prime Minister Valls declared that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.”

These two statements alone show how misguided comparisons with 1930s Europe can be. From being Europe’s perennial “Other,” Jews have become integral to, and emblematic of, European society. “If the Jewish community does not feel secure,” Prime Minister Cameron told 1,300 guests at the CST dinner in March, “then our whole national fabric is diminished . . . It is a measure of the vigor of our institutions and the health of our democracy that the Jewish community feels safe to live and flourish here.”


The connection between anti-Semitism and wider assaults on Europe’s core values was made explicit in the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. In both places, Europe’s tradition of free speech was assaulted first, then Europe’s Jews. Police officers, too, were among the victims. Free speech, freedom of religion, and the rule of law: three pillars of European democracy were the targets of the assassins’ bullets.

This is why, as anti-Semitism has come to define the public and private debate about Jewish life in Europe, a politics of “anti-anti-Semitism” has also developed alongside it. The new jihadist terrorism that targets Jews differs from the Palestinian nationalist terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s because it comes from within, and cannot be treated as a separate, self-contained problem. The terrorists in Paris and Copenhagen, like Mohammed Merah in Toulouse before them, were not foreign agents dispatched to Europe to carry out a proxy war against Israel, as had been the case with Abu Nidal, or the PFLP, or other Palestinian groups in previous decades. They were born and raised in the same societies as those they chose to kill, and they murdered soldiers, police officers, and journalists before they murdered Jews.

The problem of European Muslims killing European Jews, then, is not explained by anger over Gaza, or by tensions between Muslims and Jews. It is part of the broader problem of extremism that has found purchase within European Muslim communities. There are manifold reasons why around 4,000 Muslim men and women have travelled from Western Europe to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State and al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front. Grievances real and perceived, identity crises, the struggle with modernity, a thirst for adventure and the excitement of a utopian mission in which anything is justified for the creation of a new, perfect world all play their part. This is a problem that Jewish communities cannot solve for themselves, but is one for which European governments need to find the answer.

However, this new politics of anti-anti-Semitism runs much deeper than the immediate need to confront the jihadist challenge. In essence, it represents a version of the postwar European settlement, in which nationalism and militarism have been renounced and Holocaust remembrance has become a vehicle for transmitting core European values of tolerance and pluralism to the next generation.

Hence leaders of most of the right-wing populist movements in Western Europe, including those whose parties have a fascist or anti-Semitic heritage that can still animate their contemporary membership, often insist that they bear no malice toward Jews; that their parties’ history is just that—history; and that their call for restrictions on immigration and promotion of monocultural policies are in fact necessary to protect the future of European Jewry.

It was also noteworthy that in Europe’s own war of 2014, Ukrainian nationalists and Russian separatists both sought to paint the other as anti-Semitic agitators or as the heirs of wartime fascism. This article is not the place to assess the truth of these claims; only to note that a professed concern for Jewish life and remembrance of the Holocaust—whether genuinely expressed or cynically deployed—are perceived to be an entry code that unlocks the door to the new Europe. Those far-right parties, like Jobbik in Hungary, that maintain a public discourse that is anti-Semitic, usually do so in conjunction with a rejection of the values that underpin the European Union.

This appropriation of Jewish interests by European elites and nationalist movements has its antithesis in the rejection of establishment Holocaust commemoration programs by those who feel outside the mainstream of European society. In the UK, for example, a willingness to attend Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies has become a litmus test of moderation amongst Muslim organizations. The Muslim Council of Britain’s refusal to do so for much of the first decade of its existence was controversial for wider society; its subsequent attendance at the ceremonies since 2010 has itself been criticized by some of its own membership.

Some radical left-wing movements and activists are also critics of mainstream Holocaust commemoration, which they see as “Zionist,” in that it reinforces the moral case for the existence of the state of Israel. Increasingly, left-wing groups and their Islamist allies in the UK view the Holocaust as a tragedy whose ultimate victims are the Palestinians, not today’s Jews, and see Israel as the heir to Europe’s nationalist, militarist, and even Nazi past. For them, David has become not so much Goliath as Adolf.

The notorious French comic and political activist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala has built a career partly on this idea. In 2008, Dieudonné used his show at the Zénith de Paris theater to give an award to France’s best-known Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson. When Faurisson came onstage, Dieudonné encouraged his audience to give him an ovation, in order to “stick it to them the right way . . . to send them climbing up the wall.” He didn’t define “them,” but he didn’t need to. His young, fashionable, largely left-wing audience got the message: Holocaust commemoration is part of the establishment, and Holocaust denial, or at least Holocaust mockery, is a way to show radical credentials.

Instead of the Holocaust, Dieudonné offers colonialism and slavery as alternative moral frameworks on which to build contemporary Europe. Why, he asked an interviewer in 2006, is there “a community that gets all the public attention and exclusively lays claim to the image of the victim, when there is another entire community that no one cares what happened to it—it’s not studied in history lessons, and its experience is ignored by everyone.” He was not shy of spelling out exactly who he had in mind: “The Jews do tend to place the issues close to their hearts at the top of the agenda, but today in France the communities that are really suffering from discrimination are the African-Arab-Muslim populations. They are the ones who don’t find work, who are ejected from society and forced to make their way on the margins because French society won’t agree to take them in.”

Dieudonné is egregious, particularly with his quenelle—a demi Nazi salute that has energized the semiotics of anti-Semitism—but the idea that Jews are integrated, prosperous, and powerful, certainly compared to European Muslim populations, and that anti-Semitism is therefore not a modern concern, is widespread. Much left-wing opposition to Israel is rooted in the idea that Israel is a vestige of colonialism, a settler state left behind in the Middle East by the Western powers. Thus the competition between these rival conceptions of the new Europe—one built on Holocaust remembrance and one built on anti-colonialism—relates directly to the question of whether Israel should be embraced or rejected by Europe’s core values.

A third option can be found in the East European political campaign for Communist crimes to be placed alongside those of the Nazis under the rubric of a “Double Genocide.” Codified in the Prague Declaration of 2008 and pressed through the European Parliament, Holocaust memory is subsumed within a wider anti-totalitarian history. The struggle between those who are trying to develop a pluralist, open national identity in the new democracies of Eastern Europe and those who favor a narrow ethno-nationalism can be found in the willingness to confront difficult histories of collaboration and participation in the Holocaust, or the desire to bury that history under the more recent, Communist past. Within this debate, old anti-Semitic traditions of nation and religion re-emerge in a contemporary radical right-wing politics.

One demand of the Prague Declaration is for history textbooks across the European Union to be rewritten so that Communism and Nazism are seen as equals. Like Dieudonné’s request for slavery to be studied in history books, this reflects an understanding that the identity of the new Europe is to be shaped through the education of future generations. 


The place of Jews in this future Europe is a question that has hung over recent debates about anti-Semitism. Israel’s political leadership seems clear about the answer. Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who is now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel, said a few days after the Copenhagen terrorist attacks that “there is no future for Jews in western Europe.” This, he explained, is because “there is a strengthening of the Islamist community and the growing hatred of Israel from the direction of the liberal community.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking the same week, announced that “we are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe.”

However, there is a contradiction in the suggestion that jihadist terrorism can bring about such a cataclysm. For if the primary threat to Jewish life in Europe today comes from jihadists, who are a minority of a minority and who, importantly, are also the enemy of European society itself, then it is difficult to see how this particular danger can really threaten the entire future of European Jewish life. This is doubly so when you consider the forcefulness with which European political leaders have attached the defense of Jewish communities to the wider effort to defend European values. The question itself can seem misplaced when you compare Europe to South America, and contrast European political support for its Jews with the collapse of the Venezuelan Jewish population during the Hugo Chávez years, or the struggles of Argentinian Jewry to expose the complicity of its own political establishment in the denial of justice to the victims of the 1994 AMIA bombing.

The answer to this contradiction is threefold. First, the shock waves that pass through Jewish communities when terrorists strike can be profound and enduring. In today’s interconnected world, this is not limited to the local communities that are actually attacked. Terrorism in Paris and Copenhagen caused unprecedented anxiety among British Jews. This ripple effect alone can cause many Jews to question their future. European Jewish history has taught a harsh lesson about the value of anticipating anti-Semitic outbreaks before they reach their peak impact.

Secondly, terrorist attacks do not occur in a vacuum. Last summer, when European anti-Semitism began to rise in response to the conflict in Gaza and southern Israel, it was Muslim anger that gave it energy and focus. This was seen in France, where riot police were needed to protect synagogues and where Jewish shops were burnt out. It was also seen in Britain, where the highest-ever number of anti-Semitic incidents was recorded and the proportion of anti-Semitic hate crime offenders described as South Asian or Arab rose significantly. Not all anti-Semitic hate crime is perpetrated by Muslims, but enough of it is for Jews, and others, to connect it to wider issues of extremism and cohesion that can sometimes feel as if they undermine the very basis of society itself.

This brings us to the third factor that gives jihadist violence a gravity that alarms many Jews, beyond the immediate physical danger that it poses. The confrontation between Islamist extremism and European liberal democracies threatens the stability of the post-Holocaust societies where Jewish communities have rebuilt their lives. With jihadists and disenchanted Muslims on one side, and far-right populist movements on the other, Europe’s Jews need a strong center ground of secular liberal democracy on which to maintain their balance.

Some of Europe’s leaders have risen to this challenge better than others, but too many have veered into dangerous territory on either side. Complacency and political correctness have allowed too much space for Islamist movements to grow, while measures to restrict their activities too often miss their target and threaten fundamental freedoms enjoyed by all.

Campaigns to restrict the religious slaughter of animals, for example, have enjoyed popularity in some countries because of fear of Muslim immigration, but they affect Jews and Muslims—extremist or not—alike. A short-lived recommendation from Britain’s UK Independence Party to ban religious slaughter made this clear, when the party’s agriculture spokesman sought to reassure the Jewish Chronicle newspaper: “This isn’t aimed at you—it’s aimed elsewhere—it’s aimed at others. You’ve been caught in the crossfire; collateral damage. You know what I mean.”

Restricting religious freedom in this way will do nothing to reduce Islamist extremism, but it will do a great deal to persuade Europe’s Jews that their future may lie elsewhere.

At the same time, indulging those Islamist groups that shun violence in the hope of diverting potential jihadists away from the siren call of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, while ignoring the fact that those same nonviolent Islamists often encourage the very grievances and conspiracy theories that the jihadists feed off, is a shortsighted and ultimately self-defeating strategy.

Ensuring that European Jews have confidence in their communities’ futures is an essential task for Europe’s political leaders, but only as part of ensuring that those European societies have a cohesive, safe, and prosperous future. This will be easier in some places than in others, just as some Jewish communities are under extreme pressure and others are thriving. The short-term need is to provide sufficient physical security to protect Jewish communities from jihadists. In the longer term, Europe needs to rediscover its own secular liberal values and assert them in a positive and inclusive way. Building societies that are diverse and cohesive, that promote an easy and relaxed multiculturalism while celebrating a core identity that everyone feels is their own, is no easy task. But this is the task facing Europe’s leaders today, and success in the struggle against anti-Semitism depends on it. 

Dave Rich is the deputy director of communications at the Community Security Trust, which provides security advice and assistance to the UK Jewish community and represents British Jewry to police, government, and media on anti-Semitism and Jewish security.


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