Back out in the open, Europe’s anti-Semitism kindles new response

Why We Wrote This

Public figures harassed and cemeteries defaced in France. MPs in Britain abandoning a party they say is ignoring hatred against Jews. Old libels given new life by the far right. Why is anti-Semitism growing bolder?

Frederick Florin/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a grave defaced with a swastika at the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France, during a Feb. 19 visit with Josette Prim (r.), Quatzenheim's deputy mayor.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Anti-Semitism has been a chronic problem for Europe, but it has come back to the fore in recent weeks. France has witnessed an especially shocking wave of anti-Semitic incidents this month, including the desecration of Jewish graves, which were daubed with swastikas. And in Britain, frustration with unaddressed anti-Semitism within the Labour Party led nine members of Parliament to leave the party this week, with future defections still speculated.

Anger at Israel constitutes a major strand in what has become known as “the new anti-Semitism” emanating from Muslim communities in Europe. But anti-Semitic prejudice is also surfacing more openly in Europe today as populist movements gain momentum on the strength of platforms promoting national identity and hostility to immigrants and other outsiders.

“We have seen a rise in populist movements, we’ve seen a rise in the appetite for conspiracy theories, and we’ve seen a deterioration of liberal democratic norms in several countries,” says Dave Rich, who works for a British group that monitors anti-Semitism. “And when those things happen, anti-Semitism finds its place.”

As dusk fell over Paris last Tuesday evening, some 20,000 people gathered around the iconic statue of “La République,” floodlit in patriotic red, white, and blue, to demonstrate their disgust at anti-Semitism.

“I can’t stand this racist filth anymore,” said Florent Nicoud, a bearded young filmmaker. “It makes me throw up.”

France has witnessed an especially shocking wave of anti-Semitic incidents this month, including the desecration of Jewish graves, which were daubed with swastikas.

But hate crimes against Jewish targets are on the rise across the continent, with increases reported last year in almost every country in Europe. As nationalist and populist movements have grown more powerful and Muslim citizens’ grievances against Israel have reinforced centuries-old European prejudices, anti-Semitic rhetoric is becoming more open.

“Our country, like Europe as a whole and almost all Western democracies, is facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism not seen since the Second World War,” French President Emmanuel Macron told the annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions (CRIF) on Wednesday.

But how Europe should go about combating this trend is by no means clear. Despite the age and familiarity of the problem – or perhaps because of it – there are no quick solutions.

“Anti-Semitism is a consequence of much deeper divisions and trends in society,” says Dave Rich, head of policy for the Community Security Trust (CST), a British group that monitors anti-Semitism. “High levels of anti-Semitism will continue as long as society and politics are as divided and confrontational as they are now. So those deeper problems need to be addressed.”

A growing problem

“The new challenge in dealing with anti-Semitism is the same as the old one,” says Sigmount Königsberg, the Berlin Jewish community’s anti-Semitism commissioner. “Anti-Semitism has to be banned and made unacceptable.”

But anti-Semitism is growing increasingly acceptable in certain European quarters. “People who have these views are feeling more confident to express them,” says Mr. Rich. He blames social media and the “general deterioration in the tone and nature of public debate.” But he also holds political leaders responsible for creating a mood more tolerant of anti-Semitism.

Nine members of Parliament quit Britain's opposition Labour Party this week, citing anti-Semitism as one of their main reasons. Luciana Berger, a Jewish MP who needed a police escort when she attended the last Labour Party annual conference after receiving death threats, said the party was “institutionally anti-Semitic.”

“The more people see anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and its leadership, the more they think it’s acceptable,” worries Rich. “It’s normalized, because these are not fringe cranks; they’re leaders of the Labour Party.”  

Political leaders on the far right routinely denigrate Jews and downplay their suffering. Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, recently described Adolf Hitler and the Nazi era as a “speck of bird droppings in over 1,000 years of successful German history.”

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
People attend a national gathering to protest anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la République in Paris on Feb. 19.

A senator for the Five Star movement, a partner in Italy’s ruling coalition, was put under investigation earlier this month for promoting claims there is a Jewish plot to take over the world, citing the notorious forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In a Swiss trend that the Alpine nation shares with other European countries, anti-racist activists have noted increasing numbers of hate messages on the internet. “Inhibitions are slowly disappearing and more and more agitators are acting openly under their real names,” according to the most recent report by the Swiss Foundation Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, a nongovernmental group.

‘A constant feature of European history’

Historically, spikes in anti-Semitic behavior in Europe have coincided with spikes in violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, says Marc Knobel, research director at the CRIF. “Paroxysms of violence are imported from the Middle East to Europe, and Jews are made responsible for actions by the state of Israel,” he explains.

Anger at Israel constitutes a major strand in what has become known as “the new anti-Semitism” emanating from Muslim communities in Europe. “But the prejudices young Muslims express are no different from the ones you hear from the extreme right,” says Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in anti-Semitism at the French Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Those prejudices and stereotypes, deeply ingrained in French society, hold that Jews are disproportionately and unfairly richer than other citizens and more politically influential. “Anti-Semitism has been a constant feature of European history for two millennia,” Mr. Camus points out.

Today, however, anti-Semitic prejudice is surfacing more openly in Europe as populist movements gain momentum on the strength of platforms promoting national identity and hostility to immigrants and other outsiders.

“We have seen a rise in populist movements, we’ve seen a rise in the appetite for conspiracy theories, and we’ve seen a deterioration of liberal democratic norms in several countries,” points out the CST’s Rich. “And when those things happen, anti-Semitism finds its place.”

Anti-Semitism is not only a product of clashing, polarizing political divisions; it could deepen them, warn Jewish leaders. “Beyond being a threat to Jews, anti-Semitism is a warning signal of a weakening of democracy in our country,” suggested Francis Kalifat, CRIF’s president, in a recent statement.

“When you attack Jews, you attack the Republic,” agrees Mr. Knobel. “The Republic is threatened by totalitarians who hate democracy and want to bring it down.”

No easy answers

That leads some to seek solutions in civic education. “We need to work out a way to encourage young people to see the value of a democratic system,” says Michael Sauer, president of the German Association for Political Education. “Holocaust education is important, but we also need to empower children so they don’t think it’s necessary to discriminate against others.”

“Children must be taught to have empathy,” adds Mr. Königsberg. “It’s not just about teaching the Shoah, but also showing that Jewish life is something normal in Germany.”

Those are long-term approaches, though. In his speech Wednesday, President Macron called for “decisive action,” promising legislation to ensure that messages on the internet promoting anti-Semitism are taken down faster, to make it easier to identify those who post such messages anonymously, and to make platforms such as Facebook legally liable for the content posted.

Camus would like to see sterner action by the police and courts. “If you knew that being an active anti-Semite could land you in jail, you’d think twice before insulting your Jewish neighbor,” he says.

In the meantime, however, demonstrations also help – some. “I don’t know if this changes much, but at least we can say ‘We’re here; you are not alone,’ ” said Mr. Nicoud, the filmmaker, as he brandished a placard reading “That’s Enough” at the Place de la République last Tuesday.

“We really value the support … of other communities,” says Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “These things really matter. There is good in humanity; I don’t want to lose sight of that.”

• Clifford Coonan in Berlin, Kristen Chick in London, and Dominique Soguel in Basel, Switzerland, contributed reporting to this article.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.