Is European Anti-Semitism Really Back?

Anti-Semitic violence in Europe definitely remains a threat. But it is not new and it is not more virulent than in other countries.

July-August 2015

A VIRULENT new wave of anti-Semitism is generally believed to be sweeping across Europe. European societies have allegedly become poisonously inhospitable to a Jewish presence. Israel, itself a prime target of the new anti-Semitism, is preparing for large-scale immigration of Jews from the Continent. Europe’s old Adam is supposedly reasserting itself.

Or is it? The common belief that anti-Semitism is making a comeback should be treated with caution, not least because efforts to exaggerate its reach and sway, often for self-serving political purposes, make it more difficult to discern when and where it truly poses a threat. A more judicious approach would start by recognizing that the term itself encompasses a multitude of sins that range all the way from off-color banter to mass murder. Should these be considered under the same rubric?

As an ideology, anti-Semitism morphed in the late nineteenth century from the anti-Judaism of the Christian church to a pagan, racist doctrine that was alloyed with extreme nationalism. Most problematically, there has been a marked tendency in recent years to conflate anti-Semitism with hostility to the Jewish state. Is denial of Israel’s right to exist as an independent Jewish state ipso facto anti-Semitic? Many Zionists and their supporters would say so—although those who oppose Scottish or Texan independence would not necessarily be tarred with a similar brush. But when it comes to anti-Semitism, the definitional nuances are often crushed under the juggernaut of automatic denunciation. Even three-quarters of a century after the shoah, such lack of differentiation is understandable. Unfortunately, it often leads to distorted conclusions.

A recent example came in January of this year with a flurry of newspaper headlines asserting, as the Guardian reported, “Nearly half of the British population agreed with one of four antisemitic statements presented to them according to a new poll.” The survey was commissioned by a hitherto little-known body, the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which warned that Britain was at a “tipping point.” But tipping toward what? Anti-Jewish legislation? Pogroms? Expulsion?

The group further claimed that 54 percent of Jews in Britain feared they had no future in the country, and a quarter had considered leaving in the previous two years. The methodology of the report was immediately criticized as shoddy and its conclusions as alarmist. Writing in Haaretz, the British-born commentator Anshel Pfeffer observed: “To compare today’s Britain, for all its faults, with the Jews’ situation in [the] 1930s exhibits a disconnect from reality which borders on hysteria.”

These rather excitable headlines appeared in the wake of a more sophisticated report issued in September 2014 by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. It came to different conclusions: “Levels of antisemitism in the UK are significantly lower than in other Western European countries, and . . . Jews in Britain feel noticeably less anxious about it than elsewhere on the continent.” An exception was noted in the case of Orthodox Jews, who expressed a much higher level of concern. That may be explained by the greater visibility of this group and its consequent sense of vulnerability. But in Britain and elsewhere, the Orthodox form only a small segment of the community, not representative, in this or in many other respects, of the whole.

Across continental Europe, Jews, it must be said, manifest a greater sense of insecurity—perhaps greater than at any point since the Second World War. An exhaustive study of Italian Jews’ “perceptions and experiences of antisemitism” was published this February, again by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. It found that six out of ten of those questioned considered anti-Semitism to be a big problem. A majority felt it had increased in Italy in the past five years. One in three had suffered some form of anti-Jewish harassment in the past twelve months (most of these incidents were not reported to the police). Although only 2 percent said they had experienced anti-Semitic violence, one-fifth of respondents worried about becoming a victim of physical attack in the future. One in four frequently avoided displaying Jewish signs or symbols due to concerns for safety. These findings are troubling in a country that, notwithstanding its interlude of fascist persecution, was historically a haven of relatively harmonious existence for Jews.

Another country with a small Jewish community where recent reports suggest a rise in anti-Semitism is Sweden. In Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, home to a large Muslim minority, the mayor, a Social Democrat and a non-Muslim, has accused the local Jewish community of courting hostility through its support for Israel. According to the online American Jewish magazine Tablet, “Wearing a yarmulke is no longer safe” in the city. In 2010, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued what it called a “travel advisory” for Sweden, warning that “religious Jews and other members of the Jewish community there have been subject to anti-Semitic taunts and harassment.” Such fears are not restricted to Malmö. When I spent a year in Sweden in 2011–2012, local Jews repeatedly told me that they were confronted by a surge of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli animosity.

The subjective feelings of victims of racial discrimination must be respected and should form part of our analysis. But they cannot be our only index of intercommunal attitudes and relations. According to the latest available official statistics (for 2013), out of 5,508 reported “hate crime” incidents in Sweden, only 4 percent were classified as anti-Semitic. Far more were motivated by other forms of prejudice, including crimes directed specifically against Africans, Roma, homosexuals, Muslims and Christians.