Is European Anti-Semitism Really Back?

June 11, 2015 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: Anti-SemitismSocietyReligion

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.

Europe, therefore, is not unique, and anti-Semitic violence there has, at least as measured by deaths and serious injuries, been on a lesser scale than on other continents. (The one significant outlier has been Turkey, where Islamist extremism has found fertile ground in recent years.)


NOR IS anti-Jewish violence of this kind in Europe particularly new. In fact, such attacks have been launched repeatedly, if sporadically, against Jewish and, even more, against Israeli targets since 1967. Again, the caveat is significant: Israeli embassies, diplomats, athletes, travel companies and airliners were targeted most frequently in the early years. As these strengthened their defenses, attention turned increasingly to the softer targets of Jewish institutions: prominent examples include the bombing of a synagogue on rue Copernic in Paris in 1980 (four dead); a gun-and-grenade attack in a Vienna synagogue in 1981 (two dead); an attack by terrorists armed with submachine guns in the main synagogue in Rome in 1982 (a two-year-old child killed); and an assault at a restaurant in the heart of central Paris in 1982 (six dead). The bloodiest of all was another Istanbul synagogue attack, in 1986, which left twenty-two dead.

In the great majority of cases so far mentioned, the originators of the attacks were identified and their motives ascertained (the most important exception is the Buenos Aires bombing, which is still the subject of judicial investigation and bitter political dispute in Argentina). At first the attackers were mainly members of Palestinian terrorist organizations. In more recent years, the sources have been more generally Middle Eastern and Islamist. The motives of the attackers similarly broadened from a narrowly anti-Zionist agenda to a more general hatred of the West. In Turkey in 2003, for example, shortly after the Istanbul synagogue bombings, a further thirty people were killed and hundreds more injured in assaults on the British consulate and HSBC bank’s Turkish headquarters. Like the synagogue attacks, these were laid at the door of a local affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Terrorist violence has been a staple in Europe and around the world, particularly since 9/11. But it is often pointed out that whereas the victims of many of these attacks, as in the case of the London bus bombings of 2005, have been random members of the general public, Jews have been specifically targeted again and again, as in the Paris Jewish supermarket attack earlier this year.

Again, the common wisdom is only a half-truth. Yes, Jews have been specifically targeted. But they are by no means the only group singled out among otherwise random victims of political violence in contemporary Europe. Nor are they the most frequent casualties. Many others find themselves objects of bloody hostility: in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Italy and France, gypsies; in Germany and Bulgaria, Turks and those suspected of Turkish ancestry. The bitter ethnoreligious antagonisms among the peoples of the former Yugoslavia may have diminished since the end of the civil wars of the 1990s, but they have not disappeared. In Denmark and France, Islamist fanatics sought revenge against cartoonists deemed to have offended Islam. And in Norway in 2011, Anders Behring Breivik’s massacre of innocents was launched not at a random target but at a camp of young Norwegian socialists, whose party he held responsible for steering the country toward “multiculturalism.” Jews are certainly a stigmatized and targeted group, but it is incorrect to maintain that they are the only ones under attack.


AND, OF course, throughout Europe, hostility toward Muslims has grown inexorably in recent years, exacerbated by outrage at Islamist terrorism. It is curious that those who express the most concern about heightened anti-Semitism seem so often to wear blinkers when it comes to rampant anti-Islamism. The very people who complain that one cannot safely wear a yarmulke in public are frequently the ones who oppose the right of Muslim women to wear the burqa.

It is often maintained that a “new” (at least to Europe) form of anti-Semitism is what fuels anti-Israeli feeling. Islam, it is claimed, has been characterized since the days of the Prophet by deep hostility toward Jews. Such religiously sanctioned enmity lies at the root of Muslim support for the Palestinian cause against Israel and, it is further suggested, has fused in Europe with remnants of age-old Christian anti-Semitism to create a toxic brew of Jew-hatred.

Melanie Phillips, a popular right-wing British columnist, is a typical exponent of such views. Her books, articles, broadcasts and lectures over the past decade have depicted a Britain transformed into “Londonistan.” In a speech in 2005 to a conference on “terrorism and global antisemitism,” organized by the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, she warned that “the ‘oldest hatred’ has mutated from a desire to rid the world of the Jews into a desire to rid the world of the Jewish state.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, she explained:

Britain’s elites are terrified of dealing with militant Islamism. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in a pattern which goes back to the foundational Christian blood libel against the Jews, they are concealing their fearful inability to deal with Islamist aggression by displacing the blame onto its Israeli victims instead.

Such ideas are not original to Phillips. They have been accorded a tincture of academic respectability by studies that purport to show that anti-Semitism is deeply ingrained in Muslim thought, culture and society.

The works of the Egyptian-born writer “Bat Ye’or” (meaning “daughter of the Nile,” the pseudonym of Giselle Littman) fall into this category, with their recital of “thirteen centuries of sufferings and humiliations” visited upon Jews by Muslims, their Cassandra-like warnings of the threat posed by universal jihad, and their excoriation of European governments and societies for their failure to heed this danger. Many competent scholars, among them Mark R. Cohen and Bernard Lewis, have published correctives to this grossly distorted picture, and it is not my purpose to revisit that controversy here, but merely to note the undoubted influence of the works of Bat Ye’or and others like her.


BUT IS anti-Semitism really what lies at the root of the growth of anti-Israeli feeling in Europe in recent years? The reverse is much more plausible. Tony Klug, a British Jewish political commentator, recently wrote in a submission to a parliamentary committee of inquiry: “The basis of Palestinian opposition to Israel’s actions has little to do with it being a Jewish state. Had it been a Hindu or a Buddhist state, the Palestinians would have been no less embittered.” This is true so far as it goes, though one might add that the anti-Israeli cause has become a rallying cry for Islamists even more than the plight of Indian-occupied Kashmir or of the Muslim minority in Burma. Klug continues:

In essence, it now seems that it is the stance that groups and individuals take toward the Israeli state and the policies of its government of the day, that is becoming, bit by bit, the standard by which antisemitism is measured and assessed. . . . Contesting Zionism as a political ideology or questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish state [is] bound to make many supporters of Israel feel uncomfortable, even outraged. That’s understandable, but the critics are not necessarily driven by antisemitism. To corral them into this fold by slapping on the prefix “new”—as in “new antisemitism”—is not only simplistic and muddling, but it also risks trivializing past Jewish suffering, as well as genuine instances of antisemitism today. In general, it debases the “antisemitism” currency. 

Göran Rosenberg, perhaps the best-known Swedish Jewish journalist, shares Klug’s skeptical view. In an article in the Stockholm newspaper Expressen in August 2014, he wrote: “Jews have rarely lived in such security and freedom as they do today, neither have they enjoyed such public recognition and respect, and I must add, in the last two thousand years never had such power.” Dismissing the Wiesenthal Center’s “travel advisories” as absurd, he points a finger at what he sees as the chief source of the problem. “Fear-mongering among the Jews of Europe is now official Israeli policy,” Rosenberg told me, adding that “the present ambassador here, Isaac Bachman, is fanning the fire as much as he can.” Bachman had earlier objected when a Swedish radio interviewer asked him whether Jews themselves were responsible for anti-Semitism. The questioner eventually apologized, but Bachman’s reaction went well beyond the interviewer. In particular, he criticized the Swedish Lutheran church for disseminating “one-sided propaganda” against Israel and complained that it was circulating anti-Jewish stereotypes and denigrating the Jewish people and the Jewish faith. There have been similar complaints in Britain in recent years directed against, among others, the Church of Scotland, as well as against the media, in particular the Guardian and the BBC.

Yet the picture of a Europe under the thumb of anti-Semites and Islamist extremists is so detached from reality as to make one question the grip on rationality of those who peddle it. In fact, the overwhelming consensus of European opinion is hostile to such attitudes—including among most Muslims in the Continent, whose overwhelming desire is not for terror or a revived caliphate but for a quiet life.