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.

It is instructive, in this regard, to compare the reactions to the rue Copernic synagogue attack in Paris thirty-five years ago with those to the killings earlier this year in the kosher supermarket in the same city. In 1980, the then prime minister, Raymond Barre, in what was widely interpreted as a revealing slip of the tongue, expressed his shock at “this attack which was intended to hit Jews attending a synagogue and which hit innocent French people crossing rue Copernic.” The logical—and immediately voiced—question was: So were the Jews not “innocents”? By contrast, Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in what the Anti-Defamation League called “a moment of true political greatness,” issued an unequivocal condemnation of this year’s Paris atrocities, insisting that Jews were an inseparable part of the French nation. With other French and foreign leaders, he led a march in favor of free speech and racial tolerance. It was the largest demonstration ever held in postwar France.

Notably absent were leaders of the far-right National Front. Yet even much of the formerly anti-Semitic Right now finds Muslims and immigrants in general a more convenient object of opprobrium than Jews (not that we should regard this as a cause for comfort). A revealing episode was the recent altercation between the founder of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and his successor as leader of the party, his daughter Marine. Following a television interview in which Le Pen père repeated a much-criticized earlier description of Hitler’s gas chambers as a mere “detail of history,” his daughter repudiated his comments and sought to ostracize him from the party.

The far-right magazine Rivarol, superficially a more intellectually respectable version of Charlie Hebdo, hailed Jean-Marie Le Pen as “the last free man” among French politicians. Yet it felt constrained to add that “the word ‘detail’ is undoubtedly not the most appropriate since, however one understands it, the question of the gas chambers is far from being a detail.” In noting mainstream politicians’ denunciations of Le Pen’s outburst, Rivarol remarked that they constituted “proof that the religion of the Shoah is one of the essential foundations of the present regime.”

Rivarol speaks, on most issues, for no significant body of opinion in France today—not even, it appears, the National Front. Yet on this point it uttered not so much a heresy as a truism. From a very different place on the political spectrum, the late Tony Judt argued in 2005 that “Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket.” Anti-Semitic violence in recent years has been accompanied by (and perhaps has itself helped engender) a decrease in its public acceptability and legitimation by mainstream society.

Even a nasty anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movement like Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, far from celebrating anti-Jewish or anti-Israeli themes, takes the trouble to emphasize support for the Jewish state—though Wilders forfeited whatever limited Jewish backing he might thereby have earned through his support for a parliamentary measure banning Muslim (and incidentally Jewish) ritual slaughter of animals. In speaking of “our Judeo-Christian civilization,” Wilders is much more representative of the new European extreme Right than Rivarol, which talks of “the survival of Western civilization and of its Greco-Christian roots.” Some far-right parties have even courted Jewish support: the Flemish Vlaams Blok, for example, has made some inroads among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Antwerp who feel threatened by Muslim immigrants.

Visitors to synagogues or other Jewish buildings in Europe are often struck by the highly visible defenses around them. Jewish schools in Berlin, for example, are surrounded by high walls and guards armed with submachine guns. Such sights, dare one say it, inevitably bring to mind an earlier era in which Jews were forced to live behind barbed wire. Yet the difference is vital: then the fences and guards were a sign of society’s collective assault on Jews; today they are an indication of society’s concern to defend them. Jews are not, in reality, the only group that requires such measures. But for better or worse, European states have determined that, given recent history, they are the group in whose defense society has the highest stake.

From an American point of view, it is worth bearing in mind that the European Union is by and large an area of civil peace, not only in the sense that no member state has ever gone to war with another but also in that the general level of violence is minimal, by world standards: the homicide rate is less than a quarter of that of the United States. One might add that the number of persons judicially deprived of life in the EU is zero. More people are probably killed in homicides in Chicago in a single year than have died in terrorist attacks in the whole of the European Union over the past decade. (I say “probably” because the problem of defining “terrorist violence” is, for statistical purposes, almost insuperable: for a discussion of this problem as well as detailed and impartial statistics, see the admirable website of the Global Terrorism Database.)


WHAT OF Jewish emigration from Europe to Israel? Even so normally levelheaded a commentator as David Brooks, writing in the New York Times in March, has announced that “thousands of Jews a year are just fleeing Europe.” The British home secretary, Theresa May, said after the recent Paris attacks, “I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community would say they do not feel safe in this country.” In January, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, called on French Jews to “come home” to Israel in the wake of the Paris attacks. A certain schadenfreude in some sections of the Israeli press accompanied reports of “the largest single-year movement of French Jews to Israel since the founding of the state.”

A closer look at the figures should give some pause to alarmist predictions. Almost seven thousand Jews moved to Israel from France in 2014. This is indeed the highest such number on record. But that rate would have to be maintained for something like half a century for the bulk of French Jewry to migrate. The crude figure is, in any case, misleading. Some of the migrants were sojourners in France who originated in North Africa. Moreover, the gross figure fails to take account of return migration, which, in the case of France, as in most Western countries, is high. Reliable estimates have it that as many as 40 percent of immigrants to Israel from Western Europe and North America eventually return to their countries of origin. And evidence suggests that the main variable in migration between Europe and Israel is not fear of anti-Semitism but economic opportunity. French stagnation since 2008 has rendered the relatively buoyant Israeli economy more attractive to newcomers.

The chief threat to the future of Jewish communities in Europe today is not emigration to Israel, which, since the end of the mass exodus of Jews from the former Soviet Union around 1996, has had only minor demographic effects. The past two decades have seen the lowest net migration rates to Israel in the country’s history. Indeed, a countercurrent of emigration of Israelis, including native-born Israelis, to Europe has to some degree bolstered Jewish populations there. In recent years the consulates in Israel of member states of the European Union have been besieged by Israelis of European ancestry who seek EU passports. Some, no doubt, view such documents merely as a potential safety net. But many would like to work and live in Europe, whether for a few years or permanently. The effects are visible in the significant Israeli immigrant populations in cities such as Berlin and Amsterdam.

Overall, the Jewish population of Europe is indeed falling. According to the Pew Research Center, it stands at 1.4 million today (compared with roughly four million in 1945 and ten million in 1939). Of these, a million or so live in Western Europe; the old Jewish heartland of Eastern and Central Europe is now nearly empty. The main cause of the continuing decline in the European Jewish population, however, is neither anti-Semitism nor (in the past two decades) emigration, but rather the extraordinarily low birthrate of Jews in Europe—as in all countries of the Diaspora. That rate is below replacement level almost everywhere. The reasons for this may be debated, but it is doubtful that anti-Semitism is one of them to any significant degree.

In a continent where Jews constitute less than 0.2 percent of the population, a majority of ordinary Europeans, outside of a few big cities such as London and Paris, have probably never consciously encountered a Jew. In Amsterdam, where I live, I have twice recently been asked, with curiosity and not a trace of animosity, “Do you belong to the ‘Old People’?” The average European, if there is such a person, probably has no strong feelings about Jews one way or another—rather like those people in the Istanbul sweetshop. Anti-Semitism is not an issue in the forefront of their thoughts most of the time. Nor is it an ideology that lies at the base of most of their political thinking. To conclude otherwise is to succumb to scaremongering that replaces rational analysis.