More Anti-Semitism, or Just More Fear?

Everyone knows that Europe has grown more anti-Semitic, as Avi Primor writes in the new issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Like many things that everyone “knows,” the facts are different, writes Primor, who’s the former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and now head of the Center for European Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Only bits of the journal, I’m sorry to say, are online, and Primor’s article isn’t one of those bits. If you want to read it, you’ll need to find a hard copy. But here are a couple of key points:

Yes, there’s anti-Semitism in France. But in that country, Jews play a role in national politics far beyond their number. The percentage of the French public ready to accept a Jewish president has risen drastically since World War II.

Belgium was accused by Israelis of being anti-Semitic after it passed a law that allowed for local prosecution of war criminals whose crimes took place elsewhere in the world, and pro-Palestinian lawyers attempted to bring Israel’s then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to trial for his role in the Sabra and Shatilla masacres. Primor explains that the law, albeit poorly written, was passed so that Belgium could try Rwandan war criminals who’d found refuge there. When the flaws in the law became clear, it was rescinded.

As for Germany, Primor brings survey evidence that the level of anti-Semitism has dropped significantly since the post-war period, and the drop has continued in recent years. Asked if they’d object to having neighbors from various minority groups, fewer Germans (13 percent) objected to Jews than to Arabs, Turks, Poles or Africans.

So why the perception among Jews, especially Israelis, and among non-Jewish Europeans that anti-Semitism has risen? One reason, Primor notes, is the echo of the Arab-Israel conflict among immigrants in France and Belgium. Another is that the modern media provide us with knowledge of every incident. So last Saturday, when a 17-year-old Jew had his skull cracked by a club-wielding attackers in Paris, Reuter picked up the story and broadcast it world-wide. There’s no denying the horror of the incident, or the fear it induces in Jews. Young Rudy Hadad was apparently wearing a kipah when he was attacked; I admit I’d be less likely to wear a kipah in Paris after reading this. But what makes the news is not necessarily what’s prevalent. The unusual incident is more newsworthy than the endemic problem.

And one more reason for the perception, Primor says, is that European criticism of Israeli policies gets labeled anti-Semitism. Yet:

most of those criticizing Israeli policies in the territories are not antisemites; sometimes they are actual friends of Israel who fear for the fate of the Jewish state.

When Europeans criticized the Greek junta of 1967-73, Primor says, no one suspected them of anti-Greek racism.

Israel is not a frightened, helpless Jewish community in an European ghetto. It can demonstrate a greater degree of self-confidence in the face of legitimate criticism.

Overall, I find Primor’s argument impressive. (This is a tad ad hominus; I usually find Primor’s arguments impressive.) Still, I’d qualify what he says in two ways.

First, though it’s true that much European criticism of Israel is legitimate, a certain strain goes over the line. A representative example was John Pilger’s article in the New Statesman last year, where he trumpeted the call to boycott Israel by saying:

No other country has such a record of lawlessness: not one of the world’s tyrannies comes close.

Excuse me, John? Did you really write that?

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve written extensively on how the occupation violates both international and domestic law. But Israel as more lawless than China, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe? Forgive me if I suspect that Mr. Pilger’s attitude is much like that of American racists who only notice those offenses allegedly committed by blacks. Like others of his school, Pilger argues for dissolving Israel in a one-state solution. No matter that Palestinians themselves reject this by a two-one margin.To suggest that self-determination is the right of all nations, except for the Jews, who are uniquely disqualified, at least suggests a peculiar inability to accept Jews in the neighborhood of nations.

It’s true that some Jews would agree with Pilger, and with the British advocates of a boycott of Israel (about whom David Newman writes in the same issue of the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs). Small comfort. As former cabinet member Avraham Poraz once infamously said in a different context (here in Hebrew), “a Jew can sometimes be an anti-Semite.” (Poraz, it seems, felt badly that the anti-Semites wouldn’t let him join their club because he’s Jewish, but that’s a different discussion).

That said, I still prefer to avoid the anti-Semitism argument against European critics of Israel. Primor is right that it too easily spills over into emotional battering of legitimate critics. The real problem, as Noah Feldman writes in the New York Times, is that all together too many Europeans have never really come to terms with living with the Other. But the outsiders to be hated today are Muslims.

…even after 60 years of introspection about the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, Europeans are not convinced that culturally and religiously different immigrants should be treated as full members of their societies. European anti-Semitism between the world wars featured accusations of criminality, religious backwardness, genetic inferiority and, above all, the impossibility of assimilation.

In Europe, “Muslim” is the new “Jew.”

In theory, Europe remembers the Holocaust. But the depth of that memory may be doubted when many Europeans seem to have forgotten that their continent was home to other outsiders well before the arrival of today’s Muslim minority.

So anti-Semitism is gone. And yet it’s flourishing. And that should concern both Jews and Europeans deeply.

10 thoughts on “More Anti-Semitism, or Just More Fear?”

  1. As for Jews playing a role in French politics far beyond their number, the same can be (and has been) said about the US. So how does the level and the development over time of anti-Semitism in the US compare with France? (That’s not a rhethorical question.)

    When some Jews cry “anti-Semitism” over the attempted prosecution of Sharon for his well-established role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres, aren’t they implicitly saying that what he, and the Israeli army, did there was well in tune, perhaps even at the core, with Jewish values? Where’s the Jewish outcry over this outrageous claim?

    The horrific crime against Rudy Hadad calls to mind other, similar atrocities against foreigners, often Africans, in Germany in the last decade or two. While they were all isolated incidents, not a “wave” or a “trend”, I agree that the endemic problem exists, and it’s not anti-Semitism but xenophobia, whose targets vary according to convenience and availability. Like you say, yesterday’s Jews are today’s Muslims.

    Primor is right on the mark with the Greek-junta-analogy, although I’d add that there was indeed a group who did see critique, including domestic critique, of the junta as anti-Greek, and that group was the junta itself. The same was true of US-Senator McCarthy, of the Nazis, Franco, every other two-bit dictator around the world. The analogy to today’s wolf-criers is obvious.

  2. That article of John Pilger’s is indeed over the line, but that has nothing to do with Israel and certainly nothing to do with anti-Semitism. John Pilger notoriously has a tendency to exaggerate and overstate EVERY case on EVERY subject – hence Auberon Waugh’s invented word “to pilger” = “to present information in a sensationalist manner so as to reach a foregone conclusion”. It is a little misleading to ignore the fact that this is Pilger’s regular rhetorical style on all topics and treat him as if he represented a particular strand of European thought on Israel in particular.

  3. The presence of Jews in the politics of a particular nation is no measure of how much antisemitism there is in the country, and the population’s true attitudes to its Jewish citizens. Germany had Jews in its parliaments and Reichstags as early as the 1850’s. A Jew (Hugo Preuss) wrote the Weimar Constitution after World War I. A Jew, Walther Rathenau was Foreign Minister in the early 1920’s. Did this mean Germany wasn’t “antisemitic”.
    In the first years after the Russian Revolution of 1917-1918, there were large numbers of Jews prominent in the Bolshevik government and party. Does this mean there was no antisemitism in Russia, then or later?
    In France, just a shot time before the World War II Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis in persecuting the Jews, there was a Jewish Premier, Leon Blum, and at least one Jewish cabinet minister, Georges Mandel.

    So we see that this is not necessarily a good measure of the amount of antisemitism there is in a country.

  4. What exactly is wrong with using Belgium’s war crimes law to prosecute Sharon? How is Sharon’s case different from charges brought against Pinochet, for example? Why would antisemitism be brought up in the first place? How was the law poorly written, because it included universal jurisdiction and didn’t expect legal standing from Belgian citizens?

    Incidentally, Chibli Mallat, the Lebanese lawyer who was representing the Palestinian survivors of Sabra and Chatilla, also started a group in the mid-90s to gather evidence to indict Saddam Hussein for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

  5. Y. Ben-David, I agree that the presence of Jews in politics is no indicator of the amount of (non-institutional) anti-Semitism. The point I understood (misunderstood?) Gershom was making was that rightly or wrongly perceived over-representation of Jews in powerful positions can lead to anti-Jewish resentment in the population. The same goes of course for other minorities. Greed and envy are unfortunately qualities no nation is immune against.
    Since non-orthodox Jews aren’t usually recognizable as such, the matter hinges on what e.g. a politician makes of their own Jewishness. Most European Christians, unless unusually devout, see no reason to make any conscious connection between their denomination and their public persona/office, whatever, and I suspect the same is true for Israeli Jews. Belonging to a minority however sometimes seems to induce a measure of defensiveness, leading to heightened visibility of one’s “minority status”. Nobody would care about Nicolas Sarkozy being Jewish if he himself hadn’t chosen to let that fact enter his politics. (Indeed nobody makes a fuss about his Hungarian ancestry.)

    I confess (no pun intended) that I don’t even know whether my own country’s Chancellor is Catholic or Protestant or agnostic, nor do I care. It’s Ms. Merkel’s own private matter, she keeps it that way, and that’s how it should be in secular state.

  6. The United States has many Jewish senators ,congressmen and members of the judiciary,such number being disproportional to the Jewish population: to wit I as a Christian say,so what!Anti-semitism and xenophobia are the “mother’s milk”of the “bottom feeders” like the so-called Christian right and other discontents who feel they have been cheated out what rightfully should be theirs. I am deeply concerned that as our recession worsens and more and more people ,who have only known the “good life” become unemployed with no hope of getting a job,homes foreclosed, unable to pay for food and gas, that the “age-old”return to attacking successful minorities like the Jews and other minorities like the Latinos for taking the only available low paying jobs becomes “de jure”That is why this election is so important and taking stands without plans that don’t have a chance of working isn’t fair to a nervous public and playing on fear and hate is only counterproductive.

  7. Primor’s article is a disgrace.

    He refers to a couple of ADL polls about people’s perceptions of antisemitism, but makes no reference to ADL’s systematic polling of antisemitic attitudes across Europe in recent years. No surprise, as the polls do not back his thesis.

    He opens by saying its “banal” to say there’s an “ascent” of antisemitism – then grudgingly admits that antisemitic race hate attacks are on the up! In fact, they aren’t just up, they’re twice as high now as they were in the 90s.

    He makes out that Middle East incited violence somehow doesn’t count – tell that to the 85 people murdered by Hizbollah in Buenos Aires in 1994 in retaliation for Israeli air strikes.

    He covers Belgium and Greece – but not Russia, or the Ukraine. What’s wrong, don’t Ostjuden count in an analysis of Europe ?

    The article is a disgrace.

  8. My apologies, I’ve just read the article in its entirety, and he does not analyse Greece. (Just as well for him as he’d have had to ackonweldge deicide influenced coverage of Israel in mainstream Greek media).

    The article remains a disgrace. It sets out to prove that antsiemitism in Europe has diminished since 1945, well, whoopee Mr Primor, what do you know, the moon isn’t made out of cheese after all (not even the Bulgarian variety).

    Now, how about examining how things compare today with the 1990s? How about examining why things have deteriorated so sharply since then? How about looking at how ‘progressive’ opinion throughout Europe now hates mainstream Jewish communities and their institutions. How about a mentionof contemporary boycotts and their emotive and practical impact? Or is that all a bit too “banal”?

  9. Mark Gardner is correct. The article is a disgrace. It whitewashes and downplays the whole European effort to equate ‘Zionism’ and ‘Nazism’. It does not touch upon the opinion polls which show that for many European nations Israel is the most feared and hated country in the world. It says nothing about Suzanne Urban’s researches showing how ‘Holocaust education’ in Germany has been turned upside down by the Germans to increase anti- Semitism.
    It is true that the hatred is not universal, and it is also importantly true that it has no government sanction. But the European media often is openly anti- Semitic in its distorted reporting on Israel.
    One senses here the same kind of mentality that saw for so many years that underneath it all Yassar Arafat and Hafez Assad were peacemakers.

  10. To all those that think Belgium had a right under universal jurisdiction (UJ) to try Israelis. Any attempt at (UJ) by any nation democracy or otherwise against any democracy is just an attempt to control that nations politics. That is also a definition of war. Also the FACT that they have not seized and tried those attacking Israel is proof of anti-semitism.

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