After Antisemitic Attacks, Are Jews Safer in the East Than the West?
JNS.org – The October attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh put a renewed spotlight on antisemitism in the United States, which has seen an uptick in recent years. But deadly attacks on Jewish people and institutions are far from a new occurrence in Europe, where Jewish communities across the continent have faced threats from radical Islam and other homegrown extremist groups for years.
Recently, a comprehensive survey conducted by CNN found alarming levels of antisemitic attitudes among Europeans. Polling 7,000 respondents in seven European countries, the survey revealed that one in 10 Europeans has an “unfavorable” attitude towards Jews, while nearly 30 percent believe that “Jewish people have too much influence in finance and business across the world, compared with other people.”
“The CNN survey does not surprise me,” said Benjamin Weinthal, a German resident and a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “In fact, the results underplay the widespread hatred of Jews and Israel across Europe.”
Simone Rodan, the European director of the American Jewish Committee, expressed similar concern over the survey’s results.
“Those results are indeed very alarming, and I am unfortunately not surprised. Antisemitism has been a contemporary problem for a while in Europe. It reemerged quite virulently in the early 2000s, particularly in France, where the largest Jewish community in Europe lives, but also in other European countries,” she said.
According to Rodan, the statistics on antisemitic acts across Europe are “mind-boggling.” She quoted some of them, noting that “in the first nine months of 2018 alone, more than 500 antisemitic acts [were] registered in France. [And] 50 percent of all racist hate crimes are of an antisemitic nature, despite the fact that Jews represent less than one percent of the entire population.”
“And let’s not forget that over the past decade, Jews have been killed on this continent for the simple reason that they were Jewish: 12 in France, one in Denmark, four in Belgium, and five in Bulgaria. Other planned attacks were thankfully thwarted,” she added.
While the scale of antisemitism in Europe has many experts troubled, certain key factors and differences paint a complicated picture for those looking to address the issue head-on. This is especially true in Western Europe, where Jewish communities face different threats than their brethren in Eastern Europe.
“Contemporary antisemitism has several sources, and not only in Europe,” said Rodan. “The situations are, of course, different from one country’s culture and history to another, but the sources are often the same.”
While the root causes of antisemitism are complex and deeply entwined with European history dating back centuries — and specific to each country or region — the modern manifestation of antisemitism can be broadly categorized into three main subgroups across the continent, according to Rodan.
“The first sector can be found on the far-right. Half of the supporters of the French National Front Party, for example, believe that Jews have too much economic power, and 51 percent say Jews have too much power in the media,” Rodan said, citing a 2015 survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee and Fondapol, a French think tank. “This is more than double the rest of society.”
Antisemitism on the far-right is hardly a new phenomenon; it was one of the primary drivers of fascism and Nazism. Some groups on the far-right today continue to draw inspiration from these trains of thought — the roots of which go back to before World War II and the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, the issue of antisemitism and right-wing leaders in Europe has emerged as a source of great debate in recent years. For example, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has a governing coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, has been an outspoken supporter of Israel and has strongly condemned antisemitism.
“Antisemitism and anti-Zionism are getting blurred, but they are two sides of the same coin,” Kurz said recently at a dinner hosted by the European Jewish Congress, where he was presented with an award. “We can’t undo history, but we can do justice to our history.”
“I think Kurz is a promising political leader because he wants to shift Austria’s foreign policy in a direction that is more sympathetic to Israel,” said Weinthal.
However, he noted that Kurz has so far not matched his rhetoric with actions, like other European leaders such as Angela Merkel. His country still supports anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and forging ties with Iran, a notorious fomenter of hatred against Israel and Jews. Nonetheless, Kurz did recently sponsor a European Union resolution approved by all 28 member countries that calls for combating antisemitism across the continent.
Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warm ties with Hungarian right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has drawn scrutiny over Orbán’s domestic political agenda. He has been accused of eroding the country’s democratic institutions and committing other abuses. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has praised both Orbán and Kurz for their stance against antisemitism and friendly posture towards Israel.
Indeed, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Greece, and Romania, have become strong allies of Israel, sometimes defending the country against anti-Israel resolutions in the European Union, such as the labeling of goods from Israeli settlements or condemning the US decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
While there has been an ongoing focus and debate on antisemitism on the far-right in Europe, the threat posed by the far-left has also been a source of contention, especially within Western Europe.
One of the most prominent examples of antisemitism on the far-left in recent years has been within the United Kingdom’s Labour Party under leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn has been accused of antisemitism, in addition to support for Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. As such, if Corbyn were to become the United Kingdom’s next leader, a good number of British Jews are considering leaving the country. At the same time, antisemitic incidents have risen to record levels in Britain.
“The United Kingdom is a danger, and the next British prime minister might very well be the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn,” said Weinthal. “As has been well-documented, Corbyn is a highly dangerous mixture of radical Islamic antisemitism combined with the ‘Socialism of Fools’ — left-wing hatred of Jews and Israel.”
At the same time, far-left groups across Europe are also fueling the BDS movement that targets Israel. This movement is particularly forceful in Ireland, which is one of Europe’s fiercest critics of Israel and has become the first EU country to vote to boycott goods from Israeli settlements. Similarly, many towns and cities across Spain have moved to boycott Israel and Israelis.
In addition to the antisemitic threat posed by the far-left and right in Europe, the continent’s growing Muslim community is also bringing its own deep-seated brand of antisemitism and hate for Israel to the continent.
“What many observers are calling ‘the new form of antisemitism’ is the hatred against Jews coming from parts of the Muslim community, often going hand in hand with Islamism. This is particularly true in countries like France, Belgium, and Sweden, but also in the UK,” said Rodan.
Over the last decade, there have been several high-profile Islamic terror attacks in Western Europe against Jewish targets, including the 2012 Toulouse attack on a Jewish school, the 2014 attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels, the 2015 attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Paris, and other targeted murders, such as Sarah Halimi in 2017 and the death of Holocaust survivor Mareille Knoll in 2018, both carried out by Muslims.
While the threat of Islamic terrorism is very real for Jews in Western Europe, the opposite is the case for Jews in Eastern Europe.
Unlike countries in Western Europe, Eastern European countries have largely closed their borders to outsiders, and have refused to take in the waves of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. As a result, Eastern Europe remains largely homogenous as compared to Western Europe.
Weinthal speculated that Jews are safer in Eastern Europe primarily due to the absence of Muslim communities in the region.
“In contrast to Western Europe, many Eastern Europeans are afflicted with Christian-based antisemitism and classic Nazi depictions of Jews,” said Weinthal.
At the same time, Weinthal also noted that European antisemitism goes even deeper than the threat posed by the far-left, far-right, and radical Islam.
“Most European antisemites will not tell an interviewer that they are antisemites,” said Weinthal, alluding to the CNN survey. “And the survey did not focus in any systematic way on the ubiquitous expressions of antisemitism in response to the Holocaust. … In short, to purge their guilt, they turn Israel into a human punching bag.”
According to Rodan, the issue of antisemitism — whether it’s emanating from the far-right, far-left, or Islam — is that “the issue needs to be depoliticized, and all forms need to be fought in order for it to be addressed properly.”
She said, “We should also address the root causes of each one of the sources of antisemitism — be it on the far-right by combating conspiracy theories, for example; on the far-left by addressing the link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, notably by getting the working definition of antisemitism adopted [a definition that defines … when legitimate criticism of Israel becomes antisemitism]; or amongst Muslim communities by addressing the issue of Islamism and radicalization.”
Regardless of the source, Weinthal believes that Europe remains a hostile environment for Jews, and he encourages Jews to emigrate as soon as possible.
“The situation for Jews in Europe is dire. The only real escape hatch is aliyah or to immigrate to the United States,” she said. “Europe attempts to manage its antisemitism. That is a recipe for political and societal disintegration.”