The Persistence of European Antisemitism
The fight against antisemitism on the international level continues to be characterized by restraint combined with ignorance — a potentially deadly combination. European hand-wringing and the spouting of clichés will never suffice to combat the problem; the extent of the rot must be acknowledged if it is to be effectively confronted.
Almost every day in Europe, there is a statement, a workshop, or a symposium on antisemitism. An international conference on the problem recently took place in Vienna, for example, under the auspices of Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz. Do such activities have any effect on European antisemitism, which grows by the day? Do they create any obstacle to the enormous diffusion and radicalization of online antisemitism — i.e., Jew-hatred 2.0?
Judging from the past ten years, little has changed. Eloquent speeches are given, appeals are published, clichés are uttered about confronting Jew-hatred with a “resolute fight” and “with all the severity of the law” — and after some head-shaking and hand-wringing, everybody returns to business as usual.
Researchers have been warning for years about the expansion, radicalization, and increasing normalization of Jew-hatred. This is occurring throughout European society, and is especially worrying in terms of its focus on Israel. All the stereotypes of classical Judeophobia are projected onto the Jewish state — its Jewish population is demonized and its right to exist is contested. Little is done to reject this newly dominant pattern of discrimination, and Israel-related hate is becoming a politically correct form of antisemitism.
Although this Israel-directed form of Judeophobia is exacerbated by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is rooted, as has been shown empirically by recent research, in the age-old hostility against Jews and Judaism. Consequently, the struggle against antisemitism must keep its focus on the origin of the phenomenon: the darker side of the roots of European culture, in which the confrontation between Judaism and earlier Christianity laid the foundations of Western Judeophobia.
The present-day struggle against antisemitism is not an easy task. It is painful, and indeed must be painful, if European society is to grasp the full significance of the phenomenon and the dangers it contains.
Today’s public debates on antisemitism are frequently dominated by people who, while eager to express their personal opinions, are clearly ill-informed about the long history and chameleon-like character of Judeophobia. They are blissfully ignorant of the way Jew-hatred over the centuries has kept the same semantics but modified its forms and expressions according to changing circumstances.
Consequently, we hear passionate affirmations that “rightist populism is responsible for contemporary antisemitism,” or that “the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the main cause,” or that “classical Jew-hatred is in retreat” — all long-since rejected by empirical research. Completely misleading, too, is the assertion that “antisemitism and Muslim-hatred are closely related,” or that present-day Muslims suffer the same discrimination Jews once did.
A misleading, albeit common allegation is that not enough research has yet been conducted on the problem of antisemitism. In this way, the copious results of existing research on the subject are swept under the rug and the real struggle against Jew-hatred is pushed into the future. Also, in recent times we hear and read frequently that “antisemitism has reached the middle of society.” “Reached”? Jew-hatred always came from the educated social center. There sit its most representative perpetrators. It has never been otherwise.
As in the past, present-day antisemitism reproduces and multiplies Jew-hating tendencies deeply rooted in Western consciousness. It follows the age-old pattern that attributes to the Jews all the miseries of the world. Antisemitic rancor is always directed against Jewish existence per se — and today, this means the most vital symbol of Jewish existence, the State of Israel. The opposition to Israel is now the meeting point of Jew-haters of diverse political and ideological colors, the common ground of present-day antisemitism. The old Judeophobia is projected onto the Jewish state.
Here lies the critical point where European official policy should intervene. Tirades of hate against the Jewish state are found not on the margins but in the center of Western society. Rancor against Israel feeds the dissemination of present-day antisemitism more than any other factor.
Consider the common cliché, long ago debunked as fiction and yet still repeated like a mantra: “Every critique of Israeli policy is equated with antisemitism.” This is an absurdity. There are clear criteria in the research on antisemitism distinguishing between “critique of Israel” and “Israel-directed Jew-hatred.”
Nevertheless, the antisemitic yardstick referring to the condemnation of Israel is still not clearly perceived as a new pattern of Jew-hatred. This must happen if Europeans are to confront the continent’s increasing level of Judeophobia. Anyone who denies the antisemitism of hashtags like #DeathtoIsrael or calls to boycott the Jewish state is blind.
When political spokespeople (rightly) criticize the new German right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland because of its refusal to confront the frequent antisemitic utterances of its supporters, but at the same time overlook (or even applaud) when Mahmoud Abbas spouts well-known Judeophobic stereotypes in the EU Parliament; or when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rages against Israel with surreal accusations; or when Jeremy Corbyn defames the Jewish state as an unjust colonial creation — then these officials have a serious credibility problem.
It is not enough to criticize low-level neo-Nazis, Islamists, or BDS activists. Anyone who seriously wants to address the problem should look to the stage of international politics and step in forcefully. And anyone who shrugs off antisemitic raging has not yet grasped that hate speech is a form of mental violence that contains the potential for physical violence. In the end, mental arson turns into physical arson.
The fight against antisemitism on the international level continues to be characterized by restraint combined with ignorance. Both are deadly — first for Jews, later for democracy.
Monika Schwarz-Friesel is a cognitive scientist and antisemitism researcher at the Technical University of Berlin. Together with Jehuda Reinharz she published Inside the Antisemitic Mind: The Language of Jew-Hatred in Contemporary Germany (2017). A German version of this essay appeared recently in the Jewish-German weekly Jüdische Algemeine.
This article was originally published by The BESA Center.