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October 10, 2021 6:35 am
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Can Jewish Life in Europe Start ‘Thriving Again’?

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

Opinion

European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in this file picture taken October 28, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

JNS.org – The European Union’s executive branch, the European Commission, unveiled a nine-year strategy last week to counter antisemitism and foster Jewish life among its 27 member states. Within hours of its release, the strategy had won generous plaudits from Jewish organizational leaders, with the head of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), Moshe Kantor, hailing the 26-page document as an “unprecedented and vital document that will act as a roadmap to significantly reduce antisemitism in Europe and beyond.”

Is such optimism justified? In some ways, that question cannot be answered comprehensively until 2030, by which time the various programs and initiatives now being launched by the commission will be ready for a thorough assessment. But it can be said that the strategy contains some encouraging ideas, that its understanding of what antisemitism constitutes is nuanced and sophisticated, and that the team behind the strategy — I am thinking in particular of Katharina von Schnurbein, the commission’s coordinator on combating antisemitism — is deeply committed to rooting out the world’s oldest hatred from the continent that offers it the most fertile soil.

It is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism that undergirds the commission’s assessment of the situation in Europe and the obligations, moral and legal, member states have when it comes to safeguarding Jewish life in the EU. All told, Jewish communities across the EU number 1.5 million people (a number depleted by Brexit, incidentally, which took the 300,000 Jews in the United Kingdom out of the EU’s orbit). It is these individuals and these communities whom the commission wishes to see — as its president, Ursula von der Leyen, put it — “thriving again.”

The IHRA definition is comprehensive enough to identify various expressions of antisemitism, including the kind that hides behind hatred of Zionism and Israel. That the commission formally recognizes this reality is a positive step and consistent with the statements over the years of a number of European leaders — among them French President Emmanuel Macron, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — that the public needs to be wary of an antisemitism that masks itself as a righteous crusade against racism or for the rights of the Palestinians.

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Additionally, the strategy acknowledges that Israel is a “key partner” of the EU, including in the fight against antisemitism, and it entertains no doubt that the kinds of statements about Israel one hears on university campuses in the EU, as here in the United States — that the Jewish state is a “racist endeavor,” that Jews everywhere bear responsibility for its alleged crimes — fall under the rubric of antisemitism.

That too is a significant step forward because it certainly wasn’t always this way. Exactly 41 years ago, four people were killed and 46 were wounded in an attack on the rue Copernic synagogue in Paris carried out by Palestinian terrorists. In the aftermath, then-French prime minister Raymond Barre denounced what he called an “odious” attack aimed at “Jews going to the synagogue” that struck “innocent French people as they crossed rue Copernic.” When he drew that division between “Jews” and “French” people, Barre was not speaking in a vacuum. Many of his colleagues felt the same way, and there were similar antisemitic sentiments elsewhere in the governing circles of European countries more broadly, particularly in their foreign ministries, nearly all of which would have balked at the suggestion, at a time when the influence of the Arab oil lobby was greatly feared, of describing Israel as a “key partner.”

The commission’s strategy indicates that prejudices such as these have no place in the present thinking of the EU’s governing bodies. The raft of peace agreements in the last year between Israel and several Arab nations will certainly have helped this process, insofar as there is no longer a bloc of Arab states whom the EU feels it has to mollify on the issue of Israel.

Yet the fact that the EU has a much-improved understanding of what antisemitism is and how to identify it probably won’t, unfortunately, cause the radical reduction in antisemitism that the strategy’s authors are hoping for. That absolutely doesn’t mean that the educational programs, hate-crime training, Holocaust remembrance projects, and Jewish life experiences that the strategy will roll out over the next nine years are worthless; anything that dents the appeal of Jew-hatred in the public imagination is to be welcomed. But no national government, and no transnational body, can exercise full control over what happens in a free society.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has graphically demonstrated, old-style antisemitism that depicts Jews as the poisoners of wells has joined forces with a much newer antisemitism that appropriates the language and imagery of the Holocaust to make the case for vaccine refusal. On top of that, in May and June of this year, the nations of the EU, and the United Kingdom as well, reverberated to the sound of pro-Palestinian demonstrations that openly vilified Jews, as antisemitic incidents soared.

As the commission’s strategy understands very well, mass communications technology has been critical for keeping alive the antisemitic memes that we see manifesting in physical form on the streets. Over the next decade, this technology will become more sophisticated and more compelling, encouraging people to spend even more time online in contexts enhanced by virtual-reality tools. In the new iteration of the internet that is crystallizing, there will be new opportunities for antisemites to make themselves known and to spread the doctrine that whenever a crisis hits — a pandemic, war in the Middle East, war outside the Middle East, a government default, a stock-market crash — the Jews are to blame.

Will taking teenagers on trips to synagogues, Jewish museums, and concentration camp sites be able to compete with the messages that will be pushed online, and perhaps reinforced by friends or family? Will reminding ordinary Europeans of the Jewish contribution to their culture insulate those same people from the antisemitic messages they see online and on phones, or among pro-Palestinian demonstrators urging boycotts of Israeli produce outside of local supermarkets, or from vaccine refusers dressed up in concentration camp uniforms?

The wise guess is, probably not. From the evidence so far, the 2020s are shaping up to be a decade marked by sharpening divisions in European societies, particularly among the many political parties and voters who don’t want anything to do with the EU anyway. Antisemitism thrives in divided polities. So, with the publication of the commission’s strategy, we may say that the EU has changed, but let us not assume that all of Europe will follow.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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