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‘Something Isn’t Working’: Israeli Researchers Urge Overhaul of Strategies to Combat 2021 Rise in Antisemitic Attacks Worldwide

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

A man wears a kippah at a May 2021 “No to Antisemitism” demonstration outside the synagogue in the German city of Gelsenkirchen. Photo: Reuters/Fabian Strauch/dpa

Antisemitic attacks worldwide saw a “dramatic rise” in 2021 from the previous year, with the highest number of incidents reported in major Western democracies, including the US, Canada, the UK, France and Germany, where most of the largest Jewish populations live, an annual report on Wednesday showed.

The study by Tel Aviv University’s (TAU) Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, published on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that despite a surge in funds and legal initiatives to tackle antisemitism, the “struggle is failing.” The report’s eleven researchers cited the Israel-Hamas conflict in May 2021 and COVID-19-related conspiracy theories as the main triggers for spikes in antisemitic outrages last year.

“Something just isn’t working. In recent years the fight against antisemitism has enjoyed extensive resources worldwide, and yet, despite many important programs and initiatives, the number of antisemitic incidents, including violent assaults, is rapidly escalating,” stated Prof. Uriya Shavit, who heads the TAU’s Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry. “The easy thing is to say that more laws and more funding are required. But what we really need is a courageous and unsparing examination of the efficacy of existing strategies.”

The 28th annual report — which is based on data from dozens of studies from around the globe, alongside information recorded by law enforcement authorities, the media, and Jewish organizations — showed that in most countries, the rise in antisemitic incidents was also high compared to 2019, before pandemic restrictions were imposed.

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The authors wrote that the “data result from the strengthening in some countries of the radical populist right and the anti-Zionist radical left. COVID-19 angsts, and the economic hardships that followed, unleashed voices of hatred and prejudice.”

The Center’s Founder, Prof. Dina Porat, cited the exposure to conspiracy theories via social networks during pandemic lockdowns as an integral channel amplifying antisemitism in 2021.

“These toxic ideas included claims that the COVID-19 virus had been engineered and spread by Israel and the Jews,” Porat explained.

In the United States, cases of anti-Jewish hate crimes in New York almost doubled to 214 from 126 in 2020, according to the NYPD, while the LAPD registered 79 such crimes in Los Angeles compared to 40 in 2020. During the three weeks of hostilities around the Israel-Hamas conflict in May last year, 251 antisemitic incidents were recorded in the US, compared to 117 during the same period in 2020, according to data collated by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  (A separate ADL audit of antisemitic incidents in the US nationwide, released Tuesday, recorded 2,717 in 2021, a 34 percent annual rise.)

During the Israel-Hamas hostilities in May 2021, B’nai Brith Canada reported at least 266 antisemitic attacks, up 54 percent increase from the same period in 2020. Among the incidents were 61 violent attacks, the highest ever recorded in a single month by the organization since it began monitoring in 1982.

In France, with a Jewish population of 446,000, the number of antisemitic attacks jumped 74 percent, to 589 in 2021, from 339 a year earlier, according to local authorities cited in the report. There, the incidents again peaked in May during the Guardian of the Walls conflict between Israel and Hamas, and in August after the French government implemented stricter health restrictions to contain surging COVID-19 cases.

In the UK, the Community Service Trust (CST) recorded 2,255 antisemitic incidents in 2021, a 34 percent rise versus the previous year, and a 24 percent increase compared with the 1,813 attacks collated in 2019. Incidents of physical assaults against Jews in 2021 jumped 78 percent to 173 from the 97 recorded in 2020 and the 157 reported in 2019.

In Germany, where 118,000 Jews reside, law enforcement recorded 3,028 antisemitic incidents during 2021 — the highest total to date, and representing an increase of 29 percent from 2020 and 49 percent from 2019.

“Germany witnessed in 2021 another alarming phenomenon: the trivialization and abuse of the Holocaust in response to COVID-19 restrictions,” the report’s authors noted. “COVID-19 days also saw the revival of old and vicious antisemitic allegations that Jews are responsible for and profit from a pandemic.”

After researchers finalized the report amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, Shavit remarked that “Russian war crimes, accompanied by the cynical distortion of the memory of the Holocaust, prove that some of those who declared their commitment to the fight against antisemitism, were not really serious about it, and had not truly learned the lessons of World War II.”

“The Jewish world must pull itself together and understand that the fight against antisemitism and the fight for liberal democratic values are one and the same,” Shavit said.

Meanwhile, not all countries examined in the study witnessed a rise in antisemitism. Italy, for example, registered a marginal decline in the number of antisemitic attacks to 226 in 2021 from 230 in 2020, while in Argentina, the numbers were little changed. In other countries with large Jewish populations, including Russia and Brazil, official documentation of antisemitic incidents was lacking.

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