Not far from the Holocaust Memorial in Toulouse, Algerian-born Mohammed Merah gunned down Yonathan Sandler and his two children at a Jewish day school on March 19. Weeks before, Israeli soccer player Itay Schechter endured Nazi salutes and shouts of “Join the Six Million” in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Jewish cemeteries across Europe have been defaced with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti. A recent Swedish art exhibit featured a sketch of Israelis as machine-gun toting rats devouring the Holy Land. A woman in Germany even tried to toss a suitcase filled with fireworks into the local Israeli embassy. Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly on the rise in Europe.
Simon Wiesenthal Center special report “Europe and the Jews 2012: Dramatic Rise in Anti-Jewish, Anti-Israel Prejudice” by Dr. Harold Brackman charts this disturbing rise in mainstream anti-Jewish prejudice in the past decade. Finding that almost a third of Europeans display significant levels of anti-Semitism, the report identifies four major catalyzing events behind this return to “levels not seen since the Hitler era.” Anti-Jewish feelings spiked after the Second Intifada, Lebanon war, the 2008 financial meltdown and Israel’s 2009 Gaza incursion.
“Reports by the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Racism and AntiSemitism, the Coordinating Forum for Countering Antisemitism, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human and Rights, and the US State Department (on global human rights and religious freedom), all confirmed that worldwide anti-Semitic incidents exploded during the first decade of the twenty-first century, more than doubling during the single year of 2009 to set a twenty-year record high,” Brackman writes. ADL Survey "Attitudes Toward Jews in Ten European Countries" also shows a dramatic increase in anti-Semitism in Europe just from 2009 to 2012.
“I see it first hand,” Mark Weitzman, the Director of Government Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center confessed to Jspace News. “What happened in France is an illustration that we’re not talking about foreign terrorists. In Europe there’s a tendency to blame anti-Semitism on either foreign-born terrorists, meaning Muslims who come into the country, or isolated extreme neo-Nazi groups, which everyone can agree is beyond the pale. What you have in Paris is a homegrown incident. And that’s been the case in other places in Europe and the United States as well. The threat is coming from an internal source, and not an external source.”
A new form of anti-Semitism, couched in terms of a different issue—be it health or safety—has risen across Europe. The Dutch Party for Animals proposed a bill that effectively banned kosher slaughter, framed in terms of humane treatment of animals, which was initially widely supported by voters. Norway recently tried the same tact to ban circumcision, with Professor Trond Markestad calling the practice against medical ethics. “These were attacks not just on Israel, but on the very fabric of Jewish religious identity,” Weitzman explained.
Mainstream political Holocaust denial is also becoming more prevalent. Far right parties in Hungary are influential in government circles. Greek politicians who are Holocaust deniers are coalition partners, which “legitimizes their other statements,” Weitzman complained.
Legislation against Holocaust denial has proven ineffective, with a third of Swedish youth doubting that it occurred. Weitzman worries that too many education efforts “put it in a time capsule,” failing to add historical context to the history or admit local complicity with German occupiers. Weitzman said, “Education is absolutely important, but the right education matters.”
“One of the things that I’m particularly concerned about in public discourse from political elites all the way down … [is the] use of Holocaust imagery that’s not necessarily Holocaust denial, but is social manipulation of the Holocaust,” Weitzman explained. Imagery and language equating Israel with the Nazis, decrying the Gaza genocide, or referencing Israeli concentration camps dilutes the cultural importance of the Holocaust. Weitzman explained, “The real impact of the Holocaust is diminished and politicized.”
The Internet has proven the perfect incubator for this sort of anti-Semitism. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to track the source and impact of such statements. Merah shot a cellphone video of the Toulouse shooting and sent it to Al Jazeera for broadcast. After French President Nicolas Sarkozy pleaded with the news source, Al Jazeera refused to release the tape. “But they said that they wouldn’t be surprised if it pops up on YouTube,” Weitzman mused. “The role of the Internet is just vital in this.”
Simon Wiesenthal’s special report shows that over half of Europeans view Israel as the “greatest threat to world peace,” over Iran and North Korea. One of the questions Weitzman examines in his work with European political leaders is “What is the red line between criticizing Israel and penalizing Israel? While you may have something in mind that’s legitimate political criticism, how is it being understood on the street? What is your responsibility for that?” Weitzman doesn’t think the question is close to being resolved, and European Jews are suffering the consequences.
“The climate for Jews in Europe is really inhospitable. It can take many forms, but it all adds up to the same thing,” Weitzman said. “I think that many Americans—Jews or non-Jews—didn’t have an accurate picture of what was going on in this area, and that’s what we’re trying to shed light on.”
Jews wishing to fight back against the rising tide of European anti-Semitism should urge their representatives to make it a main issue. Every instance of Holocaust denial or image appropriation should be condemned by lawmakers; Jewish hate crimes should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. As Weitzman said to Jspace News, “When Washington speaks, other countries listen.”