By Sean Savage
The October attack on the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh has put a renewed spotlight on anti-Semitism in the United States, which has seen an uptick in recent years.
However, 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.
A comprehensive survey recently conducted by CNN found alarming levels of anti-Semitic attitudes among Europeans. Polling 7,000 respondents in seven European countries, the survey revealed that one in 10 Europeans has an “unfavorable” attitude toward 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.”
Simon 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. Anti-Semitism has been a contemporary problem for a while in Europe. It re-emerged 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 anti-Semitic acts across Europe are “mind-boggling.”
She quoted some of them, noting that “in the first nine months of 2018 alone, more than 500 anti-Semitic acts have been registered in France. Fifty percent of all racist hate crimes are of an anti-Semitic nature, despite the fact that Jews represent less than 1 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 anti-Semitism 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 Europe, where Jewish communities in the Western Europe face different threats than their brethren in Eastern Europe.
“Contemporary anti-Semitism has several sources, and not only in Europe,” Rodan said. “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 anti-Semitism are complex and deeply entwined with European history dating back centuries — and specific to each country or region — the modern manifestation of anti-Semitism 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.”
Anti-Semitism 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 before World War II and the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, the issue of anti-Semitism and right-wing leaders in Europe has emerged as a source of great debate in recent years. While some far-right groups may have latent sympathy with Nazism, such as the Austrian Freedom Party, other more moderate right-wing leaders in Europe, who may have ties with far-right groups or even govern with them, see Israel as an important ally both in terms of fighting radical Islam and for economic development.
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 anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism 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.”
“Kurz is a promising political leader because he wants to shift Austria’s foreign policy in a direction that is more sympathetic to Israel,” Weinthal said.
However, he noted that Kurz has so far not matched his rhetoric with actions, like other European leaders such as Angela Merkel, with his country still supporting anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and forging ties with Iran, a notorious fomenter of hatred against Israel and the Jews.
“Kurz also, like Merkel, has refused to join U.S. sanctions against Iran — the leading international state-sponsor of terrorism, Holocaust denial and lethal anti-Semitism,” Weinthal said.
Nonetheless, Kurz did recently sponsor a European Union resolution approved by all 28 member countries that calls for combating anti-Semitism 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, where he has been accused of eroding the country’s democratic institutions, having a strong nationalist agenda, and for his attacks on Hungarian-American Jewish billionaire and left-cause philanthropist George Soros, which many see as having anti-Semitic undertones.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu has praised both Orbán and Kurz for their stance against anti-Semitism and friendly posture towards Israel.
“I noticed that Viktor Orbán opened a center to battle anti-Semitism, which I think is important. I noticed a similar event in Austria by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who convened a conference against anti-Semitism which included right-wing and anti-Zionism because anti-Zionism is the modern form of anti-Semitism. I think that these two leaders are doing a very important job in understanding what is anti-Semitism.”
The Israeli prime minister added: “When I was in Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán openly condemned the practices of the fascist leaders in Hungary, saying that this was a terrible mistake in the country’s history. I look at what they do, at what they say also on the European level.”
Indeed, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Greece and Romania have become strong allies of Israel, defending the country against anti-Israel resolutions in the European Union, such as the labeling of goods from Israeli settlements or condemning the U.S. decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
While there has been an ongoing focus and debate on anti-Semitism on the far right in Europe, the threat posed by the far left has also been a source of contention, especially within Western Europe.
“The old reasoning behind this is the hatred of capitalism and globalization,” Rodan said. “Israel and Zionism, which in many of the far-left’s minds is associated with imperialism, neo-liberalism and capitalism, has become the ‘Feindbild’ [the image of the enemy] No. 1, and the major backbone of many far-left groups’ ideology.”
One of the most prominent examples of anti-Semitism 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 anti-Semitism, in addition to support for Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
“The United Kingdom is a danger, and the next British prime minister might very well be the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn,” Weinthal said. “As has been well-documented, Corbyn is a highly dangerous mixture of radical Islamic anti-Semitism 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 E.U. 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 anti-Semitic threat posed by the far-left and right in Europe, the continent’s growing Muslim community is taking its own deep-seated brand of anti-Semitism and hate for Israel to the region.
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 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 — the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which have growing Muslim communities — 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. Right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary have refused E.U.-mandate deals for the allocation of refugees, and opinion polls show the vast majority oppose accepting refugees.
As a result, Eastern Europe remains largely homogenous as compared to Western Europe.
Weinthal said 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 anti-Semitism and classic Nazi depictions of Jews,” Weinthal said.
At the same time, Weinthal also noted that European anti-Semitism is goes even deeper than the threat posed by the far-left, far-right and radical Islam.
“Most European anti-Semites will not tell an interviewer that they are anti-Semites,” said Weinthal, alluding to the CNN survey. “And the survey did not focus in any systematic way on the ubiquitous expressions of anti-Semitism in response to the Holocaust — namely, guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism, where mainly Western European blame Jews and the state of Israel for their feelings of pathological guilt associated with the crimes of National Socialism.
“In short, to purge their guilt, they turn Israel into a human punching bag,” Weinthal said.
Sean Savage is a writer for JNS.org