Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Old Wine, New Bottles

YOU ARE IN: Home Page > Topics > Antisemitism

European antisemitism reinvents itself

By Robert Wistrich

I find it shameful that in France, the France of "Liberty, equality, fraternity," synagogues are torched, Jews are terrorised, and their cemeteries profaned ... that in Holland and Germany and Denmark youngsters show off the kaffiyeh like the vanguard of Mussolini displayed the stick and Fascist emblem ... that in almost every European university, Palestinian students take over and nurture antisemitism.

- Oriana Fallaci

Since the beginning of the new millennium, an ancient spectre - that of antisemitism - has returned to haunt the European continent. Once considered the preserve of reactionary clerics, conservative nationalists, fascist bigots, and ultra-radical leftists, Judeophobia has undergone a radical mutation in recent years. Since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 — reinforced by the impact of 9/11 and the war against Iraq — antisemitism has become a central feature of the violent Islamic jihadism that has spread from the Middle East to parts of the Muslim diaspora in Europe. The new antisemitism has also been enthusiastically embraced by broad sectors of the anti-globalisation movement, which, like the Islamists, fervently believe in the existence of an American-Zionist conspiracy to dominate the world. This new "red-green alliance" reviles Israel and "Jewish-controlled" America, even as it opposes the exercise of Western military power abroad and the export of its democratic ideals to non-Western countries. The anti-globalisation enthusiasts are full of self-loathing with regard to the core values of the West, of which Israel is seen as an outpost, viewing them only as a cover for "racist" and "imperialist" occupations. Europe’s colonial guilt and self-criticism have also been important factors in leading it back to its old habits of antisemitism.

At first glance, this new wave of European antisemitism seems puzzling. After all, the emergence of a democratic, multicultural, pluralist European Union (EU) - now extending into Eastern Europe and the Baltic states - should have created the best of all possible worlds for Jews. Traditionally, Jews aspired to precisely the kind of cosmopolitan, supranational federal structures that the European elites have so warmly embraced-a peaceful, prosperous society, tolerant toward its minorities. Indeed, there is today no serious antisemitic discrimination in jobs, housing, or access to high positions in the cultural domain or politics. Jews since World War II have steadily risen in economic and social status and been fully accepted in public life. On a day-to-day basis, most European Jews enjoy a satisfactory life and do not suffer any legal disabilities or personal indignities. There is an active Christian-Jewish dialogue; and the commemoration of the Shoah is widely respected and observed across many countries in the European Union.

So, if things are so good, why are they so bad? Why has the anti-racist, anti-fascist consensus that animates much of the European Union failed to prevent a resurgence of antisemitism? A key factor here is that mainstream attitudes toward Israel have become so hostile that even moderate positions in defence of Zionism can at times be regarded as beyond the pale. To defend the Jewish state is to risk being seen as an accomplice in war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other horrors. Indeed, much of the European extreme left, as well as virtually all neo-Nazis and most Islamists, question the right of Israel to exist as an independent state in the Middle East. Many regard Zionism as even worse than Nazism and frequently lash out at the "manipulation" by Jews of international finance and the global media. But a more moderate version of such fantasies concerning the Jewish state can now be heard in much of Europe’s mainstream public discourse, in the media, the churches, and the universities. Some conservative, socialist, and liberal politicians have joined hands on this issue with indignant artists and intellectuals to proclaim a sacred right to "criticise" the Jews — who are already suspect due to their unholy alliance with "hyperpower" America. In November 2003 a poll found that 59 percent of the population of the European Union believes Israel to be the greatest threat to peace in the world, ahead of North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and a string of Arab dictatorships. Whatever the survey’s flaws in framing the question, its obviously tendentious character, and the superficiality of the responses, there is little doubt that it reflects observable currents in European media coverage of Israel, as well as deeper layers of antisemitic prejudice. It is apparent that many Europeans essentially regard Jews as too powerful, conspiratorial, or devious, as well as being a prime cause of global terrorism today. The Netherlands (74 percent), Austria (69 percent), Luxembourg (66 percent), and Germany (65 percent) lead the pack in considering Israelis to be "warmongers"; only Italy (48 percent) did not give ringing majority endorsement to this proposition, but an independent national survey also showed considerable hostility toward Israel among ordinary Italians.

In Europe it has become part of the conventional wisdom to see Israel as an apartheid state, to pretend that victims of the Holocaust have become Nazis, and to insinuate that the Jewish state properly belongs to President George W Bush’s "axis of evil."

Israel as a Strategic Pawn

Antisemitism, closely linked to anti-Israel and anti-American sentiments, is clearly a central feature in this unparalleled example of double standards. But there is also a larger strategic dimension. Israel has become an important pawn in a European power struggle with America for influence in the Middle East and in the wider world. Ever since the Venice Declaration of 1980, Europe, with some notable exceptions such as Germany, has pursued an increasingly anti-Israeli policy and has sought the diminution of American power in the Middle East. European support for Arafat, despite the intention of the second intifada to undermine Israel’s moral legitimacy and the resultant resurgence of Jew-hatred in individual European countries, must be seen as an integral part of Europe’s anti-American orientation and will-to-power.

Not by accident have antisemitic innuendos about shadowy Jewish "neocons" in the United States been echoing through the chancelleries of old Europe in the past few years. In the House of Lords on March 18, 2003, Lord Jopling (a former cabinet minister) complained about these "neoconservatives" having a "stranglehold on the Pentagon and... a compliant armlock on the president himself." This coded language is now a widespread feature of fashionable antisemitism. Robert Kagan, the prominent American analyst of European affairs, has drily commented in this context: "One finds Britain’s finest minds propounding ... conspiracy theories concerning the ‘neoconservative’ (read: Jewish) hijacking of American foreign policy. In Paris, all the talk is of oil and ‘imperialism’ - and Jews."

The mellifluous Dominique de Villepin, then French foreign minister (now interior minister), was quoted in April 2003 as saying that "the hawks in the US administration [are] in the hands of [Ariel] Sharon" - another barely disguised message about the omnipotent Jewish lobby in Washington. In France, more than elsewhere in Europe, the theory of a "Jewish" intellectual clique driving American policy has indeed taken hold. Partly this is due to the long-standing tradition of French resentment of American power, which was forcefully challenged by General Charles de Gaulle in the mid-1960s. The pro-Arab, pro-Third World orientation of French foreign policy, its ambition to rebuild and lead a united Europe as a counterweight to America, and the desire to appease its large Muslim population have created a social climate highly conducive to a resurgence of antisemitism.

Antisemitism in France

In the first quarter of 2002, French police identified no fewer than 395 antisemitic incidents — an extraordinarily high number. In April 2002, several members of the Maccabi football team were physically assaulted on the outskirts of Paris; in the same month, a bus driving pupils and teachers from a Jewish school in Paris was stoned. In Montpellier, Marseilles, and Strasbourg, as well as in the French capital, synagogues were attacked with Molotov cocktails in the first half of that year. In Lyon, during Passover 2002, around 20 men forced open the synagogue’s door, entered with two stolen vehicles, and set them afire. It is true that after the May 2002 elections, the new government, led by re-elected President Jacques Chirac, began to act more firmly and ceased to deny the existence of antisemitism in France. In November 2003, in response to arson against a Jewish school, Chirac called an emergency meeting of his senior cabinet and promised to get tough with the perpetrators. After that, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin began chairing an inter-ministerial committee on antisemitism that meets monthly. Some positive results were achieved, at least on the level of law enforcement.

Nevertheless, the general climate is still perceived as hostile and the sense of insecurity has given rise to a constantly growing literature. Not for nothing did the chief rabbi of France advise his co-religionists in the autumn of 2003 to wear baseball caps rather than kippot in public places. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s call on France’s 650,000 Jews to immigrate to Israel without delay in the summer of 2004 provoked an angry response from President Chirac and sharp criticism from many French Jews. It was apparent that interference from Israel swiftly raised the spectre of "dual loyalty" in France. Despite determined efforts by the French authorities to demonstrate "zero tolerance" for antisemitism and to make this campaign a national priority, the number of reported antisemitic incidents has soared since the beginning of 2004, with 298 recorded through August 20 compared to 108 throughout all of 2003. The number of violent incidents has risen by 113 percent, compared to the previous year. Eighty percent of these cases have not been solved, and the reasons for them remain unclear. Only 11 attacks were known to have been committed by members of extreme-right organisations; documented acts carried out by persons of Arab or Muslim origin were five times as high.

The Muslim Factor in Europe

The Palestinian war against the Jews has spread from the Middle East to the European Union, which today is home to about 20 million Muslims. Most of these Muslims are law-abiding citizens, and some have themselves suffered from racial prejudice. The Islamists among them are an entirely different matter. They espouse wild conspiracy theories, promote fanatical religious passions, actively propagate jihadist ideology, and manipulate the emotive symbolism of the Palestinian cause to actively threaten Jews. They have done much to revive the latent antisemitism still lurking in the depths of the European psyche, as part of their deliberate strategy of "holy war."

The Muslim immigration that is transforming Europe is disproportionately young, male, and unemployed. For many of the immigrants, Europe has become a prison of alienation and is perceived as dar al-Kufr, the land of impiety. Disaffected and marginalised youth are particularly prone to perpetrate antisemitic acts.

Even in supposedly enlightened and literate circles, antisemitic conspiracy theories and modern, secular versions of the Christian "blood libel" are once again rife, under the mask of "criticising Israel," anti-Zionism, and/or anti-Americanism. This campaign contains much malicious disinformation. For example, it accuses not only the Israeli army, but "the Jews" per se, of infanticide (cold-bloodedly murdering Palestinian children). It includes references to dark "Jewish cabals" that allegedly pushed the United States and Britain into the recent war in Iraq; and insinuations that the "neocons" (a codeword for neoconservative American Jewish intellectuals) deliberately stirred up a "civilisational war" against Islam.

Antisemitism on the Right

Judeophobia of today is very different from the ethnic, racist, or Nazi antisemitism of six decades ago, which had its roots in the nation-states of late nineteenth-century bourgeois Europe. It also needs to be distinguished from the neo-Nazi, right-wing populist and xenophobic versions of antisemitism in post-Holocaust European society, which are still a cause for concern but no longer the key problem today. The current wave of antisemitism in the countries of the European Union - in contrast to "Islamophobia" or right-wing racism - is not the result of long-term unemployment, economic instability, cultural pessimism, religious conflicts, or a crisis in the political system. Nor is it a product of financial scandals, social anomie, or disillusion with the established political parties or with parliamentary democracy. In Western Europe (unlike in the Muslim world, Russia or Eastern Europe) contemporary Judeophobia is more postnational than narrowly nationalist, more anti-American than anticommunist, more "liberal" and leftist than illiberal or antidemocratic. The most important exceptions to this rule are Germany and also - to a greater extent, if one considers the electoral success of far right parties - Austria and Switzerland.

The Antisemitism of the Secular Left

In contemporary Western and Central Europe, if we exclude attacks from the far right, Jews are rarely targeted as stock exchange speculators, radical journalists, or promoters of the cultural avant-garde; nor are they seen in most of the predominantly secular EU countries as enemies of God, Christ, or the Catholic or Protestant churches. Contemporary carriers of Judeophobia in Europe are much less likely to be believing Christians than in the past - unless they belong to the so called progressive wings of their churches, with their uncritical apologia for the Palestinian cause. The main exceptions are places like Greece, where the Orthodox Church still propagates traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes, and new EU member states like Poland or Slovakia, where anti-modernist Catholicism still lives on in some quarters, especially among rural and older individuals. The anti-American left, however, is at least as anti-Jewish as the clerical conservative right, especially among those who have embraced a pronounced "anti-fascist" and "anti-racist" credo. The only variety of antisemitism that such one-eyed leftists apparently can recognise comes replete with loud shouts of "Sieg Heil!" and the dull thud of Nazi jackboots. Islamic-fascist Jew-hatred, on the other hand, is usually ignored or at best considered a mild irritant. In France, for instance, Jew-baiting has, until recently, often been trivialised as a form of juvenile delinquency, or rationalised as an understandable reaction to oppressive Israeli policies — "the sole source of evil" in the Middle East. Left-leaning Judeophobes, unlike their predecessors of a century ago, never call themselves "antisemitic." Indeed, they are usually indignant at the very suggestion that they have something against the Jews. Such denials notwithstanding, they are generally obsessed with stigmatising Israel.

The dream of the far left has long been to dissolve the hated "Zionist entity" and, in the name of human rights, make the world Judenstaatrein. Thus, they deny to the Jewish people a fundamental human and political right that they would militantly defend for non-white peoples - above all, the Palestinians - namely, the right to national self-determination. This anti-Zionism of the radical leftist camp, profoundly discriminatory toward Jewish nationalism, has now spread into the mainstream liberal left, whose rhetoric relentlessly seeks to undermine the moral and historic legitimacy of a Jewish state. Liberal leftists portray Israel as a state born of the "original sin" of displacing, expropriating, or expelling an "indigenous" population. Not only that, but they attribute to the Jews and Israel qualities of cruelty, brutality, bloodthirstiness, duplicity, greed, and immorality drawn straight from the arsenals of classic antisemitism. Such polemics transcend the question of double standards. They go far beyond the long-established media practice of singling out Israel for savage criticism never applied to any other nation-state. Indeed they constitute a clear case of negationism - denying the humanity of Israelis in order to stigmatise, defame, and morally disintegrate the Jewish state, as a prelude to its physical destruction.

Distinguishing Criticism of Israel from Antisemitism

It is, of course, true that not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism; there is also little doubt that a significant number of Jews (including a vocal and sometimes militant minority in Israel) are themselves anti-Zionist or "post-Zionist" in outlook. Equally, the term "antisemitism" is cheapened when it is used opportunistically or for political reasons.

Nevertheless, the delegitimation of Israel all too often slides into a more general defamation of Jews. The call for the demise of Israel expresses, at the very least, an active desire to punish Jews or severely weaken their position. The media debate over antisemitism and "criticism of Israel" that has raged in Europe for the past four years has been characterised by an extraordinary degree of hypocrisy, bad faith, and transparent political bias. In France, for example, a left-wing international relations expert, Pascal Boniface, cynically paraded himself as the victim and target of an organised campaign of [Jewish] intimidation and Zionist "intellectual terrorism" solely because he "criticised" the Sharon government. In Boniface’s Manichean worldview, antisemitism does not exist - neither on the left nor among the French Muslim community, let alone among the vast majority of French people. It is simply an invention of ultra-right Jews in Israel, America, and France to cover up for Sharon’s "sadistic" occupation policy. In Great Britain, the claim is made that, because of the Holocaust, Israel expects to be treated as "beyond reproach." Those who question this, so we are told, are branded "antisemites" in order to invalidate anything they may have to say. The diplomatic editor of the Observer, Peter Beaumont, mockingly observed in this regard: "Criticise Israel and you are an antisemite just as surely as if you were throwing a pot of paint at a synagogue in Paris." The vitriolic Israel-basher Robert Fisk of the Independent is another who regularly complains of the "vicious campaign of slander" (i.e., invoking antisemitism) waged against journalists like himself who merely "criticise" Israeli policy. The Guardian’s comments editor, Seamus Milne, also angrily denounced the "absurd slur" that leftist support for Palestinian rights was in any way connected to anti-Jewish racism. Like Peter Beaumont, he insisted that concern about the existence of a "new antisemitism" was merely a cynical ploy to deflect justified criticism of the Israeli government, "an apologia for Israel’s brutal war of subjugation."

Guardian correspondent Jonathan Freedland offers a telling example. In October 2002, Jewish peace activists marching in the streets of London against the war in Iraq found themselves surrounded by hate-filled chanting and placards on which anti-Israel and anti-Jewish imagery were completely blurred. The demonstration called by the Stop the War Coalition, together with the Muslim Association of Britain, included marchers replete with Hamas-style "martyrs’ headbands," children brandishing toy Kalashnikovs and suicide bomber belts, and blood-curdling slogans and banners twinning the Star of David and the swastika. Similar scenes-including cries of "Death to the Jews" - were enacted in the streets of Paris, Rome, Berlin, and other European capitals during the past three years. Were these demonstrators merely expressing political criticism of Ariel Sharon and opposition to the Likud or to the post-1967 unsought occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? The question answers itself. When the New Statesman in Britain ran a cover story on January 14, 2002, about the perceived might of the pro-Israel lobby, in which a brassy, gleaming gold Star of David (suggesting ostentatious wealth) impaled a supine Union Jack, was that mere criticism of the Israeli government? Evidently not. Such images are the offshoot of a well-established tradition of antisemitic iconography that sees the Jews in conspiratorial terms as overmighty and "piercing the heart of the nation." The New Statesman cover line, "A kosher conspiracy?", made the association even clearer, with echoes of the sinister allegation that Jews are engaged in a secret plot to take over the world. A useful checklist to diagnose today’s antisemitic wolf in anti-Israeli sheep’s clothing might note the following signs of the disease: the singling out by certain writers of the "Jewish lobby" or the "Jewish vote" for opprobrium, together with strident complaints about Jewish communal solidarity with Israel; the gratuitous emphasis on Jewish wealth or the alleged control by Jews of the media; the growing calls for economic boycotts and sanctions directed exclusively against Israeli products and Israeli academic institutions; or the grossly exaggerated assertion that Jews reject every criticism as "antisemitic."

Mobilising Christian Theological Images

Judeophobia is often the symbolic other side of the "Palestinophile" coin. One of the favorite pastimes of its protagonists is mobilising archaic Christian theological images into the service of a postmodern version of the "anti-Zionist" cause. The "crucifixions" of Jesus and of Yasser Arafat by "deicidal" Israelis/Jews merge into a bizarre, timeless blur of suffering. Poor, downtrodden Palestinians mutate into tortured sacrificial lambs slaughtered by the ancient "Christ-killing" people. A totally de-Judaised Jesus is transmuted into the first Palestinian martyr, reviving the replacement theology that Christian churches in the West have only recently repudiated. This is historical falsification no less extreme than the "Aryan" Jesus invented by the Nazis in their eschatological war against the Jews and "Judeo-Christianity." In the French media, the thirty-nine-day Israeli army siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (April 2002) quickly became a metaphorical replay of the passion of Christ. Its symbolism echoed "the massacre of the innocents" by King Herod, graphically depicted in the New Testament and in Western art. Nothing could have been better suited to revive the most deeply entrenched Judeophobic residues in the psyche of the Christian West - organically linking the present-day suffering of the "Palestinian David" at the hands of a Goliath-like Jewish state. The enduring image of the siege in Bethlehem was not the sacrilegious invasion of a major Christian holy place by armed Palestinians, but the photograph of one intrusive Israeli tank guarding the entrance to Manger Square. Worse still, Yasser Arafat could pose as the defender of the "Holy Land."

The siege of the Church of the Nativity turned into a Palestinian propaganda victory, because the image of a Jewish state hostile to Christianity was already so thoroughly ensconced in the Western psyche. The Vatican contributed its part by unfounded reprimands to Israel that recalled some of the darker strands of Church history. As if to underline the force of subliminal perceptions of Israel and Jews as "Christ-killers" in the European media, there was the cartoon in the (non-antisemitic) liberal Italian daily, La Stampa, on April 3, 2002, showing the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. In this insidious caricature, an Israeli tank points its gun at the baby Christ, who cries: "Are they coming to kill me again?" This casual reference to deicide reveals the astonishing resilience of the Christ-denying image (applied to the State of Israel) still embedded in the European imagination. Four months earlier, an equally offensive cartoon appeared in the French left-wing daily Liberation (December 26, 2001), entitled "No Christmas for Arafat." Yasser Arafat had been banned by Israel from attending the Christmas Mass in Bethlehem. In the cartoon Ariel Sharon was depicted preparing a cross for Arafat, with hammer and nails at the ready. An Israeli tank stood parked nearby. The caption underneath sarcastically suggested that Arafat "would be welcome for Easter." A similar motif had appeared in the Easter 2002 issue of the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, whose editorial page fiercely condemned Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians under a banner heading: "The Crucifixion of Arafat. " The liberal Swedish Expressen, not to be outdone, identified Israel’s military actions with Old Testament "vengefulness," deploring its acts of war for expressing the primitive Biblical teaching of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

Across the European Union, it has become commonplace to declare that "the Jews, once victims, have become executioners." This remark of France’s most popular Catholic priest, Abbe Pierre, was made as far back as 1991. Since then, Abbe Pierre has not tired of repeating the ugly canard that the Jews invented genocide; that their Old Testament faith is relentlessly legalistic, tribal, and punitive; and that Zionism is a uniquely vicious example of the ravages inflicted by capitalist globalisation on the "wretched of the earth." Such beliefs explain why Father Pierre chose to defend the Holocaust denial theories of his close friend Roger Garaudy - a lapsed Catholic, ex-Stalinist convert to Islam, and a culture hero to millions of Arabs.

Europe’s Holocaust Legacy

Europe has a deeper problem with Israel, deriving from the demons of its own dark past, the legacy bequeathed by the Holocaust. It is as if contemporary Europeans can only accept Jews who reflect the long diasporic tradition of military-political powerlessness. Robust measures of self-defence against terror are distorted to suggest that Israelis have sold their birthright of "prophetic justice" for the arrogance of power, exaggerated national pride, and blind reliance on military might. Anti-Zionists have in recent years increasingly manipulated the Holocaust as a propaganda weapon against the Jewish state, to demonstrate that Jews are as bad as their former murderers. Branding Israel with the Nazi swastika is not, however, a criticism, but an act of pure defamation. A classic example of this genre can be found in a caricature in Ethnos (April 7, 2002), a major centre-left, pro-government Greek newspaper, showing two Israeli soldiers in the disputed territories: One says to the other: "Don’t feel guilty, my brother! We were not in Auschwitz and Dachau to suffer but to learn." The Nazi-like soldiers with the Star of David on their helmets are shown ruthlessly knifing Palestinians. This constant borrowing of vocabulary, images, and analogies from the Shoah to pillory Israel has indeed become a European specialty in recent years.

It is indeed a striking and terrible paradox that antisemitism has never seemed so potent in Europe since 1945, despite the broader public awareness of the Holocaust. Dead Jews, it would seem, can do no wrong. But living Jews in Israel, bent on ensuring their survival, are another matter entirely. At an Oslo march in observance of Kristallnacht in November 2004, for example, Norwegian Jews were excluded for carrying Israeli flags or other Jewish symbols. Countries such as Sweden, which leads the world in innovative Holocaust education, are peculiarly relentless in their moralistic hectoring of Israel. The Swedish foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, exploited a recent visit to Yad Vashem to downplay antisemitism in her own country and to lecture her hosts on the need to accept "criticism"; this, after having publicly compared the behaviour of Israelis toward Palestinians with that of the Nazis toward the Jews. The Swedish foreign minister is, however, only one of many European politicians who confuse "criticism" with "demonisation" of Israel as if it were a fascist state. Such gross exaggerations are made still worse by the refusal to criticise far more horrific actions by Arabs and Palestinians.

European elites have been remarkably slow to grasp the ways in which the methods, defamation techniques, and the vocabulary of anti-Israeli critics today follow a classic pattern of antisemitism. They fail to see that the myths of Jews as "warmongers" and of "Jewish cabals" or alleged Jewish control of America are pure antisemitism. Many do not yet grasp that the defamatory image of Israel itself as an oppressive "criminal" state in its essence is a modern blood libel masquerading as legitimate criticism. There has, in fact, been a stunning obtuseness and refusal to recognise that the radical negation of Israel has liberated an increasingly antisemitic discourse, one which displaces the cause of all the world’s troubles onto the shoulders of the Jewish state — "nazifying" it, while simultaneously trivialising the Shoah. Former European imperialists — whether in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, or Italy — prefer to denounce Israeli "colonialism" rather than to deal with their own very real colonial crimes, their own dismal record of collaboration in the Holocaust, or their failure to respond to post-war tragedies, such as in Rwanda, Sudan, Tibet, and Chechnya. Once more, so it would appear, Jews exist to fulfil their time-honoured role of serving as a projection screen for repressed European guilt.

Most recent items in: Antisemitism