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European Anti-Semitism Is Described as Both a “Genuine” and “Illusory” Problem

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2005

“Anti-Semitism today is a genuine problem. It is also an illusory problem,” writes Professor Tony Judt of the Remarque Institute at New York University in The Nation (Jan. 3, 2005). “The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally realized in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and elsewhere. Thus, the increase in anti-Jewish incidents in France or Belgium is correctly attributed to young people, frequently of Muslim or Arab background, the children or grandchildren of immigrants. ... It is not, as they say, ‘your grandfather’s anti-Semitism.’”  

In Judt’s view, many Americans have an “exaggerated anxiety” about the problem. He cites a statement in February, 2004 by Rockwell Schnabel, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe “getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 30s.”  

The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe, Judt believes, “is real, but it needs to be kept in proportion ... Polls confirm that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than their parents were. Among non-Muslim French youth, especially, anti-Semitic sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible ... These figures are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the U.S.”  

Events in the Middle East have had an impact upon anti-Semitism in Europe, Judt argues; “It is increasingly clear to observers in France, for example, that assaults on Jews in working-class suburbs of big cities are typically driven by frustration and anger at the government of Israel. Jews and Jewish institutions are a convenient and vulnerable local surrogate. Moreover, the rhetorical armory of traditional European anti-Semitism — the Protocols of the Elders of Zion ... has been pressed into service by the media in Damascus, Cairo and elsewhere. Thanks to satellite television, anti-Jewish images and myths can now spread with ease across the youthful Arab diaspora.”  

Many Jewish leaders in the U.S. express the view that there is no longer any difference between being “against” Israel and “against” Jews, Judt points out, and have said that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become synonymous: “But that is palpably false. Some of the highest levels of pro-Palestinian sympathy in Europe today are recorded in Denmark, a country that also registers as one of the least anti-Semitic ... another country with a high level of support for the Arabs of Palestine is the Netherlands; yet ... the Dutch have the lowest anti-Semitic quotient in Europe ... In other words, some of the most widespread pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist views are to be found in countries that have long been — and still are — decidedly philo-Semitic.”  

The policies of Israeli governments, especially in the last two decades, have, Judt writes, “provoked widespread anti-Jewish feelings in Europe and elsewhere. This may seem absurd, but there is a certain logic to it. Zionists have always insisted that there is no distinction between the Jewish people and the Jewish state. The latter offer a right of citizenship to Jews anywhere in the world. Israel is not the state of all its citizens, much less all its residents; it is the state of (all) Jews. Its leaders purport to speak for Jews everywhere. They can hardly be surprised when their own behavior provokes a backlash against Jews. Thus Israel itself has made a significant contribution to the resurgence of anti-Semitism ... This is an outcome with which many Israeli politicians are far from unhappy. It retroactively justifies their own bad behavior and contributes, as they proudly assert, to a rise in the number of European Jews leaving for Israel. ...”  

What is to be done? Judt provides this prescription: “Those of us who take seriously the problem of anti-semitism — but who utterly reject the suggestion that we ourselves are in danger of sympathizing with anti-Semitism under the guise of anti-Zionism — must begin by constructing and defending a firewall between the two. Israel does not speak for Jews; but Israel’s claim to speak for Jews everywhere is the chief reason that anti-Israel sentiments are transposed into Judeophobia. Jews and others must learn to shed inhibitions and criticize Israel’s policies and actions just as they would those of any other established state ... In my view it is incumbent upon Jews in particular — Jewish writers, Jewish intellectuals, Jewish scholars — to address these contested and disconcerting problems. Because Jewish critics of Israel are less vulnerable to moral blackmail from Israel’s defenders, they should be in the forefront of public discussion of the Middle East ...”  

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