Europe Through the Lens of Anti-Semitism
The history of the Jewish people in Europe is fraught with examples of the worst human rights violations—forced conversions, expulsions, inquisitions, pogroms and the genocide to end all genocides, the murder of six million Jews and millions of others in the Holocaust. These have been perpetrated by governments, dictators and the Catholic Church itself. Today, many of these historic threats have diminished or disappeared. There is no Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini to threaten European Jewry. Church-based anti-Semitism is largely a thing of the past. There is no government or society seeking to annihilate its Jews. But newer manifestations of anti-Semitism have emerged.
In some countries, such as Germany, Jewish life is flourishing again. And yet the Jewish communities of Europe are under verifiable threats—terrorism, daily violence, harassment, intimidation and infringements on religious freedom—emanating from fringe sectors of society, even as governments try to protect their Jewish communities.
How bad is it? A 2013 survey by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency revealed tremendous insecurity in the continent’s Jewish communities. Almost half of the respondents worried about being insulted or harassed in public for being Jewish, and a third worried about becoming victims of physical assault. Three-quarters re-sponded that anti-Semitism had in–creased over the previous five years.
And that was before the attacks in Copenhagen, Paris and Brussels. After three major terror attacks against Jewish targets in the past 12 months, some people are asking whether Europe’s Jewish communities are at a tipping point. Will they collapse from a combination of mass emigration and widespread withdrawal from Jewish life?
I think the answer is an unqualified no. But we must do all that we can to ensure that European leaders and governments aren’t just paying lip service to the notion of Never Again.
Perhaps the starting point should be a different question. Do Jews in Europe feel free to live openly and fully as Jews? Sadly, the answer is no in far too many places. Terror attacks against Jewish targets grab the headlines, but several other factors affect the confidence level of Europe’s Jews and they vary among countries.
Five major factors affect the confidence level of people to live openly and freely as Jews: the degree of anti-Semitic attitudes held by the general population; the number and nature of anti-Semitic
incidents; the reaction of governments and civil society to those incidents; anti-Semitism in politics and media; and recent troubling restrictions on religious freedom, specifically on male circumcision and kosher slaughter. I will address the first four of these factors here.
In May 2014, the Anti-Defamation League released a worldwide survey of anti-Semitic attitudes. The ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism surveyed 53,100 adults in 102 countries and territories in an effort to establish, for the first time, a database on the level and intensity of an-ti-Jewish sentiment. The overall index score represents the percentage of respondents who an–swered “probably true”
to 6 or more of 11 negative stereotypes.
The average index score for European Union member states was 25 percent: One in four citizens agreed with a majority of the anti-Semitic stereotypes tested.
Not all the news was bad. Several states were among the lowest scorers in the world. Sweden (4 percent), The Netherlands (5 percent), and the United Kingdom (8 percent) all scored better than the United States (9 percent) and Denmark was tied. Other European Union states had disappointing scores: France (37 percent), Hungary (41 percent), Bulgaria (44 percent), Poland (45 percent). Greece was an astounding 69 percent, making it the worst-scoring nation outside the Middle East and North Africa.
There is a massive data deficit because the majority of European Union countries do not monitor or document anti-Semitic crimes as a separate category in po–lice re-cords. Only 9 of the 28 states publish data on anti-Semitic crimes. Compounding the problem is underreporting. The survey showed 76 percent of victims of anti-Semitic har-ass-ment did not report incidents to police or to a Jewish organization; neither did a startling 64 percent of victims of physical violence.
The data we do have from France and the United Kingdom indicate severe problems with anti-Semitic violence, especially compared to the United States. Vandalism and harassment discourage communities, but physical violence is of utmost concern. Comparing the numbers of violent anti-Semitic incidents between 2008 and 2014 in England, France and the United States demonstrates the gap between American Jews and British and French Jews.
In France, per 100,000 Jews, there were 15 assaults a year over that seven-year period. In England, there were 31 assaults per 100,000 Jews per year. In the United States, ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents reported an annual average of just 0.4 assaults per 100,000 Jews.
French Jews are almost 40 times more at risk of being assaulted than American Jews. British Jews are al-most 80 times more at risk. By contrast, there are communities with over 20,000 Jews—Italy, Spain, Hungary and Sweden—where very few anti-Semitic physical assaults are reported.
Numbers do not tell the whole story. The nature of the violence also matters. Four out of the five recent anti-Semitic murders in Europe were committed by French citizens against French Jews—most recently the murders at a kosher supermarket in Paris in January.
The problems in France should be seen through the lens of terrorism. A small number of anti-Semites are using violence against Jews and causing widespread insecurity. In the 2013 European Union survey, 60 percent of French Jews said they expected to be the victim of an anti-Semitic physical assault over the next 12 months. Half said they usually or always avoided wearing a kippa or other outward sign of being Jewish. Asked if they had considered emigrating in the last five years, 46 percent said yes.
In England, the Jewish community has not been hit with similar acts of terrorism. The European Union survey showed much higher levels of confidence, despite suffering double the number of anti-Semitic assaults on a per capita basis in the past seven years. While 19 percent reported being the victim of an anti-Semitic incident during the prior 12 months—almost the same as in France—only 17 percent feared being the victim of a physical assault over the next 12 months.
And British Jews do not hide their Jewishness. Forty-one per-cent said they never avoid wearing Jewish symbols, and 37 percent said they do so only occasionally. Just 18 percent of British Jews had considered emigrating over the prev-ious five years, tied for the lowest in the union.
Responses to anti-Semitism by politicians and law enforcement can be assessed with objective criteria. Officials make statements, or they don’t. Hate crimes are prosecuted, or they’re not. Education programs are in place, or they are not.
The British parliament conducted an inquiry into anti-Semitism several years ago and made 35 proposals, which successive governments have been implementing. Prime Minister David Cameron and other cabinet ministers made strong public comments about anti-Semitism.
In France, new measures to tackle anti-Semitism are be–ing developed and will address law enforcement, ed—uca-tion, the Internet, radicalization in prisons and other topics. Ef-fective policies, though, are not sufficient. The government must restore a sense of confidence for the community.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls took an important step with his landmark speech to the National Assembly on January 13, in which he lamented that French politicians and society had not mustered the outrage that the rise in anti-Semitic acts demanded.
Unfortunately, we have not seen such statements and actions across the European Union. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel and other government leaders have spoken out forcefully against anti-Semitism, but German nongovernmental organizations combating anti-Semitism have been dissatisfied with policy implementation and inadequate government funding of programs.
In Belgium, the Jewish community again called on the government to implement adequate security, legislative and legal measures after the Copenhagen attack—eight months after the deadly attack at the Brussels Jewish museum. In Hungary, Poland, Romania and Spain, very few complaints about anti-Semitic incidents result in legal action.
Where anti-Semitism occurs in politics and media, public discourse is poisoned and the effects on the Jewish community are predictable. Hungary is one of two European Union countries with a neo-Nazi party in parliament. The Jobbik Party received 21 percent of the vote in the last election. While violent anti-Semitic incidents are rare, in the European Union survey more Hungarians reported being the targets of ha–rassment than in any of the surveyed countries. Hungary also had the highest number of respondents who have considered emigrating: 48 percent.
Greece is home to the other neo-Nazi parliamentary party in the union. Golden Dawn came in third in last January’s election with more than 6 percent of the vote.
So what needs to be done to guarantee a future for Jews in Europe? We know the communities of Western Europe are concerned about physical attacks, largely by Islamic extremists. Public officials must recognize these fears and clearly identify their source as terrorism.
We know that in Central and Eastern Europe, extremist political parties, media and public discourse make Jews nervous. There, the questions are not only about safety. Public officials, governments and civil society must recognize the threat these parties pose. And we need the United States and other nations to raise their moral voices against the acceptance of these parties into the mainstream.
We know that where problems are ignored, even if synagogues are not burning, we see despair. And so we need governments to address the critical issues of security, counter-radicalization and education.
We should make no mistake: The future of Europe’s Jewish communities hangs in the balance.
Abraham H. Foxman will retire as national director of the Anti-Defamation League in July.