A defining moment for Europe

Political and cultural leaders must speak out against anti-Semites and their apologists.

April 26, 2015 21:11
4 minute read.
eu flag (european union)

European Union flags. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Europe’s leaders and media have long ignored, downplayed or outright denied that anti-Semitism has increased on the continent over the past 15 years. When in 2006 a gang of self-described “barbarians” of African and North African background tortured llan Halimi, a young Parisian Jew, for 24 days, finally dousing his naked body with acid and leaving him to die beside a highway, the police refused to acknowledge the obvious hate element of this horrific crime.

The anti-Semitic nature of more recent attacks on Jews could no longer be so easily denied. But even so, the murders in 2012 of three Jewish children and a rabbi in Toulouse, and of four people in the Brussels Jewish museum last May failed to evoke any largescale demonstrations, let alone serious political action.

One therefore does not have to be a cynic to wonder whether the January attack on the Paris kosher supermarket and the murder the following month of a synagogue guard in Copenhagen would have passed just as quickly from public consciousness had these crimes not been flanked by assaults on journalists and free speech. The Charlie Hebdo attack galvanized public outrage in a way the Toulouse and Brussels murders clearly had not.

However belatedly, governments, particularly the French, speak now more openly about the anti-Semitic threat from Islamic extremists. We would be fooling ourselves, however, if we reduced the problem “just” to Europe’s thousands of home-grown jihadis.

Those willing to murder in the name of a radical ideology, be it fascism or jihadism, will always be a minority. But without the much larger circles of sympathizers, people who share at least some of the terrorists’ extreme beliefs or “understand” their alleged grievances the jihadi recruiters wouldn’t be so successful.

And anti-Semitism is an integral part of the jihadi ideology and recruiting process, according to Haras Rafiq, managing director of the Quilliam Foundation, a counter-extremism think tank. If we don’t manage to stem the tide, he warns, anti-Semitism may even “become the default position of young Muslims in Europe.”

This is why young Muslims also appear to be disproportionately responsible for the wave of non-terrorism incidents against Jews on Europe’s streets – that is, harassment, threats, verbal and physical attacks. I say “appear” because hard data is difficult to come by, a shortcoming Europe needs to address. More about this further down.

The problem isn’t confined, though, to extremism in Europe’s Muslim community.

Europe is also facing the rise of populist and far-right parties. And at the other end of the political spectrum, jihadis can count on supposedly liberal but certainly useful apologists.

Take BBC reporter Tim Willcox. In his live coverage of the Paris rally following the terror attacks, he interviewed a visibly distressed Jewish woman who told him about her fears over the growing anti-Semitism. His response? “Many critics, though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well,” Willcox shot back.

“You understand everything is seen from different perspectives.”

In the same vein, Helena Groll, a journalist with Swedish public broadcaster Sveriges, asked Israel’s ambassador to Stockholm: “Do the Jews themselves have any responsibility in the growing anti-Semitism that we see now?” And in February, a German court convicted two German Palestinians for an arson attack on a synagogue, but denied the crime was anti-Semitic.

As the demonization of Israel moves from the fringes to the center of European society, violence not just against Israeli civilians but even European Jews becomes explainable, if not inevitable.

That is why UK broadcasting watchdog Ofcom dismissed complaints about Wilcox’s comments as “justified by the context in which they were presented.”

We have thus clearly arrived at what can only be considered a defining moment for Europe, which is what the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has called its May 5 conference in Brussels on combating anti-Semitism.

Bringing together EU officials, diplomats, lawmakers, community leaders and counter-radicalization experts, the conference hopes to help devise a much-needed European strategy.

The French government launched on April 17 a comprehensive plan to fight anti-Semitism and racism. The rest of Europe needs to follow suit and act in coordination.

As the very first step, Europe must assure the physical security of Jewish communities. Even after repeated attacks, too many governments still withhold adequate police protection and funding for security measures, such as cameras or bullet-proof windows.

Furthermore, political and cultural leaders must speak out against anti-Semites and their apologists.

Europe needs an accepted definition of anti-Semitism that includes such tropes as comparing Israel to Nazis or blaming Jews for Jew-hatred.

As mentioned, Europe lacks comprehensive studies to understand the dimensions and sources of the threat, without which governments can’t fashion appropriate responses. The European Union and its member states need effective counter-radicalization programs and must better monitor and detoxify social media. Europe needs new border surveillance and information- sharing procedures to prevent the return of jihadis from the Middle East, or even better, to prevent their departure in the first place.

What’s at stake is not only the future of Europe’s Jewish communities but also the very values on which the postwar EU project was built. As history has taught us, from Nazi Germany to today’s Arab world, the “barbarians” may start with the Jews, but they never stop there.

The author is director of the AJC Transatlantic Institute in Brussels. Follow him on twitter at @DSchwammenthal.

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