British Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Emeritus Jonathan Sacks was the first to call antisemitism “a virus in constant mutation,” ever-changing to fit the prevailing environmental circumstances.
Inn the same collection of essays I called it “a drop of mercury in the palm of the hand... like a thermostat, when the environment is cool and stable, it remains flat. When heated and hostile, it bulges responding to the prevalent fever. In both cases, antisemitism may be contained, but it never disappears. Indeed, it is subject to waves.
I had arrived in France to open a European office in 1980, and was welcomed by the first wave of antisemitic terrorism: the Sukkot bombing of the Copernic Synagogue in Paris.
I was visiting the late journalist and diplomat Tamar Golan, who lived around the corner from Copernic. Her house guest, Aliza Shagrir - wife of the late Israeli cineaste Micha - had just arrived from Israel. She asked if anything was needed for the festive dinner. Tamar suggested a few dates and requested that I point out the fruit shop on the Rue Copernic. As I walked away, I felt the shockwave of the bomb which cost Aliza her life.
The next morning, prime minister Raymond Barre announced, “This odious bombing, wanting to strike Jews who were going to the synagogue, hit innocent French people.”
In fact, The victims were a Spanish chauffeur, a Portuguese concierge, Aliza and an “innocent Frenchman” passing by on a scooter, plus 46 wounded.
Copernic launched - over a period of two years - a spree of 73 shootings and bombings of Jewish and Israeli targets across Western Europe, 29 of them in France. It ended with the Goldenberg Restaurant massacre that killed nine innocent victims in the Jewish quarter of Paris.
Why did it end? In 1982, Israel entered Lebanon after the coastal bus bombing. European terrorists being trained in Palestinian camps fled home and, in need of money, began attacking banks, then businesses, political figures, embassies and military bases.
Governments cracked down until, in the late ‘80s, these mainly extreme-left groups were neutralized.The first antisemitic wave had dissolved.
The second wave in 2000 brought the Intifada to Europe, where native-born radicalized youth played the role of “Palestinians” attacking their Jewish neighbors, considered by the terrorists as “Israelis.”
This new wave fizzled out as the perpetrators, resident in slum peripheries, entered city centers to smash cars and shop windows. Governments cracked down again.
The third wave arrived in France with individual murders, escalating to the Toulouse Jewish school and the Hypercacher kosher supermarket - attacks which were linked to the murderous attack on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
While Jews are still the privileged target of Islamist attacks, indiscriminate assaults - as on the Paris Bataclan Theater - have revived the “Raymond Barre syndrome”: “terror-targeting Jews killed innocent Frenchmen.” President Hollande declared a state of siege, placing military troops at the doors of Jewish institutions and other soft targets.
The fourth wave is now upon us. President Emmanuel Macron removed the soldiers and Jew-hatred has surged, from cemetery desecrations to social media, boiling the mercury globally. The Aalst Carnival floats in Belgium had opened the dyke of putrid hate-mongering.
Meanwhile, populism poisoned both Right and Left political extremes. Austerity led to the search for scapegoats and the endorsement of conspiracy theories.
Then along came the coronavirus and a flashback to medieval and Nazi-style defamation, such as the accusation that former French health minister Agnès Buzyn poisoned the wells, or the recent painting, in Italy, that reruns a horrifying 1475 blood libel depicting “perfidious” Jews “celebrating” the blood-letting of a two-year old Christian child to bake matzah for Passover.
Rabbi Sacks’s definition of antisemitism as a virus is never more relevant. It has even been suggested that if Israel develops a vaccine, the new version of the libel would be “Jews created the virus and its antidote, to gain money and to control the world.”
How many may buy it?
Only the lunatic fringe? Or, as the angry and desperate unemployed evacuate quarantine, could the virus of hate surge again and the mercury once more burst through the thermometer?
The writer is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.