(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig committed suicide in 1942 during his self-selected exile to Brazil, he was in despair over seeing “his intellectual homeland Europe” destroyed. He thought he had no viable alternative in the wake of these changes. Zweig’s painful and tragic life story came to mind following the recent wave of anti-Semitism in Europe.
We were immensely touched to learn, as teenagers and young adults, how Zweig was forced to leave his hometown Vienna and how, in the following years, he coped unsuccessfully with life in the diaspora. And we were shaken to our bones in recent weeks whenever pro-Palestinian demonstrations turned into inhuman hatred of the Jewish people. One can argue that anti-Semitism is back in Europe, but the crux of the tragedy is: it never left European soil and is now growing by the day.
A study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in 2014 found out that 24 percent of the citizens of Western European countries harbor overtly anti-Semitic sentiments – and this study didn’t even include analogous hatred against Israel in its questionnaire.
Sadly, the reaction to this study has been minimal. Some argue that there’s a new quality in the hatred toward the Jewish community. Others argue what we’re witnessing now is a new quantity of anti-Semitic rhetoric and violent attacks. We think both are right.
Hatred against Jews has always existed in Western societies and among predominantly Muslim communities.
Prejudices that have been cooking up for quite some time below the surface in the living rooms of middle class Europeans – not only on the fringes of society – are often reinforced by biased mainstream media reports that portray Israel as the aggressor and by Arab satellite channels that preach blatant anti-Semitism.
The magnitude of anti-Jewish sentiments are at a new level. Jews are attacked with terrible rhetoric and put in physical danger in ways never seen before. Demonstrations turn violent; synagogues, shops and people are attacked all across Europe. This is not limited to a single city or a single country on our continent. Superficially it appears that this aggressive pattern is a response to events unfolding in Gaza, but that conflict has nothing to do with the recent flourishing of antisemitism and everything to do with vile, chronic hatred.
European states have to reject the idea that this problem will go away when Operation Protective Edge ends.
Anti-Semitic sentiments will not vanish just because Israel stops using military force to defend its citizens.
There was a run-up in recent years to the dangerous situation we’re in right now. For example, the widespread use of the anti-Semitic “Quenelle” gesture popularized by the French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala encourages a false distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, which serves to legitimize latent anti-Jewish sentiment when expressed as the latter.
The expansion of this phenomenon was only possible because the political class across Europe lacks courage to act decisively. The reluctance of European police forces to use the full range of legal measures to ban anti-Semitic flags, banners and slogans is inexcusable. The French government finally understood this threat and commendably banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations on its soil after Jews and synagogues were attacked in prior demonstrations.
Anti-Jewish sentiment has to be tackled at its roots. There is no reason to treat Muslim and neo-Nazi anti-Semitism as distinct. Much can be learned from efforts to fight the growth of neo-Nazi sentiment among the young. European governments should also consider legal measures that would render Arab satellite channels known for anti-Jewish propaganda inaccessible.
In Berlin an imam of the al-Nur mosque, which is known to be a gathering place for Islamists, called for the annihilation of all “Zionist Jews” in a Friday sermon. Such a blatant example of anti-Semitism must have harsh consequences, including closing the Al-Nur mosque, a breeding ground for anti-Semitism. It is simply not sufficient to regard calls for the murder of Jews on European soil as unacceptable. Solidarity requires concrete political steps as we’ve outlined.
We owe it to victims from the past to prevent victims in the future. And our concept of democracy requires it, because spreading despicable hatred through abusive speech attacks its foundation. This threat needs to be addressed with the full force of criminal law.
Stefan Zweig, all alone, thought there would be no alternative to the pr4evailing image of his fate. Today members of Jewish communities across Europe rightly ask themselves if they may have a safe future here.
There’s no alternative to ensuring that Jewish life can thrive in our countries.
History is not obliged to repeat itself, but it will do so unless we make sure that words based on remembering the past have actual significance by acting in accord with them.
Saba Farzan is a German-Iranian journalist and director of political studies at IMED, where Jan Schulz and Andreas Winter are currently research assistants.