For the Jews of Europe, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Take
British Jewry as an example.
In the past 20 years we have built more
Jewish day schools than ever before in our 355-year history. Culturally, a
community deemed moribund a generation ago boasts a cultural center, a community
center in the making, Jewish Book Weeks, arts, music and film festivals, and an
adult-education event – Limmud – that has inspired offshoots in 50 other centers
throughout the Jewish world.
Jews have achieved prominence in every
field. Both parliamentary speakers, in the Commons and the Lords, are Jewish. We
have had, in recent years, two Jewish lord chief justices, Jewish heads of
Oxford and Cambridge, a Jewish editor of The Times and Jewish leaders of both
the Conservative and Labour parties. Not only are Jews respected, but so is
Judaism. The Jewish moral voice has become a significant part of the national
THESE ARE astonishing achievements. But they are clouded by
the disturbing phenomenon of a new anti-Semitism spreading like a virus across
Europe. This cries out for explanation. After all, after the Holocaust, if there
was one thing on which people of goodwill throughout the world agreed, it was:
The entire post-war culture of the West – of the world – was
tilted in that direction. Out of the determination that there should never be
another Holocaust came the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, the
concept of a “crime against humanity,” the idea that racism is a vice, the
movement for interfaith dialogue, and the historic shift in Christianity known
as Vatican II, Nostra Aetate.
How, then, did anti-Semitism return to the
very nations that pledged never to repeat it? The cynical answer is that it
never died, it merely went underground. There is a shred of truth to this, but
very small. As a line of reasoning, it is deeply misleading. For the new
anti-Semitism is only secondarily aimed at Jews as individuals. Its real target
is Jews as a nation – in Israel.
What has happened in our time is an
extraordinarily subtle phenomenon that can only be understood by traveling back
two centuries to the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution. For
centuries, Europe had been disfigured by crude, theologically driven Christian
anti- Judaism. Jews were accused of poisoning wells, spreading the plague,
desecrating the host and killing Christian children.
Jews were not the
only victims of the Church; witches and heretics were burned as well. Then,
following the Reformation, Christians started killing their fellow Christians in
Europe’s great wars of religion.
That was when thoughtful people said,
“Enough.” This led to the rise of science, the age of reason, the doctrine of
toleration and eventually the emancipation of hitherto disenfranchised
minorities, including the Jews. It was the most enlightened age in European
history, and it was at this precise time, in Paris, Berlin and Vienna – the most
sophisticated centers of all – that a new form of hate was born: racial
anti-Semitism. As the deadliest virus the West has ever known, it led otherwise
ordinary, decent human beings to do, or remain passive witnesses to, unspeakable
That was not a simple phenomenon. The anti-Semitism of the 19th
century was not the crude anti-Judaism of the Church. Similarly, the new
anti-Semitism of the 21st century is not the racist anti-Semitism of the 19th
It is not directed against individual Jews, but against Jews as
a nation. It is not spread by conventional means, but by the new technologies of
communication – websites, email, blogs and social networks – that are almost
impossible to monitor and control.
Its most brilliant, even demonic,
stroke has been to adopt as its most powerful weapons the very defenses created
against the old anti-Semitism. It accuses Israel of the five cardinal
post-Holocaust sins: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic
cleansing and attempted genocide.
It is subtle, sophisticated and
It is designed to mislead, and it works.
Israelis and American Jews see it as a threat to European Jewry, which it is,
but only secondarily. The real target is Israel. It is an attack on Israel where
it is most vulnerable, namely among the opinion-forming classes of Europe. If
Israel is delegitimized in their eyes, that leaves only America, and the shrewd
judgment of Israel’s enemies is that, when it comes to supporting Israel, in the
long run America will not go it alone.
This is a chess game more
long-term and coldly calculated than people realize. It aims at the destruction
of the Jewish state. To counter it requires a coordinated global Jewish response
beyond anything thus far envisaged. Nor is it a battle that can be fought by
Jews alone. Without allies, Jews and Israel will lose.
reframing the argument. Anti-Semitism is always a symptom of something more
pervasive, an unresolved tension within a culture, that starts by targeting Jews
but never stops with them. It was not Jews alone who died at the hands of
medieval Christianity, Czarist Russia, Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia: it was
The same will be true in the 21st century. Those who deny
Jews or Israel their freedom will lose, or fail to gain, their own.The
writer has been the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth since
1991, and a member of the House of Lords since 2009. He will discuss the future
of European Jewry alongside a panel of experts later this month at the third
Israeli Presidential Conference: “Facing Tomorrow 2011 in Jerusalem.”