European leaders reflect on rising antisemitism trends

The European Jewish Association brought together a plethora of European leaders, survivors and community leaders to Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 GAZING AT the carnage of  Kristallnacht, November 1938. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
GAZING AT the carnage of Kristallnacht, November 1938.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Walking through the streets of bars and restaurants in what used to be Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, one day after visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp on the 84th anniversary of Kristallnacht with a delegation from the European Jewish Association (EJA), serves as a sharp reminder of just how easily words of hatred and populist incitement can cause a normative society to slip into horror.

At least 91 people were killed, 1,400 synagogues torched and burned, and some 30,000 Jewish men rounded up and taken to concentration camps during the outbreak of violence against Jews and Jewish property in Germany and parts of Austria on the night of November 9, 1938, in what is also called “the November Pogrom.”

In its annual commemoration, the EJA brought a delegation of European parliamentarians and Jewish leaders on November 7 to the concentration camps, an hour’s drive away from Krakow, Poland’s second-largest city.

The delegation also took part in a symposium held the next day to discuss measures for combating the troubling increase of antisemitism in Europe and the importance of education in schools, social media and homes.

Addressing the delegation at the end of their visit, EJA chairman and founder Rabbi Menachem Margolin recounted how just a week earlier, his two preteen sons came home shocked and angry after being called “dirty Jews” by a woman as they got onto a bus in the center of Brussels.

“Many Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors… say that the level of hatred against Jews today reminds them of the level of hatred before World War II,” he said. “You see people forget how bad humans can get and allow themselves to stretch the balloon each time a little bit more until it explodes. But in this case, it doesn’t explode on its own but also explodes on everyone who is standing nearby.”

Europe’s Jews were murdered for two reasons: Hatred and cynical politicians

Margolin reminded the delegation that Europe’s Jews were murdered for two reasons: Hatred that political leaders did not stop in time and let grow into incitement; and cynical politicians riding the wave of hatred as a way to unite the people against a “so-called enemy.”

Noting that times of war and economic crisis “always serve as a platform for a serious escalation of antisemitism,” he called on government leaders to “act with greater determination” to eradicate antisemitism and xenophobia through education and legislation.

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said everyone should be required to visit the concentration camps to see the atrocities humanity is capable of. Her visit was a warning to her that something like the Holocaust should never happen again, she said.

“It is my duty and responsibility to protect people in Europe from antisemitism,” Metsola said. “We will not forget and will not let this happen again. We must fight propaganda and antisemitic narratives, but we not only need a strategy against antisemitism, we need action to bring Judaism again to Europe.”

“We will not forget and will not let this happen again. We must fight propaganda and antisemitic narratives, but we not only need a strategy against antisemitism, we need action to bring Judaism again to Europe.”

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola

“Auschwitz didn’t fall from the sky but is the result of years of discrimination and propaganda,” she said. “Antisemitism is still rife in our societies.”

Holocaust survivor Régine Suchowolski-Sluszny, 83, chairwoman of the Forum of Jewish Organizations of Antwerp Belgium, accompanied the delegation. She was hidden as a child during the war by a Christian Belgian family and was reunited with her biological family following the war. But her late husband’s entire family perished in Auschwitz.“It has never stopped,” Suchowolski-Sluszny said.

“We are still seeing in some places people being killed [for who they are]. I am scared that the Holocaust will be forgotten after all the survivors have passed away. It will become just distant history one day, while today it is still [considered] as our history.”

“We are all the same,” she said. “We do not choose where to be and where we will come into the world, so we should all be able to live together in peace. Don’t tell me that we need war. We don’t need war at all; we need to love each other.”

A study presented at the symposium the following day by Kalman Szalai, director of the Budapest-based Action and Protection League, showed that while antisemitic prejudice in Eastern European countries is relatively high, the number of reported antisemitic incidents remains low, but the opposite is true in Western European countries, where antisemitic incidents are increasing.

Antisemitism on the rise in Europe

For example, during the period of study in 2021, in Hungary, there were 40 to 50 reported antisemitic incidents, but there were more than 2,000 such incidents in Germany and more than 700 in France, he said. The data was compiled via polls taken in 16 countries.

The study found that antisemitic incidents in Western countries seem to be fueled by a combination of anti-Israel sentiment and a growing Muslim immigrant population, Szalai said.

Senator Nathalie Delattre, vice chairwoman of the Senate of France, said 73% of the racist incidents in France have been against Jews. Islamic radicalization is at the “very center” of the problem, and the Internet is a major culprit in the propagation of hate speech, including on TikTok, she said.

“We can see that antisemitism is rearing up its ugly head and is exacerbated by hate speech on social networks,” Delattre said. “We need to educate in our schools and also raise our children right at home. It is not always easy, but that fight has to be continuous in our family homes. We need to combat different forms of hatred.”

Among the participating government dignitaries were Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazović; European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varheyli; Bulgarian Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev; French MP Caroline Janvier, secretary of the National Assembly of France; Austrian MP Dr. Helmut Brandstätter, chairman of the parliamentary delegation of the Austrian Parliament; British MP Christian Wakeford, co-chair of the parliamentary group on British Jews; and MEP Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou, vice chair of the European Parliament Committee in Greece.

They agreed that although individual countries have adopted educational measures to combat growing antisemitism, a cooperative European educational policy is necessary both in schools and on social media, where hate speech and antisemitism run widely rampant and largely uncensored.

“Education is ultimately the way to tackle any hatred,” Wakeford said. “We can preach at school, but if they are going back to hatred in their home, [that is a problem]… We are supportive of freedom of speech, but when freedom of speech pushes hatred, we have to draw the line there.”

Geshev said the Holocaust did not begin with Kristallnacht, but rather, it began with the first utterance of hate speech.

“It is complicated to put a date on it,” he said. “That is why what happens with hate speech [today] is very dangerous.”

A panel of three young European Jewish leaders said Jewish students at European universities were increasingly experiencing incidents of hate speech and antisemitism.

Belgian student Carla Halioua said things recently have become tense following the election of a far-right Israeli government, which is expected to include two ministers who have espoused hate speech against Arabs and the LGBT community.

 “There was open criticism [on campus against the Israeli elections],” she said. “The extreme right is never welcome in any country, even more so when we talk about Israel. It portrays a negative image, which is a shame, because at the end of the day, [Israel] is a democratic country. The election [raised] a lot of conversations about the country of Israel and brought more criticism.”

 Halioua said she preferred not to engage in political discussion but instead to focus her efforts on intercultural dialogue.

While some of the participants in the symposium equated anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiments with antisemitism, others disagreed.

“For me, antisemitism and anti-Zionism are two separate things, though one can lead to the other,” said Dutch MP and Rapporteur on Criminal Procedure Ulysse Ellian, whose relatives were murdered in Iran by the Iranian regime. “But antisemitism in Europe – even if you keep Israel out of the equation – is growing, so that is my focus… I do hope Israel will form a stable government, obviously non-racist.”

Facing the growing statistics of antisemitism and young European Jews immigrating to Israel and elsewhere, he said it was important to emphasize their historical place within the European communities for Jewish communities to remain and flourish.

“If Europe can’t be a safe place for the Jewish community, then Europe is lost,” Ellian said. “This is our history, but it is also our future. These are our laws; these are our values.”