Antisemitism is taking new form in Europe and it’s time to fight back

The pandemic provides fertile ground for xenophobic and racist prejudices to flourish.

Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose anti-Semitism, in Parliament Square in London, Britain, March 26, 2018. (photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)
Protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration, organised by the British Board of Jewish Deputies for those who oppose anti-Semitism, in Parliament Square in London, Britain, March 26, 2018.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the continued prevalence of numerous social ills that governments around the world had worked hard to counter in recent years – isolation and loneliness, economic insecurity, long-term physical health problems and overwhelmed healthcare systems.
These more obvious by-products have dominated headlines for much of the year. Less attention, however, has been directed toward the role of the pandemic in providing fertile ground for xenophobic and racist prejudices to flourish.
US President Donald Trump’s frequent referencing of the “China virus” has placed the Asian-American community in the United States on high alert, fearful of reactionary attacks from his nationalist support base, while in India, government ministers have conjured links between the pandemic and a Muslim conspiracy to weaken the majority Hindu community. Leaders in both of these countries are known to use attacks on minority groups to develop their constituencies, and so their rhetoric should come to us as little surprise. But so, too, is another trend quietly developing: age-old antisemitic tropes have combined with new conspiracies around the role of Jews in spreading the virus to drastically undermine the security of Jewish communities throughout Europe, the United States and the Middle East.
In Germany, banners displaying antisemitic wording have been held aloft at anti-mask demonstrations. One, photographed in Cologne in May, read “Maske macht frei,” a play on “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”), the slogan that had greeted Jewish, disabled, gay and other prisoners as they arrived at Auschwitz. Other protesters wore striped clothing redolent of concentration camp uniforms – a nod to recent restrictions on movement introduced by the German government that protesters claim echo those targeted at Jews during the Nazi regime.
Meanwhile, a report released in late June by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University found that far-right groups, ultra-conservative Christian and Muslim circles and, to a minor extent, the far Left, had used the pandemic to circulate new antisemitic libels: that Jews had already developed a vaccine and would only sell it at significant profit; that global Jewry and Zionism were once again conspiring to undermine global economic stability; that Israel and the United States had created the virus to weaken Iran and Muslims in general; and that God had spread the virus throughout synagogues as punishment for Jews rejecting Jesus Christ. The list goes on.
The upsurge in antisemitism in European countries during the pandemic continues a worrying trend. In 2019, according to Human Rights Watch, there were more than 2,000 attacks on Jewish people or Jewish institutions in Germany, up from 1,799 the previous year. In May last year, a Jewish cemetery in France was vandalized; in Hungary, posters of George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation funds independent media outlets that have challenged the divisive narratives of the far-right Viktor Orbán administration, were daubed with “stinking Jew.”
And, in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party leadership was accused by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in October of presiding over harassment of antisemitism complainants, and in some cases, “could be seen to accept [antisemitism].”
The trend should be of great concern, not least because the recent authoritarian turn in a number of onetime European democracies has enabled grassroots extremists to indulge their prejudices free of censure by governments. And while the shape of antisemitic conspiracies has evolved, with those of the COVID-19 era breathing new life into old claims of Jews as innately nefarious and manipulative, another development requires perhaps a more urgent response: the shift from antisemitism as a fringe idea to a mainstream one.
This shift has had numerous effects on the sense of security felt by Jewish communities around the globe. It has made monitoring of antisemitism more fraught, and likely contributed to underreporting of antisemitic attacks by people fearful of retaliation. So, too, does it greatly complicate efforts to build communal accord. The psychological “enclaving” that can result from threats of violence – with individuals retreating within their own religious, ethnic or racial groups, and minimizing contact with those from others – only heightens fears further, and thereby reduces the channels through which people interact and rebuild the trust necessary for interfaith harmony.
But like all disasters, so too has the pandemic brought cause for renewed hope. In many countries, community-based responses to the virus have blurred the lines of identarian thinking. In April, an image of Jewish and Muslim medics praying together after responding to emergency calls in Jerusalem went viral. Meanwhile, Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders in the United States issued guidance early on in the pandemic on the need for interfaith solidarity and mobilization of volunteers of all religions to tackle the disease.
Those calls follow high-level political shifts that many believe will provide new opportunities to address long-standing international tensions. The United Arab Emirates in August agreed to full diplomatic relations with Israel; Bahrain soon followed, and in October, Sudan agreed to normalize ties. The moves both lessen Israel’s regional isolation and serve to strengthen links between Israel and the Arab world that for decades had been points of significant geopolitical anxiety.
Of course, a great deal more needs to be done. The growth and mutation of antisemitism in Europe this year is evidence enough that the emotions that drive hateful prejudices – chiefly, fear and resentment – remain alive across populations living in open, democratic societies, and can be easily activated by opportunistic political and religious leaders and grassroots activists.
Europe knows only too painfully the costs of unchecked antisemitism and other forms of racism, and it should understand the urgency with which new trends must be addressed. The pandemic has enabled those seeking to divide communities to go about their work with greater confidence. But with the disease not discriminating along religious lines, it can also be a chance to bring faiths together to work toward a vital shared goal.
The author is the former prime minister of Romania.