The First Word: Is Europe waking up at last?

Three events in the past few days suggest that Europeans are finally taking the threat of renewed anti-Semitism seriously.

chirac french synagogue  (photo credit: AP)
chirac french synagogue
(photo credit: AP)
Three events in the past few days suggest that Europeans are finally taking the threat of renewed anti-Semitism seriously. First, pseudo-historian David Irving, a major source of inspiration for neo-Nazis, was jailed for three years in Austria - a land where not so long ago Kurt Waldheim was elected president and Jorg Haider's Freedom Party was welcomed into the governing coalition. Then, last Thursday, the entire French political establishment, including President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and the archbishop of Paris, attended a memorial service at Paris's main synagogue for murdered Jew Ilan Halimi, while thousands paid their respects outside. And on Friday, London Mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended from office for four weeks after he refused to apologize or show contrition for likening a Jewish journalist to a Nazi concentration camp guard in an unprovoked outburst. Although many commentators have rallied to Irving's and Livingstone's defense, frequently making bogus comparisons with the recent Muhammad cartoons, it seems that others in Europe are showing an increased resolve to stop the renewed spread of anti-Semitism - a sickness with which the continent has been all too familiar in past centuries. Indeed, there is no comparison between denying the Holocaust, which is not an article of religious faith but an historical fact, and the issue of cartoons that allegedly show disrespect for religion. Those who accept the parallel are falling for a propaganda trick and playing into the hands of anti-Semites and Islamic extremists. If the cartoons had claimed that Muhammad didn't exist, the comparison might be valid, but they weren't saying anything of the sort. THESE FIRST hints of new European steadfastness are in striking contrast to reactions only a short time ago. In November 2003, for example, a young French Jewish DJ, Sebastien Selam, was approached by his Muslim neighbor, Adel Boumedienne, in their building's underground garage. Boumedienne slit Selam's throat, gouged out his eyes with a carving fork and then ran upstairs and told his mother, "I killed my Jew, I will go to paradise." In the two years before the murder, the Selam family had been repeatedly harassed by their neighbors for being Jewish. As with the perpetrators of other attacks on French Jews in recent years, Boumedienne was clearly inspired by the most vicious anti-Semitism. Yet the case was barely commented on in the French media, and there was no response of any significance from the French government. The reaction this month to the murder of another young French Jew, Ilan Halimi, has been very different. After some initial foot-dragging and evasiveness, the authorities and the media have been altogether more resolute in recognizing the anti-Semitic aspects of the case. On January 21, Halimi, a 23-year-old Paris store clerk, was seduced into going out on a date by a young woman who walked into the cellphone shop where he worked. The woman had been sent as bait to lure Halimi to a spot from where he could be kidnapped. She had been sent by a gang named "The Barbarians," from Bagneux, a suburb south of Paris. The 15-strong gang, which includes Muslim radicals (one was the son of an Egyptian newspaper correspondent), overpowered Halimi and took him to an apartment in Bagneux. Over the next three weeks they contacted Halimi's family and demanded a ransom of up to 500,000 euros ($600,000). On February 13, Halimi was found tied naked to a tree, handcuffed, gagged, hooded and starved, with severe burns and torture marks and cuts all over his body. He died of his wounds as he was taken to hospital. The French police officer leading the investigation said the gang "kept him naked and tied up for weeks. They cut bits off his flesh, fingers and ears, and in the end poured flammable liquid on him and set him alight. It was one of the cruelest killings I have ever seen." The gang phoned the family several times and made them listen to verses from the Koran while Ilan screamed as he was tortured in the background. Even when it became clear that the family, who are not rich, couldn't pay, the gang continued committing violence against Ilan for its own sake because, the police say, he was Jewish. One of the young torturers now under arrest told police his accomplices took turns stubbing out cigarettes on Ilan's forehead while voicing hatred for Jews. The police also found literature linking the suspects to extremist Muslim causes, and discovered that the gang had already tried to kidnap four other Jews in recent weeks, hospitalizing at least one 50-year-old Jew who was pistol-whipped before managing to escape, and throwing a hand grenade at a Jewish doctor in another attack. Yet at first, the Paris public prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, told French journalists that there was nothing anti-Semitic about the murder. And certain newspapers, such as Le Figaro in Paris and The Observer in London reported the case while scrupulously avoiding any mention of the fact that the victim was a Jew. Following an outcry by French Jews, both the police and the judge presiding over the case admitted that anti-Semitism had played a key role, while Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy told the French National Assembly that the gang had targeted Jews because "they were convinced that 'the Jews have money.'" Prime Minister de Villepin also accused the police of initially failing to acknowledge the anti-Semitic aspects of the murder. THERE HAS been a similar belated but welcome willingness to recognize the facts on the part of the media. After doing its best to confuse the issue and downplay the anti-Semitism of the perpetrators, The Independent in London suddenly ran a piece titled "This anti-Semitic attack is terrifying." Major US papers such as The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, which had been silent about the story, have now reported it. In France itself the significance of the killing has been widely discussed and analyzed. An editorial in Le Monde called it "a crime of an era, a sort of looking glass onto the true state of our society." Taken together, the outcry over Halimi, the sentencing of Irving and the suspension of Livingstone certainly represent a milestone in the official European response to contemporary anti-Semitism. But whether they also mark a turning-point remains to be seen. The writer is former Jerusalem correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph (