By Esther Portyansky
When Israel launched Operation Protective Edge this past summer, another round of violence broke out in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time, the terrorist attacks directed against Jews were not limited to Israeli soil. In the widespread protests against Israeli military action that were organized across Europe, pronouncements of anti-Israel vengeance devolved into anti-Semitic rhetoric. Protesters compared Israeli policy to the Nazi genocide, and asserted that therefore Jews deserved the fate that Hitler had not succeeded in bringing about.
It is impossible to deny the correlation between the shouts of “Death to the Jews” and “Jews are pigs,” that drove these marches and the upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. These range from graffiti to arson, from physical assault to murder. As many people have pointed out, this was the harbinger of the Holocaust in Germany. Many Europeans, Jews in particular, are worried that a second Holocaust may be on the horizon.
What differentiates the Holocaust from the anti-Semitic violence that preceded and followed it, however, is that it was carried out by a state. The perpetrators this time are not the German people and the German government. In 2014, the overwhelming majority of the people shouting “Death to the Jews” and committing various anti-Semitic crimes were Muslim. Of course, this doesn’t imply that the majority of Muslims – European or otherwise – support this view, or are tolerant of it. It does, however, matter.
Muslims are a minority in Germany, and in Western Europe as a whole. Many are first or second generation immigrants who live in geographically and socioeconomically segregated communities. Failing to assimilate to the satisfaction of the native population (which is often subconsciously prejudiced against them anyway) and dissatisfied with what amounts to second-class citizenship, Muslims have replaced Jews as the fifth column. Thus, in a certain sense, this new “European anti-Semitism” is actually an issue that largely concerns Europe’s two most prominent minorities.
This perspective reveals several other, more important implications. First, it means that this anti-Semitism does not portend a second Holocaust. Europe does have a problem with neo-Nazis, skinheads, and fascists, for whom anti-Semitism is a crucial step in purifying Europe, but those groups also target Muslims. But after setting aside Hungary’s fascist Jobbik party, and France’s fascist National Front, it is unlikely that anti-Semitic parties will come to power in Europe. It is even more unlikely that European states will adopt anti-Semitic policies anytime soon.
However, just because the violence isn’t being carried out and encouraged by the government doesn’t mean that European Jews are out of danger. As the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket massacres in Paris exemplify, the threat of violence from civilians (turned terrorists) is all too real – and not only for Jews. The French government should be commended for its response, which included strongly condemning the attacks, acknowledging their anti-Semitic motivation, and posting soldiers in front of synagogues and Jewish centers.
Yet the recent stabbing of three of these soldiers in Nice proves both the necessity of this action and its futility. The attackers were not deterred by the presence of armed guards and, in fact, made the guards their target instead of the Jews who were being protected. The terrorists’ philosophy is much more all-encompassing than pure anti-Semitism. Their range of targets expands to include anyone who is “on the side of” the Jews in any way, even if that means nothing more than defending children from bodily harm. This different anti-Semitism thus threatens many non-Jewish Europeans, who might have felt safe from Nazi-style anti-Semitism. European governments must take decisive action to defend their Jewish communities, or risk the violence spilling over into the majority.
The minority versus minority dynamic, however, changes the rules of the game. It makes intervention by European governments much more difficult to navigate, exposing them to accusations of bigotry from both camps. Banning anti-Semitic speech at pro-Palestinian events in Germany exposes the government to accusations of Islamophobia and bias towards Israel. This is a false comparison; protecting Jews from attack is not the same as supporting Israel. Germany’s political relationship to Israel should be irrelevant to the topic of anti-Semitic violence. Unfortunately, though, it is not. The tactic of identifying all Jews with Israel and holding them accountable for its actions kills two birds with one stone: it creates real anti-Semitic sentiment among those who oppose Israeli policies, and it delegitimizes recognition of Jews’ victimization.
This, ultimately, is the problem that Europe must grapple with: how to separate politics from people, individuals from the herd, and labels from reality. In order to successfully mediate the new tide of anti-Semitic violence and prevent the next Jewish exodus, it will not be enough to ban protests and station soldiers at synagogues. Europeans of every faith and background must recognize and reject the generalizations that turn victims into scapegoats.
Esther Portyansky ’16 blogs about Anti-Semitism in Europe for the Globalist Notebook. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.