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July 23, 2019

The old man’s back again: Antisemitism on the rise across the West

topic: Anti-Semitism
tags: #anti-semitism, #xenophobia, #EU, #USA, #Jewish community
located: USA, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Hungary, Poland
by: Ithamar Handelman-Smith

The quiet and picturesque Belgian town of Aalst is home to one of Europe’s most celebrated street carnivals, known for its outrageous floats and parade. The Aalst carnival is part of a tradition throughout Europe and Latin America each spring, where participants prepare street parades, decorated floats, and dance routines, in anticipation of Lent - the 40-day period before Easter. 

In 2010, the Aalst carnival was added to UNESCO’s list of heritage of humanity events. This year, however, and not for the first time, the Aalst carnival has caused an uproar: participants in the street celebration paraded giant puppets of Orthodox Jews with side-locks wearing shtreimels (fur hats worn by some Orthodox Jews on special occasions) in pink suits. Situated against a synagogue-background, one of the puppets had a white rat on his right shoulder, while both were standing on top of gold coins and had money bags placed at their feet. As if that weren’t enough, a different group of participants paraded in the white hoods and robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs condemned the act as “shocking, typical, anti-Semitic caricatures from 1939.”

Is this truly so shocking, though? The answer is no; not really. More Jews were killed in anti-Semitic violence around the world in 2018 than during any other year in decades, according to a report released in April by the Kantor Centre at Tel Aviv University. The result has been a “sense of emergency” among Jews in many countries due to concerns over both their security and their “place” in society, said Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress.

“Antisemitism has progressed to the point of calling into question the very continuation of Jewish life in Europe,” he said.

The report noted that most of the dramatic increase in deaths was the result of a single event: October’s mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, which left 11 worshipers dead.

Other countries featured in the report with the highest number of cases of anti-Semitic violence include the U.S. (with over 100 cases), the United Kingdom (68 cases), and France and Germany (35 cases each). 

The rise of Antisemitism all across the European continent is now commonplace. Cries of “dirty Jew” during Yellow Jackets protests in France, anti-Semitic posters condemning Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros in Hungary, ancient Jewish cemeteries vandalized in Alsace, a series of anti-Semitic remarks that threatens to tear the Labour Party apart in the U.K. - are all parts of the same worrying phenomenon. 

The situation appears to be worst, however, in Western European countries - particularly in Germany, where the Kantor Center recorded a 70% increase in violent Antisemitism. In France, nine out of 10 Jewish students said they experienced Antisemitism at least once during their studies. In the U.K., physical assaults were down by 17%, but there were a total of 1,652 documented anti-Semitic incidents - a 16 percent rise from 2017.

France’s interior ministry said last February that their recorded incidents of Antisemitism rose by 74%, from 311 in 2017 to 541 in 2018, while the German government said offenses motivated by hatred of Jews rose by more than 60%, hitting a 10-year high of 1,646 in 2018. Physical attacks rose from 37 to 62, leaving 43 people in need of medical treatment. 

Such figures confirm the results of three recent Europe-wide surveys showing Jewish people feel at greater risk, and are experiencing markedly more aggression, amid a general increase in racist hate speech and violence in a significantly coarser, more polarised political environment.

In the largest-ever survey of Jewish Antisemitism opinion, addressing more than 16,000 Jewish people in 12 European countries, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency said at the end of last year that anti-Semitic hate speech, harassment, as well as fear of being recognised as Jewish were becoming the new norm in Europe.

The report found that 90% of respondents felt Antisemitism was growing in their country, and that 30% had been harassed. Over a third avoided going to Jewish events or sites because of safety fears, while the same portion on participants had considered emigrating to Israel. 

A 28-nation EU Eurobarometer released in January this year revealed a massive gap between the wider public perceptions of Antisemitism and those of the Jewish community. While 89% of Jewish people polled said Antisemitism had “significantly increased” over the past five years, only 36% of the general public felt the same way.

In CNN’s recent survey, an average of one in 10 Europeans said they personally had an “unfavorable attitude” toward Jews; the figure rose to nearly 15% in Poland and 19% in Hungary. 

The surveys reveal that almost every European country, from Greece to Sweden and from the UK to the Czech Republic, has seen a worrying increase of Antisemitism in the past decade.    

“Decades after the Holocaust, shocking and mounting levels of Antisemitism continue to plague the EU,” the FRA director, Michael O’Flaherty, said. “Jewish people have a right to live freely, without hate and without fear for their safety.”

Why is it happening all over again? There are various reasons and explanations. Experts describe a “perfect storm” for anti-Semitic attacks resulting from the increasing worldwide influence of populist far-right groups and governments, the rise of conspiracy theories about a supposed global Zionist plot (and the scale on which they circulate on social media), and a general aggressive and violent tone in contemporary public discourse.

Although the most recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France began before the emergence of the anti-establishment gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement, some have occurred during their weekly Saturday demonstrations where, for example, a Parisian bagel shop chain Bagelstein was sprayed by protesters with  “Juden” (Jew in German, a derogatory associated with the Nazi movement) and swastikas. A recent poll suggested nearly half of yellow vest protesters believed in a “Zionist plot”. 

In Germany, Europe’s third largest Jewish community after France and Britain, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has been widely accused of fomenting hate against refugees, Muslims, and Jews.

The party’s co-leader, Alexander Gauland, described the Holocaust as a “small bird dropping in over 1,000 years of successful German history”. So if mainstream politicians can express themselves this way, why not parade anti-Semitic puppets in a happy drunken carnival while wearing KKK robes and hoods? 

For years, academic researchers have tried to understand the origins of Antisemitism and its horrific outbreaks during the Holocaust and the Russian pogroms. There are always similar explanations: austerity, ignorance, xenophobia, religious zeal, and so on. But the truth is that nobody really knows. Antisemitism is like a public mental disorder that science cannot fully comprehend. It is resurfacing now, and when this wave of hatred will have passed, it is bound to reappear once again. 

Whatever its cause, the only realistic way for European Jews to deal with Antisemitism is by being proud of their heritage and knowledgeable of their own identity. Alongside general education about the history of European Antisemitism and its outcomes, the preservation of the European Jewish culture and heritage is the only solution to such recurring surges of hatred.                         

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