“Anti-Semitism” today is a genuine problem. It is also an illusory problem. The distinction between the two is one of those contemporary issues that most divide Europe from the United States. The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally recognized in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and elsewhere. Thus the increase in anti-Jewish incidents in France or Belgium is correctly attributed to young people, frequently of Muslim or Arab background, the children or grandchildren of immigrants. This is a new and disconcerting social challenge and it is far from clear how it should be addressed, beyond the provision of increased police protection. But it is not, as they say, “your grandfather’s anti-Semitism.”
As seen from the United States, however, Europe–especially “old,” or Western, Europe–is in the grip of recidivism: reverting to type, as it were. Last February Rockwell Schnabel (the US ambassador to the European Union) spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe “getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 30s.” In May 2002 George Will wrote in the Washington Post that anti-Semitism among Europeans “has become the second–and final?–phase of the struggle for a ‘final solution to the Jewish Question.'” These are not isolated, hysterical instances: Among American elites as well as in the population at large, it is widely assumed that Europe, having learned nothing from its past, is once again awash in the old anti-Semitism.
The American view clearly reflects an exaggerated anxiety. The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe today is real, but it needs to be kept in proportion. According to the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University, there were 517 anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2002 (503 in 2003) and fifty-one in Belgium (twenty-nine in 2003). These ranged from anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish-owned shops to Molotov cocktails thrown into synagogues in Paris, Lyons and elsewhere.
Measured by everything from graffiti to violent assaults, anti-Semitism has indeed been on the increase in some European countries in recent years; but then it has in America as well. The American Anti-Defamation League reported sixty anti-Semitic incidents on US college campuses alone in 1999, 106 in 2002 and sixty-eight in 2003. The ADL recorded 1,559 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2002 (1,557 in 2003), up from 906 in 1986. Even if anti-Semitic aggression in France, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe has been grievously underreported, there is no evidence to suggest that it is much more widespread in Europe than in the United States.
As for expressions of anti-Semitic opinion: Evidence from the European Union’s Eurobarometer surveys, the French polling service SOFRES and the ADL’s own surveys all point in the same direction. There is today in many European countries, as in the United States, a continuing tolerance for mild verbal anti-Semitism, as well as a continuing propensity to believe longstanding stereotypes about Jews: e.g., that they have a disproportionate influence in economic life. But the same polls confirm that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than their parents were. Among non-Muslim French youth, especially, anti-Semitic sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible. A majority of young people questioned in France in January 2002 believed that we should speak more, not less, about the Holocaust; and nearly nine out of ten of them agreed that attacks on synagogues were “scandalous.” These figures are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the United States.
The one thing on which European and American commentators can agree is that there is a link between hostility to Jews and events in the Middle East. But they draw diametrically opposed conclusions as to the meaning of this link. It is increasingly clear to observers in France, for example, that assaults on Jews in working-class suburbs of big cities are typically driven by frustration and anger at the government of Israel. Jews and Jewish institutions are a convenient and vulnerable local surrogate. Moreover, the rhetorical armory of traditional European anti-Semitism–the Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Jews’ purported economic power and conspiratorial networks; even blood libels–has been pressed into service by the media in Damascus, Cairo and elsewhere. Thanks to satellite television, anti-Jewish images and myths can now spread with ease across the youthful Arab diaspora.