Letter From London

Letter From London


A specter is haunting the Jews of Europe: the specter of anti-Semitism. A synagogue is firebombed in Belgium; three more are burned in France, where Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front attracts millions of votes. In the town of l’Union, near Toulouse, a man opens fire at a kosher butcher shop, and in Berlin the police advise Jews not to dress in a conspicuous manner. Here in Britain two Orthodox Jews were attacked outside Harrods in broad daylight, and a synagogue in North London was desecrated only a few weeks ago. Britain’s broadsheet newspapers agonized over whether the French ambassador’s reference to Israel as a “shitty little country” was anti-Semitic or just anti-Israel, and Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, a tabloid more famed for its topless page 3 “stunners” than for its high moral tone, ran a full-page editorial assuring readers, “The Jewish faith is not an evil religion.” In Europe, argues Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, “it is not safe to be a Jew.”

Something is happening. I’ve had more conversations about anti-Semitism here in the past six months than in the previous six years. Last autumn, after listening patiently while a friend wondered whether American support for Israel wasn’t in some sense to blame for September 11, and seeing a writer who’d never expressed an opinion on the Middle East denounced as a “Zionist,” I organized a panel on anti-Semitism and the press at London’s Jewish Book Week. So if I say that Americans who argue it is time for Europe’s Jews to pack their bags are either fools or rogues, it isn’t because I’m looking at the situation with my head in the sand. When I went to synagogue in Florence with my older son on the last day of Passover this year, I was glad to see the Italian soldier standing guard at the door.

But the big danger in Florence that week was to Americans, who were warned by the State Department to stay away from public places. More Jews died in the World Trade Center than in all of Europe’s anti-Semitic outrages of the past two decades put together. What’s missing from the current furor over European anti-Semitism is any recognition that the whole world is now a dangerous place–and not just for Jews.

Some historical perspective might also be nice. It was widely reported here that Asher Cohn, rabbi of the vandalized synagogue, is himself the son of a rabbi who fled Germany after his synagogue was torched on Kristallnacht–the kind of coincidence journalists find irresistible. But the damage to Cohn’s synagogue was repaired within days–by volunteers who included a Labour Cabinet minister and a member of the Conservative shadow Cabinet. The rise of Austria’s Jörg Haider and the murdered Dutch maverick Pim Fortuyn are often depicted as heralds of a fascist revival. Haider is an anti-Semite, whose talent for racist double-entendre prompted Austrian journalist Eva Menasse to wonder why the foot in Haider’s mouth always seems to be wearing a jackboot. Yet overt anti-Semitism has no place in either Freedom Party propaganda or in the program of the Austrian government. Hitler had a militarized state, a genocidal ideology and open contempt for democratic norms–a combination not found anywhere in the current European political landscape.

What Europe has instead is xenophobia. Since September 11 a wave of hostility to foreigners has swept over the Continent. Some of this has come out as anti-Semitism, particularly on the neanderthal right in Germany and among the marginal but mediagenic British National Party. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism has also seen a revival: in Greece, where left- and right-wing nationalists momentarily united in stressing US culpability after the World Trade Center bombings, and on the wilder shores of British and French Trotskyism. But the primary target of xenophobic rhetoric and xenophobic violence has been Europe’s Arab and Muslim inhabitants. Fortuyn labeled Islam a “backward” religion and campaigned on a platform opposing Muslim immigration. (Fortuyn also came up with a new variation on the “some of my best friends” defense, assuring a Dutch television interviewer he had “nothing against Moroccans; after all, I’ve been to bed with so many of them!”) The British government has resisted calls to broaden laws against incitement to racial hatred, which currently protect Jews (as an ethnic group) but exclude Muslims. Yet Richard Stone, who serves both as chair of Britain’s Jewish Council on Racial Equality and chair of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, is in no doubt: “There is much more anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish prejudice in this country.” When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi proclaimed the superiority of “our civilization,” he didn’t mean superior to Jews. From isolated incidents in Denmark and Ireland to Holland, where a mosque has been burned, to Germany and France, where a steady stream of anti-Islamic violence has swelled to a flood, Europe has become a great deal less safe for Muslims.

The fact that conditions are worse for Europe’s Muslims–particularly in those countries where they have not been allowed to become citizens–does not, of course, mean that Jews should remain silent when we are attacked or even offended, just that we should retain a sense of proportion. The British Crime Survey, for instance, counts well over 100,000 racist incidents in each of the past three years. The number of racial incidents actually reported to the police, a much lower figure, has risen from 23,049 in 1999 to 53,842 in 2001. During this same period the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported–a category that includes anti-Semitic leafleting and verbal harassment as well as violence against persons or property–went from 270 in 1999 to 405 in 2000 to 310 in 2001. As of May 22 the total for this year was only 126–hardly indicative of Cossacks riding through Hampstead.

Yet one of the most striking things about the panic supposedly stalking Europe’s Jews is how much that panic seems to be centered in Britain–a country where Jews are a very small (about 250,000 out of a population of 59 million) and very well-established minority. “What has been challenged is our comfort of having a foot in both worlds,” Jo Wagerman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Israeli paper Ha’aretz. The 240-year-old board is probably the oldest Jewish lobby in the world; Wagerman, whose own family came to Britain under Oliver Cromwell, is the group’s first woman president. In the years after World War II, she said, British Jews enjoyed “a kind of golden age…[but] recently, Britain isn’t the same.” Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the right-wing Daily Mail, who was heckled by a BBC studio audience for claiming that Israel was a democracy, wrote that “the visceral hostility toward Israel and Jews displayed…by the audience is representative now of much mainstream British opinion.”

The connections between events in the Middle East and in Europe are complex, fraught with the potential for misunderstanding and manipulation. Only the statistics are straightforward. In London, says Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Miriam Rich, anti-Semitic incidents went “up in April because of what happened in Jenin, and are down again in May. Each month is a direct reflection of what is happening in the Middle East.” If you plot the national figures on a graph, says Michael Whine of the Community Security Trust, “and superimpose them with another of incidents in the Middle East, you see one following the other.” The same correlation can be seen in France, where, unlike Britain, a growing proportion of the attackers come from that country’s disaffected and marginalized Arab minority.

To Jews, such incidents may feed a sense that the whole world is against us. The tendency–understandable if not justifiable–to let any act of violence against Jews on European soil conjure up images of the Holocaust also inhibits clear thinking. Anthony Julius, the lawyer who acted for Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving, and a scholar of British and European anti-Semitism, ridicules the “diaspora narcissism” that leads British Jews to exaggerate their difficulties. And while Julius is careful to distinguish between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, not all of Israel’s friends are so scrupulous.

Indeed, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that many of those shouting loudest about the danger in Europe care more about retaining occupied Palestinian land than about the welfare of diaspora Jews. The BBC, the Guardian and the Independent–all news organizations with a clear editorial commitment to Israel’s right to exist–are continually fending off accusations of anti-Semitism for simply reporting the day-to-day dehumanization inflicted on Palestinians. Whether the French ambassador’s remark was a crime or a blunder, by making it at the home of Barbara Amiel, wife of Daily Telegraph (and Jerusalem Post) owner Conrad Black, and herself a staunch defender of Ariel Sharon, he put a weapon in the hands of those who argue, with Amiel, that “super-liberalism led to suicide bombers and intifadas in Israel.”

Sometimes anti-Zionism really is a cover for anti-Semitism, and we on the left need to be clearer about that. Jews who view Israel’s existence as the necessary fulfillment of their national (as opposed to civil) rights have grounds to be suspicious of those who grant Palestinian national aspirations a legitimacy they withhold from Jews. Most of the time, though, the line is pretty clear, and Jews of all people should be wary of using a double standard as a bludgeon. Or conjuring up specters in the cause of ethnic unity. If it is racist to suggest, as the New Statesman did recently, that “a Kosher conspiracy” inhibits criticism of Israel, then what are we to make of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s claim (in the New York Review of Books, reprinted here in the Guardian) that Palestinians “are products of a culture in which…truth is seen as an irrelevant category”? The non-Zionist world has every reason to resent it when the moral odium of anti-Semitism is used to discredit those who object to the brutality of Israeli occupation, or when the tattered mantle of Jewish victimization is draped over policies of collective punishment and murderous reprisal that, as the Israeli press was quick to point out, are modeled on the tactics used to crush Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. If more Jews expressed outrage at these policies, and at the way our tragic history is demeaned by being used as a gag, we would be in a stronger position to demand not sympathy but solidarity.

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