A Statement on Contemporary European Anti-Semitism

This is a cross post from In These Times

Shalom Lappin, Brian Bix, Eve Garrard, Matthew Kramer, Hillel Steiner, and Stephen de Wijze

Please see the original article for signatories

1. The Rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe

In recent years we have witnessed an alarming increase in anti-Jewish violence and abuse in Britain, and across Europe generally. The Community Security Trust (CST) reports a doubling of reported anti-Semitic incidents in the UK from 513 in 2013 to 1168 in 2014. This figure is the highest ever registered, surpassing the previous record of 931 incidents in 2009. Given the comparatively small size of the Jewish community in the UK (250,000-300,000 people) relative to the total population of the country (64 million), this surge over the past two years constitutes a significant escalation of racist abuse against Jews. About 50% of all religion-based hate crimes in England and Wales during 2014 were perpetrated against Jews, even though Jews make up only 0.4% of the British population.

The situation is worse in other parts of Europe, where deadly Islamist terror attacks on Jewish institutions have claimed victims over the past three years in Toulouse, Brussels, Paris, and Copenhagen. These attacks are directly fostered by relentless campaigns of group defamation that portray Jews in demonic terms. Islamist extremists promote violence against Jews as an integral part of their political programs. With increasing frequency and prominence we hear genocidal Nazi slogans chanted at demonstrations protesting Israeli military actions. In Hungary, Greece, France, and the Baltic countries, political parties of the far right promote fascist anti-Jewish views. Such parties have become electorally significant in their respective countries. These developments cannot be simply attributed to the aberrant conduct of a few extremists.

To be sure, we are not re-living the 1930s. Jews in Europe do not face systematic, government-sponsored exclusion and repression. They remain fully enfranchised citizens of the countries in which they are living. However, they are experiencing a wave of popular anti-Jewish bigotry throughout Europe that is unparalleled at any previous time in the post-War era. This bigotry has emerged from several distinct demographic and political sources. It is necessary to confront the facts with sobriety and honesty, avoiding both exaggeration and denial.

2. Anti-Semitism is Not Harmless

Someone unaware of the gravity of the situation might suggest that, while unfortunate and unacceptable, anti-Semitism in contemporary Europe is not a serious threat to Jews. Aside from seasonal outbursts, coinciding with flare-ups in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it does not significantly interfere with the lives of Jewish residents of European countries. Jews remain highly successful and well integrated into their host societies.

This attitude is profoundly complacent. Generations of children have been attending Jewish schools under armed guard, and Jews are required to enter Synagogues, as well as other communal institutions, under siege-like security arrangements. It is unconscionable that the members of any ethnic, cultural, or religious group are forced to contend with this type of threat to their collective and personal safety.

Over the long term, this state of affairs seriously distorts Jewish public life in Europe. With the sharp rise of violence, the cost of participation in Jewish institutions and of personal Jewish visibility is becoming prohibitive. Jews in Europe are now having to hide their identities, or else face a significant risk of violent hostility as the price of robust Jewish life in the public domain. Some are opting to leave Europe for more hospitable environments in Israel or North America.

That these wholly unpalatable choices are being inflicted on any ethnic or religious minority in a modern liberal democracy is something that should deeply embarrass the host population of that society. Racism, religious intolerance, and gender-based persecution of any kind are a lethal threat to liberal-democratic values. But in sharp contrast to laudable public concern over other forms of bigotry, we observe widespread insouciance and relative indifference toward anti-Semitism in Britain ─ and in Europe more generally ─ particularly among those who purport to be politically progressive. Hostility to Jews, while marked as unpleasant, is often regarded as the normal “business overhead” exacted for unequivocal Jewish identification. Why is this attitude of equanimity so widespread?

3. Anti-Semitism as a “Progressive” Prejudice

One factor that contributes to the relative lack of concern over anti-Semitism is the perception of Jews as a highly successful and relatively privileged group. Therefore they are not in need of protection. Lurking behind this notion is the toxic myth of sinister Jewish power, which has been the traditional engine of anti-Semitism. When expressed through Nazi conspiracy theories, this idea is transparently racist. But when filtered through Middle Eastern politics it easily becomes a vehicle for socially acceptable prejudice.

Correlated with this duality in the notion of Jewish power is the distinction between “good” and “bad” forms of Jew-hatred. The anti-Jewish racism of white nativists on the far right remains heavily stigmatized in the progressive mainstream. This is classed as the only true anti-Semitism, but it is minimized as a marginal threat. The equally odious anti-Semitism of radical Islamists is frequently treated far more indulgently as an unfortunate excess in an intrinsically just resistance to western imperialism.

There is a long tradition of this forgiving view of anti-Semitism on the European left, when the prejudice is associated with oppressed people. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many leaders of both the revolutionary and the social democratic left construed the Jew-hatred of East European peasants and working class Central Europeans as a primitive form of emerging class consciousness. While rejecting anti-Semitism, they saw it as an epiphenomenon that was not, in itself, of serious concern. Jews such as those in the socialist Bund who insisted on the centrality of the fight against anti-Semitism were dismissed as particularists who distracted attention from the class struggle.

We see a resurgence of this approach in disconcertingly large swaths of the left. Crucial to this perverse view of anti-Jewish racism is the hoary though peculiar idea that certain groups of people are “objectively progressive”, while others are “objectively reactionary”, regardless of their views or their behaviour. According to this way of thinking, it is possible to embrace purveyors of religious bigotry, misogyny, and homophobia, like Hamas and Hezbollah, as agents of a just historical struggle, but to cast left-wing Israeli opponents of the settlements as irredeemable oppressors. Because of the perceived power and privilege of Jews, they are thought to be on the wrong side of the divide between the forces of liberation and those of reaction. Whereas Jew-hatred in the past was the “socialism of fools”, it has now become the anti-imperialism of idiots.

4. Israel and Anti-Semitism

When considering the relationship between attitudes towards Israel and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, it is important to distinguish clearly between criticism of the Israeli government and hatred of Israel as a country. As with any country, the policies and actions of the Israeli government are entirely legitimate objects of censure. In many cases, these actions are deserving of vigorous criticism. Such protest should not, in itself, be confused with hostility to Jews. Israel must be judged by the same standards of behaviour that are applied to all other countries.

Unfortunately, much comment on Israel has not been limited to criticism of this kind. Shrill campaigns of hatred that demonize Israel and its people are now common features of debate on the Middle East. Such campaigns go well beyond robust objections to the actions of the Israeli government and its army. They seek to delegitimise the country and to stigmatise anyone associated with it. It is little wonder that in this sort of environment anti-Israel protests often spill over into attacks on local Jewish communities.

We also see remarkable inconsistency in the way that human rights standards are applied to Israel’s conduct, as opposed to that of many other countries. This inconsistency is accompanied by a peculiar obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, while bloodier conflicts that have claimed far higher numbers of casualties and generated more horrific human rights abuses are largely ignored.

An example illustrates this problem succinctly. In the 2008-9 Gaza war, a total (civilians and combatants) of 1200-1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed resolutions sharply critical of Israel’s conduct of the war, and set up the Goldstone committee of enquiry, with a focus on alleged Israeli war crimes. During this same period the Sri Lankan army launched an intensive assault on the Tamil Tigers that ended their insurgency in the north of Sri Lanka. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, assembled a panel of experts that issued a report on this operation in 2011. It estimated the number of civilian casualties (largely Tamil) to be as high as 40,000, and it identified serious human rights violations on both sides. Having concluded that the Sri Lankan military killed by far the largest number of people through indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, the panel called for a UN committee of enquiry into the assault. The Sri Lankan government rejected the panel’s report and published its own version of events that justified its actions. The UNHRC largely endorsed the Sri Lankan position and refused to adopt the panel’s recommendation for a UN sponsored enquiry into the military operation.

Both the 2008-9 and the 2014 Gaza wars were the subjects of non-stop headline news coverage and angry criticism of Israel. They generated massive European street protests, with spin-off attacks on Jewish communities. The Sri Lankan military operation against the Tamil insurgency was received in Europe with little media attention and general public indifference. This contrast in European responses to Israeli actions on one hand and to those of other countries on the other is pervasive in media coverage and public discourse on international issues.

When the application of double standards to Israeli conduct is pointed out, one is frequently accused of trying to change the topic in order to shield Israel from criticism. The problem here, however, is not that Israel is being criticized. Many of the objections to Israel’s actions are well motivated and should be pressed. But we do need to understand why similar objections are not pursued against other agents who commit more serious misdeeds. We also need to ask why Israel’s behaviour  produces a level of indignation and vitriol not directed at countries responsible for graver crimes. If only one violator is regularly singled out for censure while others are ignored, then we are not dealing with fair criticism. The protest is being used to express hatred.

The history of Israel’s creation is complex and controversial. It is possible for reasonable people to hold substantially divergent views on this history. However, it is important to recall that Israel has its legal basis in the 1947 UN General Assembly resolution 181 (II), which called for the partition of western Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. This resolution codified the principle of two states for two peoples, and this remains the widely accepted basis for a just and viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Anyone seeking a solution that overturns this principle would either condemn the Palestinians to perpetual occupation and dispossession, or deny the Israelis the right to self-determination. Suppressing or eliminating one side of the conflict at the expense of the other is neither a morally legitimate nor a realistic option.

Yet we see calls for Israel’s destruction seeping into mainstream political discourse and protest, particularly on university campuses. It is a central component of Islamist politics. The purveyors of this idea are, at best, blithely indifferent to the fact that they are promoting an objective whose realization would entail either the expulsion or the mass murder of millions of Israeli Jews. Others who are more honest openly celebrate the prospect of such events. This is not a campaign for a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which accommodates the basic needs and aspirations of both nations. It is instead a program that aims for the annihilation of a people.

Proponents of the view that Israel “has no right to exist” describe it as a colonial settler state. Missing from this account is the fact that the vast majority of Israelis are the children or the grandchildren of refugees of violent persecution who came to the country out of necessity. Moreover, the majority of Israel’s Jewish residents are not European, but are originally from Arab and Muslim countries whence they were driven out. Whatever one may think of the way in which Israel was established, its Jewish population did not come for purposes of economic gain in the service of a colonial mother country. Interestingly, genuine colonial settler states which emerged through systematic ethnic cleansing and dispossession of their native populations (often conducted right up to recent times), such as Australia and New Zealand, and virtually every state in North and South America, remain entirely immune from challenges to their legitimacy.

It has been suggested that much of the anti-Semitism that we are witnessing is a backlash against Israel. On this view Jews are advised to disassociate themselves from Israel and take a strong collective stand against its actions. We find this suggestion both sinister and amusing. Anti-Semitism has been a powerful element of European and Middle Eastern history for the past two millennia. Anti-Jewish racists managed to promote their bigotry with considerable success long before Israel existed. Israel was brought into being as a response to the horrors that this bigotry has inflicted.

Jews have no obligation to adopt any particular view on Israel’s policies or actions. Like all people, they hold a wide range of opinions on the Middle East, as they do on other political issues. The idea that they have a responsibility to criticize outspokenly (or to defend) Israeli policies is as offensive as the proposal that other ethnic minorities are required to take some specified position on the governments of countries to which they have historical and cultural ties. It would be absurd to expect people of Greek, Iranian, Russian, Pakistani, or Saudi Arabian background to prove their credentials as progressives ─ or as legitimate members of society ─ by declaring their opposition to aspects of these countries’ conduct that others find objectionable.

Most Jews in the diaspora have relatives in Israel. The majority of them have a sense of historical and cultural connection with the country, and this connection is integral to mainstream Jewish life. It is not political in nature, and it does not entail support for Israel’s policies, but it does carry with it a strong commitment to Israel’s survival. Any demand that Jews sever their ties with Israel in order to avoid hostility, and to preserve continued acceptance in their host countries, would deny to Jews rights and freedoms that are entirely uncontroversial for other cultural and religious minorities. But we regularly see non-partisan Jewish student associations like Hillel harassed and excluded from campus life, and Jews seeking to buy Kosher Israeli products subjected to intimidation. These assaults go beyond political protest and enter the realm of racist persecution. Progressive opinion remains largely untroubled by these events, and, in some cases, actively supportive of the agents of harassment.

Progressives accused of promoting or condoning anti-Semitic positions often insist that they harbour no animosity towards Jews.  However, the problem under discussion here does not turn on individual attitudes that are transparent to introspection. Rather, it is a matter of accepting positions that connect to a long tradition of bigotry against Jews. By analogy, a person who defends the exhibition of the Confederate flag on public buildings in the United States may well be free of ill will toward black people. Nonetheless, that person is championing a prominent symbol of slavery and racist persecution. Similarly, someone who tolerates campaigns that inflict double standards and denigration on Jewish people might not consciously dislike Jews. However, regardless of his or her intentions, that person is helping to sustain patterns of abuse that are rooted in centuries of Jew-hatred. Our concern here is with the objective significance of an individual’s actions, rather than his or her personal feelings.

5. Quiet Diplomacy is Not Enough

The leadership of the Jewish community in Britain, like that of many other Jewish communities in Europe, has tended to deal with anti-Semitism by seeking the assistance of government authorities through quiet diplomacy. They avoid high-profile public discussions of the problem for fear of intensifying it. While the concerns that shape such a strategy are understandable, the time for evading a determined public exposure of anti-Semitism is long past. Discreet appeals to government agencies will remain a necessity. To rely primarily on them is to remain stuck in earlier historical periods in Europe, when the Jews depended on royal protection to ward off attacks incited by Church and guild.

Combating anti-Semitism needs to be understood as an integral part of the general struggle against racism, xenophobia, and bigotry. It is not a sectarian cause, but an issue of universal concern. While the targets of prejudice are its most immediate victims, racism stains the fabric of the social order and threatens its liberal-democratic character. Jews, like other minorities, are here not by sufferance but by right.

The statutes against discrimination offer sufficient legal guarantees of equality. The problem that we are dealing with now is the rise of anti-Jewish attitudes and behaviour as an increasingly accepted part of public discourse. It is scandalous that so many who flatteringly present themselves as liberals, human rights advocates, and progressives acquiesce so easily in what is becoming a torrent of bigoted sentiment. It is commonplace among such people to dismiss any attempt to point out this problem as an act of bad faith designed to deflect criticism of Israel. In fact, it is no more than an insistence on an honest recognition of the facts.

We ask all people committed to liberal-democratic values to acknowledge the re-emergence of anti-Semitism as a serious problem in Europe, and to take an uncompromising stand against this form of social pollution. We call on you to recognize that the fight against anti-Semitism is not a specifically Jewish issue. Resistance to racism and bigotry of any kind is a universal liberal-democratic imperative.