House considers rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Middle East

WASHINGTON (RNS) An advertisement in Athens intertwines a swastika with a Jewish star.  Hungarian politicians declare Jews a national security risk. A gunman executes three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in France.

Such recent instances of anti-Semitism reflect a growing wave of hatred toward Jews across Europe, one documented by civil rights groups and concerning to those who fear that, nearly 70 years after the Holocaust, it has again become socially acceptable to vilify Jews.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., convened a hearing on Wednesday (Feb. 27) on this rise in anti-Semitism, calling it a threat not only to Jews, but to other religious minorities and the ideal of tolerance in general.

“Unparalleled since the dark ages of the Second World War, Jewish communities on a global scale are facing verbal harassment, and sometimes violent attacks against synagogues, Jewish cultural sites, cemeteries and individuals,” said Smith, chairman of a House panel on global human rights, part of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

About one-third of Europeans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, according to a 2012 survey of 10 countries by the Anti-Defamation League, with many showing higher levels of disdain for Jews than in the ADL’s 2009 survey. The ADL asked questions such as “Do you believe Jews hold too much power over the world’s international financial markets?” In France, for example, nearly one-third of those surveyed (29 percent) agreed.

To a nearly packed hearing room, a first panel of witnesses — none of whom represent Jewish organizations — urged U.S. political leaders to call out anti-Semitism when they see it, and to support those who speak up for Jews, often at great risk.

On a recent visit to Egypt, Katrina Lantos Swett, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said she confronted government leaders about the comments of President Mohamed Morsi, who had in 2010 urged Egyptians to “nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred for Jews and Zionists.”

“When confronted on these comments, Egyptian officials with whom we met attempted to divert the discussion to attacks on the state of Israel,” said Lantos Swett, whose father, the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., was the first Holocaust survivor elected to Congress and chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Several other witnesses also noted that anti-Semitism often masquerades as political criticism of Israel.

“Jews as a people are often vilified in the context of attacks on Israel,” said Elisa Massimino, president and CEO of the nonprofit Human Rights First, an international civil rights group based in Washington and New York. “While criticism of Israeli government policies — or those of any other government — is legitimate discourse, it crosses the line when it disparages or demonizes Jews as a people.”

Several speakers said the demonization of Jews is both homegrown and imported. Hostility toward Jews comes from both far-left and far-right political parties, as well as radicalized immigrants from the Middle East who grow up on Arab and Muslim media infused with negative Jewish stereotypes.

But governments have been generally slow to react to the growing threat to Jewish communities in Europe, said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs.

“Some governments willfully do not want to know,” said Baker, part of a second panel of Jewish leaders from the U.S. and Europe. “And they have limited their monitoring tools so they will not be confronted with the facts.”

Europe was home to 9.5 million Jews before the Holocaust, which represented more than 60 percent of the world’s Jewish population (and 1.7 percent of Europe’s population), according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Today, the vast majority of the world’s 13.4 million Jews live in North America or Israel, and 1.5 million live in Europe (0.2 percent of Europe’s population).
The situation seems most dire in France, which is home to Europe’s largest Jewish community: about 485,000 people. The 2012 ADL study showed that nearly a quarter of French people surveyed (24 percent) subscribed to anti-Semitic beliefs, up from 20 percent in the 2009 survey.

Rabbi David Meyer, born and raised in Paris and now a professor at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, noted that after a Muslim radical shot three children and a rabbi to death at a Jewish school in Toulouse last March, France saw sympathy toward the victims but also an uptick in harassment of and violence against Jews.

“Even after 2,000 years of attested Jewish life in Europe, we are still perceived as a foreign tribe, landed on the European continent,” Meyer lamented. “A tolerated minority whose religious practices are below the standard of what Europe likes to project about itself.”

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)


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  • Actions have consequences. When the world sees an 8 year old girl being called a “whore”, while walking to school in a long dress and a long sleeved shirt, because she did not meet the purity standard of the men whom the Israili and American governments pay to pray and study, the world says that Jews have no right to say they are morally superior to any other religious bigots. Israel has not exactly been a model of tollerance for Europe to look upon in awe and humility.

  • Jews, as a group, are not lazy; they are workaholics. They are not just bright, they are very intelligent, and are very clever, as a group. I have been in Jerusalem, got lost, asked an Israeli for directions, and I was taken by the arm and led to my destination two blocks away. The Israelis were very gracious people. A problem develops for them, however, when the far right lead the political establishment. Unlike Rabin and others of the Labor Party, including Shimon Peres, the Likudniks are diehard Zionists who are ready to take the whole world into a war in order to maintain their hegemony in the ME vis-à-vis Iran, and all the others. Their clever propaganda has assured them of the rationale for their steadfast obstinacy in dealing with the Palestinians. When I saw at first hand how they treat the Palestinians, I lost any heart I had for their cause. We have literally armed them to the teeth, but they have no intention of living side by side with a bona fide Palestine. They have taken our country to a dead end with their maneuverings in the Congress, and in the Media, while their AIPAC oversees the bolstering of Israel in both establishments. This is raw political power they manifest. Now is recognizing this reality and saying these things anti-Semitism? Is it hate speech? Will it cast me in the shoe of being a perpetrator of hate crime with such speech? I should think not, but the likes of this congressman and others in the same boat think that it is, and that this is anti-Semitism, as such. It is not my definition of anti-Semitism.

  • Kirby, we agree about Israilis in general being a wonderful people. As a progressive, I think it is unfair that anyone who is to the left of Sheldon Adledon and AIPAC has to defend themselves against the charge of anti-semitism. It’s like when we were called “un-American” and “traitors” because we knew the Republicans were lying about WMD’s in the runup to the Iraq war.
    What are your thoughts on Yesh Atid? I find reason for hope in them. I’m sure they’re not perfect, but their message of hope and respect is a breath of fresh air.

  • Daniel, it looks as though Yair Lapid wants to be PM. In this last election the party did very well and only time can and will tell where Lapid is actually coming from conceptually in ability to lead Israel into a really peaceful set of meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. My question re Lapid is how inclusive is he, really, when it comes to his vision for Israel’s future vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Again, only time will tell us. We can only hope and pray that Yesh Atid is on the right path. And they will have to have collusion with other parties to effect anything. Certainly, Netanyahu is not on the right path, and it almost seems to me that we will have to take Israel by the arm with strong arm, and walk it to the destination of a comprehensive peace so sorely needed not only in the ME but for the benefit of the whole world.

  • Your point about Pallestinians is well taken. It is frustrating to me that Christians are literally spat upon daily in Old Jerusalem, by those who believe that their presence defiles it, and the police do nothing. The fact that American Christians don’t seem to mind is perplexing. A Christian whose ancestors have lived in the religion for centuries is called a “Pallestinian” and our press treats them as if they were a cancer to be excised from Israel.

    Yesh Atid, for all its merits, speaks of Pallistinians the same way Florida Democrats speak of Castro. Still, they do offer hope.

  • Yes, Daniel, Israel has not always been a model of tolerance, but blaming it for anti-Semitism in Europe is false and dangerous reasoning. It is exactly the kind of reasoning the European left puts forward to justify the use of old racist stereotypes of Jews in their criticism of Israel.

  • What you say is fair.

    The difficulty with identity politics, and my general objection to it wherever it may be found, is that when a group says that it is different others respond by saying that they are different, which makes the group upset because they are viewed as different. Resistance to assimilation is an overt rejection of the culture that you don’t want to assimilate into. If that culture responds by saying that you are not a part of it, why should that upset you? They are respecting the very request you made in the first place.
    A thin theory of identity politics can function in a pluralistic society. A thick one erects walls through that society and breaks it into factions.

  • I am a modern Orthodox Jew who interacts in the secular and international world, as does my husband. How do we respond to social encounters when colleagues make stupid or insensitive remarks? So far, the best I can do is to remember to keep the high road. When I am cornered, I usually remark that people need to distinguish history from propaganda, and I try to be well read in history. “When you have read at least 5 books about Jewish History and understand what you are talking about then we will have that conversation” and make it clear that their behavior is hurtful.

    In one encounter, my husband remarked about the EU”s behavior during the Balkan conflicts and the individual quickly backed down and remained respectfully collegial afterwards.
    I would love to hear other peoples’ experiences in similar situations.