The violence that erupted in Gaza during the Israeli military campaign ‘Operation Guardian of the Walls,’ a consequence of escalating tensions in Jerusalem and subsequent rocket attacks by Hamas, was followed by a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment and attacks in Europe. Unfortunately, antisemitism, already an increasingly worsening issue in Europe, fails to garner sufficient public recognition and discourse.
This is not the first time that an Israeli-Palestinian military confrontation has provoked anti-Semitic abuse in Europe. It is a sequence of events observed in past instances of conflict and instability. The question is why? Arguably a majority of those critical of Israel’s policies in relation to the Palestinians also attest to the importance of distinguishing the actions of the Israeli government and Zionist expansionists from Judaism and Jews. ‘Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism’ is a phrase often touted by Israel’s critics and supporters of the Palestinian cause, and rightly so. State policies that are in violation of the rights of a particular people ought to be condemned in the absence of accusations of bigotry. It nonetheless fails to explain why we see attacks being perpetrated against ordinary Jews residing in countries far removed from sites of conflict in Israel and Palestine. Is it the case that people are struggling to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism after all, that the line separating the two is not as clear-cut as it would appear? Deploring the actions of the only Jewish state in existence without allowing those sentiments to alter one’s perceptions of the Jewish people is admittedly a balancing act. It’s also plausible that anti-Semites are exploiting the recurrent tragedies in Gaza to act on their prejudices under the guise of human rights advocacy.
Regardless, in order to truly grasp why it is that Jews are being targeted in Europe, and why community leaders and politicians are failing or at least reluctant to address the rise in anti-Semitic attacks, it is important to explore the meaning of anti-Semitism and the distinct characteristics that separate it from other forms of discrimination.
Antisemitism relates to an animosity toward or prejudice against Jews. An ancient hatred, it became embedded in European life once Christianity became the dominant religion on the continent. Early Christians believed that the Jews were to blame for the death of Christ and were consequently vilified to deplorable heights. Jews have been blamed for a host of societal ills and calamities, from the Black Plague, to the slave trade, to 9/11, to the 2008 economic crash. Herein lies the key aspect of antisemitism that sets it apart from other forms of discrimination. It explains in part why anti-Semitism continues to be regarded as a more ‘acceptable’ form of prejudice. Jews have long been portrayed as being secretly powerful. Enduring depictions of Jews as wealthy capitalists, greedy financiers who run the global banking system and covet world domination, continue to occupy the global imagination. Not enough people call out antisemitism because they are led to believe that Jews are powerful, and powerful people cannot be oppressed. Portrayals of Jews as sources of corruption as well as social and financial woes were generously propagated by the Nazi regime.
In Europe, centuries of persecution, ostracization, and pogroms culminated in the near-extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust. Since the end of second world war, Europe has attempted to atone for its sins and anti-Semitism is no longer tolerated. At least, that is the official narrative. The reality is anti-Semitism never really left Europe. Jews living in France, Austria, Germany, and Britain are regularly targeted in the form of racial slurs, harassment, death threats, violent assaults, murder, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and synagogues. Those most vulnerable to anti-Semitic abuse are ‘visible’ Jews, such as rabbis and ultraorthodox Jews. In periods of heightened insecurity, Jews have advised one another to avoid wearing religious attire or symbols in public so as not to attract attention. Many Jews feel that there are fewer and fewer safe spaces for them to exist in Europe. Many have immigrated to Israel due to this sense of insecurity and lack of belonging.
Yet the solution to anti-Semitism should not be the emigration of European Jews to Israel. That would be an admission of defeat on Europe’s part in that they failed to protect one of their oldest communities. It also plays into the Zionist argument that the only place Jews will ever be allowed to live in peace is in Israel. That is precisely what happened after Israel’s establishment in 1948. Jewish communities that had lived in Muslim-majority lands in the Middle East for generations disappeared overnight once Arab governments made the decision to expel them. Many of those Jews went to Israel. Today, over half of Israel’s Jewish population is made up of Mizrahi Jews, Jews that originate from the Middle East and North Africa. I expect many Arabs regret the loss of such communities. But too many have co-opted the old European Christian tradition of blaming Jews and seeing them as power-hungry orchestrators of chaos.
Surveys shows that the Middle East has by far the most negative perception of Jews of any region of the world. Muslim or Arab antisemitism is an issue that ought to be explored in its own right, as it has increasing implications on anti-Semitism overall in Europe. But part of the problem with anti-Semitism, and this has always been the case, is that Jews are seen as an ‘other,’ as not belonging and more dangerously, that their allegiances lie elsewhere. This is what triggered Arab fears of Jews living in their lands after 1948. Many stopped seeing them as Egyptians, Iraqis, Iranians, or Yemenis who just happened to be Jewish. They saw them as first and foremost Jewish and by default loyal to Israel.
The way to tackle anti-Semitism in Europe is to remind those who regard European Jews with suspicion that a French Jew is as proud to be French as anyone else. It is why despite everything, he or she chose to remain in France.