Anti-Semitism in Today’s Europe: Do We Risk Repeating History?

In response to the recent attacks in Paris, Home Secretary Theresa May spoke out in a memorial service last week, urging that “we must all redouble our efforts to wipe out anti-Semitism here in the United Kingdom”, adding: “I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom would say that they were fearful of remaining here.” This comes at a time of increased concern for the safety of the Jewish community in the UK, with YouGov recently publishing the results of a survey, commissioned by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism (CAA), which found that nearly half of British subjects agreed with one of four of the anti-Semitic statements presented to them, whilst a separate survey of British Jews revealed that 54 per cent of subjects feared for their future safety in the UK, and that 25 per cent had considered leaving the country in the last two years. Most significantly, over half of these said that they felt that anti-Semitism today “echoes the 1930s”.

Throughout Europe, concerns regarding anti-Semitism have grown rapidly over the last few years, in light of an increase in high-profile anti-Semitic incidents. In Brussels last year, a man shot and killed four people in a Jewish museum, and a cafe posted signs reading: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Jews are not under any circumstances.” In Larissa and Thessalonki in Greece, Jewish cemeteries were destroyed, and spray-painted with slogans such as: “Juden” and “six million more”, whilst in Tatabanya, Hungary, the same occurred, with messages such as: “Stinking Jews!” and “There was no Holocaust, but there will be!” An anti-Semitic march took place in Paris last year, in which chants included “Jews, out of France”, and even, “the story of the gas chambers is bullshit”. Such incidents seem to be more and more prevalent in Europe, including in the UK. In Manchester, 40 gravestones were pushed over and smashed last June, whilst in July, a sign reading “child murderers” was taped to the door of a synagogue in Kingston.

Only last week, a couple were arrested for plotting a terror attack aimed at the Jewish community in Manchester, whilst in Stratford, Holocaust Memorial Day posters were defaced.

However, whilst the threat posed to Europe’s Jews is indisputably real, some have criticised the media’s unnecessary alarmist tone, and disparaged the scale of the threat depicted as exaggerated. Amongst these is David Conn, who in a recent article in the Guardian, wrote: “Some Jewish people, even before the horror of the Paris attack, perceive a threat and level of danger in Britain dramatically at odds with their actual, lived experience”, adding that “in 2013, the Community Security Trust (CST) recorded its lowest number of antisemitic incidents for eight years”. He continued: “Historically, and compared to the terrible hardships people endure in so much of the world, we live in a truly privileged time and place”. Indeed, the Pew Foundation’s 2014 Global Attitudes survey found that in Europe, unfavourable attitudes towards Roma and Muslims are far more prevalent than those towards Jews.

There is certainly a danger of promoting unnecessary fear, and it is important to maintain a sense of proportion. For example, the suggestion that the level of anti-Semitism today resembles anything like that seen in Europe in the 1930s seems highly counterintuitive, and suggests a disproportion between perceived and real threat. However it may also be argued that ultimately, whether the number of anti-Semitic incidents is in the hundreds or the thousands, the significant factor is that they are happening at all.

It also seems unhelpful to make comparisons with other victims of possible prejudice. In a BBC interview shortly after the Paris attacks, the French daughter of a Holocaust survivor was expressing her fears for Jews in a Europe which she described as resembling the 1930s, emphasising the importance of recognising Jews as “targets”. In response, Tim Wilcox stated: “Many critics, though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.” In erroneously conflating Judaism with the actions of the IDF and Israeli government, and seeing Israel’s actions as some sort of negation of anti-Semitism, Wilcox’s blunder, for which he has now apologised, reflects two concerning tendencies emerging in contemporary anti-Semitism: that of blaming the actions of Israel on all Jews, and the rigid polarity assumed in any debate involving Islam and Judaism, assuming that one must take sides. On the contrary, fears relating to Islamophobia and fears relating to anti-Semitism are not mutually exclusive, a point articulated by Hadley Freeman in a recent Guardian article, in which she writes: “I’m not sure why this is an either/or situation. A person can be horrified by anti-Muslim prejudice and also terrified by the attacks on Jews, and to talk about one is not an endorsement of the other.”

Much of the current anti-Semitism in Europe seems to be fuelled by conflict in Israel and Gaza, with many of the anti-Israel marches in summer soon descending into anti-Semitic territory. In an anti-Israel march in Sarcelles, Paris in July, for example, synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses were attacked, and anti-Semitic slogans were chanted. According to the president of the Edinburgh Jewish Society, Jake Pearson, “the conflict in Israel and Gaza this summer again set a worrying precedent for Jews in Europe, who continue to be blamed for the increase in violence in the Middle East.”

Anti-Semitism is also a concern within UK universities. Second year Social Policy and Sociology student, Abby Spilg-Harris, has felt the effects of anti-Semitism here in Edinburgh, particularly in light of the Israel/Palestine conflict: “The way in which Judaism is talked about in casual debate makes me worried about how people truly feel about the religion”, she explains. As well as the “cliché Jew jokes”, she recalls one more serious remark, in which a girl suggested “she was in some way grateful for the Holocaust. It was shocking, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.”

Emma Dubin, a second year Sociology student and secretary of the Edinburgh University Jewish Society, has also felt the presence of anti-Semitism on campus. She describes a particular incident in a sociology tutorial last semester: “We were talking about class reproduction, and a student made an offhand comment: ‘Personally, I’m not rich; I mean, I could have been a Jew, but nope.’ The tutor laughed. Literally laughed, and then said, ‘Ah well’, and the student continued with, ‘Yeah, but I can eat bacon, so it’s whatever,’ and the tutor laughed again and said, ‘Well, there’s that.’ I was so horrified. […] I know that particular tutor won’t make that mistake again, but that’s not enough. […] The university needs to very clearly teach tutors and lecturers that some students might say bigoted things about Jews, and here’s how you should handle it.”

However, Emma believes that the anti-Semitism at Edinburgh is less common than at other universities: “Every year we hear stories about SJP in different universities setting up mock Israeli checkpoints in front of entrances to their university buildings and then targeting Jewish students, knocking books out of their hands and demanding their business. […] We haven’t had anything like that, and I’m not walking around in fear that we will have any day now.” She is also glad of Edinburgh’s strong interfaith relations, describing how after the motion calling EUSA to retract their statement on Israel failed, the Islamic Society invited the Jewish Society to their event the following day: “I’m so grateful for that, that Muslim students’ very first reaction to having the motion fail was we should reach out to the Jews.”

Although he admits he is “aware that it exists below the surface”, Jake Pearson also believes that Edinburgh is better than many other universities in tackling anti-Semitism: “I think that the university is making a good effort to combat it; just a few days ago the head of security stopped by our weekly meeting to discuss the concerns we had in the wake of the attacks in Paris. EUSA also seem to be improving on their past record, and Eve Livingston was helpful when it came to the debate over the ‘EUSA for Peace’ motion last semester.”

Emma hasn’t personally felt the rapid increase in anti-Semitism that the media and research bodies posit, explaining: “It’s not easy to be a Jew in Edinburgh, but I don’t think it’s harder this year than it was last year.” Jake shares her resigned optimism, stating: “I always used to say to people that Edinburgh is a safer place to be Jewish than Paris, despite its large Jewish population – and in my opinion that seems to have been vindicated.” However, there is also much to be said for the University bubble. Speaking to the Student, Nicola Livingston, chair of the Jewish Student Chaplaincy Scotland and Public Affairs Officer for the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, explained: “There was a huge rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Scotland” from July to September, after the Gaza conflict, “but it didn’t seem to materialise on campus.”

Although anti-Semitism is still deeply concerning, fortunately Europe is a long way from resembling the 1930s. However, if the Holocaust taught us anything, it is that evil grows out of prejudice. Therefore, on this Holocaust Memorial Day, when anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all kinds of racism are still very much entrenched within our society, we must remember the atrocities that took place, and guard against the prejudice that allowed them to happen. As George Santayana famously wrote: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

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