It was sadly predictable that the latest war in Gaza would lead to an uptick in public anti-Semitism in Europe. All the same, the last few weeks have been disturbing, with reports of attacks and hate speech becoming staples in the daily news. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that events in the Middle East are the primary driver of European hostility to Jews. The reality is that anti-Semitic attitudes are far more widespread and mainstream than European governments would like to admit.
The rise of anti-Jewish sentiment has been most notable in France, home to Europe’s largest populations of both Jews and Muslims. While most pro-Gaza demonstrations have been peaceful, on July 20 demonstrators attacked Jewish-owned stores in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris with a large Jewish community. A synagogue in central Paris was also attacked, and protestors have chanted “gas the Jews” and “kill the Jews” at various rallies. The number of French Jews emigrating to Israel has increased.
Germany has also seen an alarming uptick in anti-Semitism. Demonstrators chanted “Jew, Jew, cowardly pig, come out and fight alone” during a protest on July 17, and last week explosives were thrown at a synagogue in western Germany. Anti-Semitic graffiti has appeared throughout Rome, and reports of hate speech are up dramatically in Britain.
When European government ministers talk about anti-Semitism, they tend to focus on the continent’s growing Muslim community—see French President Francois Hollande expressing concern about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being “imported” to his country. This may accurately describe many of the incidents of the past few weeks—the Sarcelles riots, in particular, do appear to have been carried out by young Muslims—but the problem may be more widespread.
A recent Anti-Defamation League survey found that 24 percent of the French population and 21 percent of the German population harbor some anti-Semitic attitudes. A recent study of anti-Semitic letters received by Germany’s main Jewish organization found that 60 percent of the hate mail came from well-educated Germans. So this isn’t just a problem with young, disaffected Muslim men.
After all, the two worst recent incidents of violence against Jews in Europe—the killing of three children and a teacher in a 2012 attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse and the shooting of three people at a Jewish museum in Brussels in May—took place during times when there wasn’t much news coming out of Israel. Continentwide statistics on anti-Semitic incidents leading up to the most recent uptick don’t show much of an overall trend—in Britain, anti-Semitic violence is becoming less common while online abuse is becoming more frequent—or a correlation with events in Israel and Palestine.
It would also be hard to draw a connection between what’s happening in the Middle East and the recent electoral success of anti-Semitic far-right parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn or Hungary’s Jobbik, whose rise seems to owe more to economic insecurity and long-standing suspicion of minorities than hostility to Israel.
Europe’s anti-Semitism problem may be more open and obvious when Middle Easter violence in the news, then, but it’s not simply a reaction to whatever’s going on in Israel. Rather, it’s always just below the surface, threatening to bubble over.