Callously scrawled swastikas scar the walls of schools and synagogues, remnants of desecrated Holocaust memorials fall shattered, and rows of headstones engraved with Hebrew lie toppled. These are the manifestations of Europe’s anti-Semitism awakened.
Blatantly public anti-Semitic vandalism, hate-speech, and outright violence have spread across Europe at rates not seen in decades. The poison of hate against Israel and the Jewish people can no longer be brushed off as a vestigial relic of an ugly past or the vitriol of a few shunned radicals. Anti-Semitism has seeped into European politics and social movements, pitting European nations against themselves in a battle for the soul.
For years, the scale of the increase in threats and violence toward Jews, especially online, was difficult to aggregate across borders with any consistent standard of measurement, but now the most extensive study of anti-Semitism in Europe to date has quantified what has been staring European Jewry in the face for years. The study, conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights and released a week after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year, reached across twelve EU member states and surveyed 16,500 Jews.
The results are sobering—and not surprising.
- Overall, nine in ten (89%) respondents in the 2018 survey feel that anti-Semitism increased in their country in the five years before the study.
- 28% experienced harassment for being Jewish in the past year; 2% were physically attacked.
- 47% worry about anti-Semitic verbal insult or harassment and 40% about a physical attack in the next year.
- 34% have avoided Jewish events at least occasionally because of safety fears.
- 38% have considered emigrating in the past five years over safety fears.
“The survey findings show that many Jews across the EU cannot live a life free of worry for their safety and that of their family members and other individuals to whom they are close,” the authors of the survey wrote.
The data shows an increase in anti-Semitic activity in the EU across the board since an initial EU FRA survey in 2012. Every number, however impressive on a chart, is the tally of a real incident of violence and vandalism—hate. The events listed below are only since the beginning of the year:
- January 19, 2019: A man hurling stones smashed windows at the central synagogue in Sofia, Bulgaria on a Sabbath afternoon. (More-->)
- January 27, 2019: A Holocaust memorial in Greece was vandalized for the fourth time. Stone monuments were smashed, and a large menorah was tipped over. (More-->)
- February 9, 2019: Jewish graves, including the tomb of a prominent rabbi, were smashed open in North Manchester, England. (More-->)
- February 19, 2019: Eighty to one hundred Jewish graves in France were desecrated with swastikas spraypainted on them. (More-->)
- March 2, 2019: Vandals toppled a memorial stone marking the site of Strasbourg’s Old Synagogue, which was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. (More-->)
- March 5, 2019: A float at a carnival in Brussels depicted stereotypical anti-Semitic caricatures of Orthodox Jews standing on piles of money. (More-->)
- March 2019: Homes of Jews in Madrid, Spain, are marked with swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti, similar to repeated incidents in France. (More-->)
- March 2019: Anti-Semitic graffiti and swastikas were sprayed in the yard of a Jewish school saying "Jews are whores,” among other things.
This brief list summarizing only the reported, widely publicized incidents in the last few months exemplifies the new wave of anti-Semitism in Europe. Though many of the actions target graves, buildings, or monuments, the harassment and intimidation faced by European Jewry mostly go unreported, according to the EU FRA report.
The findings from the survey showed that “eight in ten respondents (79%) who experienced antisemitic harassment in the five years before the survey did not report the most serious incidents to the police or other organization. The main reasons given for not reporting incidents are the feeling that nothing would change as a result.”
This is a symptom of the normalization of anti-Semitism. Europe has reached the point where harassment of Jews has become so commonplace that many do not see it as something that could change. The results of the normalization of hate are disheartening.
It isn’t uncommon to see heavily armed guards outside synagogues in France, or for Jews to protect themselves by leaving their kippahs at home, only discreetly displaying mezuzahs and avoiding certain areas in their cities or skipping Jewish events if not leaving the country altogether.
How could this happen? Wasn’t Nazi Germany defeated? This new wave of anti-Semitism isn’t exactly new. While 2018 did break records for the number of anti-Semitic incidents, anti-Semitism has long been brewing underneath the surface and did not die with Hitler.
Post-WWII Anti-Semitism in Europe
In the immediate post-war years after WWII, when the atrocities of the Holocaust came into full view, a brief taboo fell on anti-Semitic rhetoric. However, that didn’t last long. In a 1993 article in the American Jewish Yearbook, “Anti-Semitism in Europe Since the Holocaust,” Robert Wistrich documents how quickly Jews again became scapegoats and targets of harassment and marginalization in eastern and western Europe hardly a decade after the Holocaust.
“Ancient prejudices embedded in the popular psyche have come to the fore in these societies, even where there are scarcely any Jews left,” Wistrich wrote. “The virus of anti-Semitism is embedded, as it were, in the heart and the very bloodstream of European society and culture, ready to be activated at the first major crisis—whether it be war, revolution, the fall of empires, economic depression, or the unleashing of ethnic conflict.”
The lifelines of anti-Semitism in post-war Europe were found in the replacement theology of Christian Judeophobia, and the newer, more politically sanitized “anti-Zionism” anti-Semitism. Decades of complacency allowed anti-Semitism to fester. It has only slowly worked its way back into the light evoking comparisons to Kristallnacht and the pre-war hatred of Jews that led to the Holocaust.
Pre-WWII Anti-Semitism in Europe
Though European anti-Semitism is shockingly similar to that of the 1930s, it is important to note the differences. In an International Political Science Review article titled “Anti-Semitism in Europe before the Holocaust,” the authors note that, in the 1930s, much of the anti-Semitic rhetoric against Jews was founded on a deep economic depression in Europe; Jews being the scapegoat, of course.
Additionally, Jewish emigration out of Eastern Europe upset the local status quo. Though financial troubles are by no means irrelevant, Europe is far more economically stable now than it was in the early 1900s. Far fewer Jews are present in Europe, making them a smaller target for hatred. Today, the State of Israel exists and serves as a haven for much of European Jewry should they choose to flee the harassment and increasing persecution. Israel’s constant advocacy for Jewish rights and the memory of the Holocaust in local European politics has created a different dynamic than that which existed in pre-WWII Europe.
This isn’t to say that today’s anti-Semitism is any less dangerous or cancerous, but that there is a much louder voice fighting it today than in the 1930s. All is not yet lost.
The Battle for Europe’s Soul
The reports of record-breaking levels of anti-Semitic attacks, vandalism, and harassment have not fallen on deaf ears. In 2015, Global Jewish Advocacy convened a conference in Brussels and called on European leaders to take a strong stance against anti-Semitism in their own countries.
In response, the European Parliament adopted a resolution combating anti-Semitism that offered a set of steps that EU Member States can take to address the problem. Countless state leaders issued statements condemning anti-Semitism and vowed to act against it. In the wake of the last report, the Council of the European Union approved an official EU Council Antisemitism Declaration that says, “The security of Jewish people is an immediate necessity and requires timely action of the Member States and the EU institutions.”
The proactive stance is not limited only to Europe’s intangible political sphere of promises and high hopes. After years of complacency from the general public, emboldened anti-Semites are beginning to face strong popular resistance. In Germany last April, more than 2,000 Jews and non-Jews attended “Wear a Kippah” marches in Berlin and other German cities to protest anti-Semitism after an attack on a man wearing a kippah.
On February 19, in France, the home of countless anti-Semitic reports, thousands of people rallied in Paris as part of a nation-wide demonstration condemning the surge in anti-Semitic hate crimes. France saw a 74 percent jump in anti-Jewish offenses last year after two years of declines.
In contrast to these moving demonstrations and declarations of solidarity comes the threat of far-right political parties that campaign on ultra-nationalism. Anti-Semitic nationalist parties have gained legitimacy in Italy, Austria, Germany, Greece, and other states. The radicalization of large Islamic populations in Europe and the reactionary far-right movements have fueled both anti-Semitic attacks and vandalism. Anti-Semitism, disguised as anti-Zionism, runs rampant and gives public legitimacy to the same hateful rhetoric seen time and time again throughout history.
The fading memory of the Holocaust and national embarrassment from nations that were complicit in the Nazi evil has led to Holocaust distortion, such as Poland’s controversial Holocaust law that threatens fines for anyone who claims Poland collaborated with Nazi Germany.
Europe stands at a crossroad. The general complacency toward anti-Jewish rhetoric, the normalization of anti-Semitic acts, and the political climate of anti-Zionism seem to have allowed the reemergence of a monster the world has not seen for several decades. Will Europe make different choices this time?