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As Conflicts in Mideast Heat Up, So Does Anti-semitism Worldwide

August 15, 2006
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Since the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah began in mid-July, a form of hate older than the Jewish state increasingly is rearing its ugly head: anti-Semitism. July saw an attack against a synagogue in Sydney, Australia, vandalism of synagogues and Jewish businesses in Miami and a fatal shooting at Seattle’s Jewish federation.

August brought more of the same: Molotov cocktails and rocks were thrown at a synagogue in Brazil, a menorah was smashed at a Jewish chapel near Los Angeles and anti-Israel vandals defaced some 20 Jewish shops in Rome.

It’s no coincidence that the number of attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions spikes at a time of violence in the Middle East, as people sympathetic to the Arab cause often take out their anger at Israel on Jews closer to home.

Jews in Europe typically bear the brunt of attacks far more than U.S. Jews. After the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, anti-Semitic incidents in Europe skyrocketed.

“This country does not have the tradition of political violence and extremism that Europe has,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The United States also has fewer frustrated and angry immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries, he says. More importantly, Foxman contends, the United States has made sure perpetrators pay the consequences for anti-Semitic acts.

But even if Israel’s war in Lebanon resumes, American Jews’ security will not be threatened significantly, say Jewish leaders, who already have stepped up security measures at community organizations.

That may not be true for Jews in Europe and elsewhere, however.

Britain in particular has seen a spike in anti-Semitic incidents following the start of the war in Lebanon. The Community Security Trust, which monitors the security of British Jewry, has recorded at least 90 such incidents during July, says Mark Gardner, the group’s spokesman.

The incidents are primarily nonviolent and tend to involve abusive rhetoric, threats, e-mails and graffiti.

There’s “a range of things being said,” Gardner says, “most commonly, sympathy for Hezbollah and calling Israel ‘Nazis,’ and at the same time saying Hitler should have finished off the Jews.”

In an average month, when tensions in the Middle East are not running high, Gardner says the Trust records 20-40 anti-Semitic incidents. During the 1990s, before the intifada, those figures were substantially lower, some 15-25 per month.

In 2004 the Trust saw a record high of 532 incidents. In 2005 that number dropped to 455, still the second-highest total since CST began recording such incidents in 1984.

Gardner calls conflicts in the Middle East “trigger events.” When accusations against Israel intensify — some in Britain have accused Israel recently of propagating a massacre in Lebanon — people “take their hatred out on any Jew they can find,” Gardner says.

In Britain, anti-Israel sentiment has become conflated with anti-Semitism, he says. This results in Jews becoming scapegoats for Israeli policy, and increases their chances of coming under attack.

Despite the recent spate of incidents, members of the Jewish community continue to lead their lives, Gardner says.

“There isn’t panic,” he says.

Anti-Semitic incidents also have risen in the United States in the wake of fighting in Lebanon.

According to the ADL’s annual audits, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States had declined slightly before the war began. The ADL’s most recent audit recorded 1,757 anti-Semitic incidents in 2005, slightly down from 1,821 incidents in 2004, the highest level of U.S. anti-Semitism in nine years.

Foxman expects that when the group tallies the number of incidents for 2006, the figure will again be higher.

Still, that doesn’t mean anti-Semitism here will approach the levels of Europe during the intifada.

In the United States, there’s “less tolerance for racism, bigotry and anti-Semitic behavior,” Foxman says. And Americans are much quicker than Europeans to condemn such behavior, calling it “un-American, immoral, un-Christian.”

Other experts on anti-Semitism agree.

In the United States, “it’s really hard to find a Jew who cannot participate in their society either individually or collectively on a day-to-day basis because of fear of anti-Semitism,” says Jerome Chanes, author of “A Dark Side of History: Anti-Semitism through the Ages.”

Meanwhile, he says, whatever anti-Semitic expression there is in Europe is related to the state of security of Jews there, which is not the case in the United States.

While the Seattle shooting was directly related to the Middle East conflict — the shooter, a radical Muslim, said he acted out of anger toward Israel — Chanes emphasizes that it’s still a single incident in a country of 280 million people.

Neil Kressel believes he knows why there haven’t been more such attacks. In publications and religious sermons coming out of most Muslim countries, “you find hate on the level of Nazism in terms of demonization of Jews,” says Kressel, a professor of psychology at William Paterson University of New Jersey and author of “Mass Hate: The Global Rise of Genocide and Terror.” “That hatred does not appear as much in Western Muslim populations or mosques.”

The chance that frustrated Muslims will turn hateful words into violent actions is much greater in Europe, given its history of Nazism and the fact that its social contract and application of free-speech laws differ greatly from America’s, says Shai Franklin, director of international organizations at the World Jewish Congress.

“We give people more latitude in what they say,” he says. “In Europe, the effect of words can be a lot more incendiary, and the political atmosphere, the press atmosphere is much more critical of Israel.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier is frustrated at the importance pundits place on trying to find out why. The founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center has grown weary of the constant refrain that the West must understand the root causes of Islamic fundamentalism and that these people are really angry over injustice at the hands of the West.

“Why should we understand the root causes?” Rabbi Hier asks. “They’re the only people in the history of the world who’ve been angry? Other people do not behave in that manner. That’s what we should understand.”

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