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News Analysis: Anti-semitic Violence Across Europe Carries Harsh Echoes, Sets off Alarms

May 1, 2002
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Synagogues are torched. Jewish cemeteries are desecrated. Jews are roughed up on the street.

The recent wave of anti-Semitic violence in parts of Europe has sounded alarm bells in the Jewish world, prompting some commentators to compare the situation to the run-up to the Holocaust.

“Friends in Israel — Israel! — phoned to ask if we were safe,” said one mother of two in Paris. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The upsurge of anti-Semitism has coincided with the conflict in the Middle East and sharply intensified during the past month, when Israel launched a large- scale military operation in the West Bank to round up terrorists.

But the manifestations of anti-Semitism differ from country to country, and there is ample evidence that other elements are involved, too, including a re- emergence of “traditional” religious and racial prejudices against Jews.

“The prejudices are the old ones, but the phenomenon is broader,” said Andras Kovacs, an expert on anti-Semitism and nationalism at Budapest’s Central European University.

“Being anti-Israel has become somehow `legitimate’ today,” he said. This in turn “gives a new `legitimacy’ to the old anti-Semitism.”

Why this is happening, what it might portend, and to what extent the trend is linked specifically to the Middle East crisis are matters of pressing concern to individual Jews, Jewish communities and Jewish policy-makers.

So, too, is the question of how to confront the volatile new situation without plunging fruitlessly into despair, panic — or paranoia.

“Anti-Semitism, it has been said, is a light sleeper. It would be foolish, and wrong, to underestimate the threat,” warned an editorial in the London Jewish Chronicle. “But there is a further danger — to magnify, rather than tackle, the problem.”

The problem, in fact, exists on several fronts.

The most visible has been the headline-grabbing spate of violent attacks against synagogues, Jewish institutions and individuals, primarily in France but also in other countries, including Belgium and Germany.

To date, no one has been killed. But the Simon Wiesenthal Center went so far as to issue a travel advisory for Jews heading to France and Belgium.

The European Jewish Congress counted some 360 anti-Jewish incidents in France in the first three weeks of April alone.

According to France’s Interior Ministry, more than 60 percent involved anti- Jewish graffiti or verbal abuse. But there were also a dozen attempts to set synagogues on fire or damage graves.

The attacks were topped off by the shocking success of right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen in the first round of French presidential elections last week, triggering calls from Israel for French Jews to make mass aliyah to the Jewish state.

Most of the attacks were the acts of alienated young Arab immigrants hitting out at Jews as surrogates for Israel, and were not part of an orchestrated campaign.

But the anti-Semitic violence has been coupled with a subtle ideological shift.

Widespread sympathy for the Palestinians and widespread identification of Jews and Judaism with the State of Israel and its policies have opened the door to a growing acceptance of classic anti-Semitic rhetoric in both public discourse and private conversation.

“There is a difference between what’s going on in France and Belgium and what’s going on in Italy,” said Francesco Spagnolo Acht, director of a Jewish music study center in Milan. “In Italy, so far, there has not been any violence. Here, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic opinions are spread by local Italians. It is ideological, but very vocal.

“The debate over Israel/Palestine has given room to a series of anti-Semitic episodes that suggest a clear connection between traditionally left-wing anti- Zionist ideas with the more rooted Catholic anti-Semitic beliefs,” he said.

“Thus, even in the national and politically moderate press, the old accusation of murdering Jesus has surfaced. Such accusations and mythologies are also being adopted by the extreme-left newspapers. The mixture is a true Molotov cocktail.”

Local politics make the situation even more complex: Leftist pro-Palestinian stances are countered by pro-Israel platforms adopted by the right.

Many Italian Jews are uncomfortable to find that one of Israel’s most vocal public supporters is the National Alliance, a party that grew out of the fascist movement.

In part, these trends reflect complex fallout from broader global issues.

These issues include E.U. attempts to do away with borders and revamp traditional political, social and economic relations.

But they also include worries about economic globalization, the conflict between the Third World and modernity, insecurities and anti-Americanism, particularly following the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan.

“Many Europeans today, especially the citizens of small, unimportant states, feel bewildered and lost,” Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, wrote in The New York Times. “Their countries and their institutions have lost their place in a globalizing world economy — and above all in an institutionally homogenized European Union.”

In this context, Kovacs said, it has been easy for some to focus on the age-old symbol of borderless, international identity — the Jew.

“There are a lot of concrete political problems now, and all of them can be brought into connection with the Jews and Israel in a way,” Kovacs said.

“For those who are anti-Semitic, this is a perfect way to legitimize this attitude,” he said. “One symbol unites them — the Jew, the cosmopolitan Jew against nation state, the cosmopolitan Jew bound to America.”

Another important factor, he said, is the difficulty in understanding the loyalty felt by Jewish citizens of European countries to another state, Israel.

Jewish leaders, meanwhile, are gearing up for action.

“On many occasions when there is a deterioration in the social fabric, it starts with the Jews, especially here on this continent where there has been a history of anti-Semitism,” Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said last week in Brussels.

Beker spoke during a strategy session of international Jewish leaders, who agreed to set up a Jewish information center to monitor anti-Semitism in Europe and serve as a political voice and lobby for European Jewry.

They also called for holding a European-wide Jewish rally in Brussels on May 29.


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