Sunday, May 25, 2014

Attacks on Jews in Belgium and France highlight major cracks in European society

Long before the Holocaust, for centuries Jews were the victims of institutionalized prejudice, systematic marginalization and often outright violence. It is a fact that anti-Semitism is nothing new in Europe, but over the last few decades there have been a few small glimmers of hope, reasons to be optimistic that attitudes were perhaps starting to shift as we saw a resurgence of Jewish life in places like Germany, and many European leaders and governments began to take a more vocal stand against the kind of intolerance that fueled hatred toward Jews in the past. But there are disturbing signs that some people are working very hard to reverse this trend of tolerance.

In the last few days alone there have been a number of media reports on antisemitism in Europe today which have caught the attention of the world. Earlier this month the Anti-Defamation League released The ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism which reflected a depressing, if not surprising level of negative attitudes toward Jews in most of the Middle East/North Africa, and much of Europe. On a positive note countries like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands displayed much lower rates (lower, even, than the United States). The survey raises a number of important questions, not least of which being what is at the root of these responses, do they reflect broader attitudes toward ethnic and religious minorities in these countries and what, if anything, can be done to help steer these societies in a direction of greater tolerance and understanding?

I don’t know what the answer is, but clearly a need exists to focus our efforts on finding one.  This weekend alone we saw 3 people savagely murdered at a Jewish museum in Brussels in what is likely to have been a hate crime as well as the violent beating of two Jewishbrothers outside a synagogue in France. These are two concrete examples of the threats facing Jews and Jewish communities in Europe today. 

There seem to be two different cultural forces at work behind this violence – one is an ultra-nationalist, right-wing ideology that is gaining increasing traction on the continent, while the other comes from within the ranks of Islamic extremists. Each presents its own set of difficulties.
In the case of right-wing nationalism, a push by politically active and ideologically vocal leaders to gain political legitimacy and ultimately influence on policy, stands on a platform that is nativist and intolerant, expressing distaste and disgust for any group seen as “the other.” It is a stance which is unapologetically anti-Semitic, anti-Immigrant and very often anti-Muslim.   

We find its representatives in France in the form of Marine Le Penand her National Front party, in Greece with Golden Dawn and in Hungary with Jobbik It is particularly frightening that not only are these political movements gaining popularity at home, but that they also have their sights set on influencing the European Union as a whole.

The other threat facing Jewish communities comes in the form of Muslim extremist terrorists who target not only Jews, but broader society as well. The most prominent example of this was the heartbreaking murder of 4 people at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, last year. 

Antisemitism itself has also become a tool in the discourse around Russian aggression in Ukraine, as Ira Forman, the US State Department Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat antisemitism, notes in a recent post on the official State Department blog that despite Vladimir Putin’s assertions to the contrary “Members of the Jewish community in Ukraine do not see themselves as victims of Ukrainian government-sponsored anti-Semitism. And where those acts of anti-Semitism have occurred, they are often associated with pro-Russian provocateurs.” 

There is no doubt that anti-Semitic incidents have taken place in Ukraine in this period of great internal turmoil – last month there was a firebomb attack on a synagogue.  But exactly who is behind these incidents and what their precise aims might be (beyond using the Jewish community as a convenient target for attempted intimidation) remain unclear, but it is telling that Putin has felt comfortable in using anti-Semitism in his rhetorical (and literal ?) siege of Ukraine. 

So where to start? I think the first thing people need to do is pay more attention to events happening in Europe when it comes to political activity by right-wing nationalists both when it comes to their efforts to gain political legitimacy as well as the influence they are likely having in preventing the vigorous investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The latter is particularly pernicious, contributing to a culture of impunity and undermining the tenets of democratic civil society that so many European nations have worked very hard to achieve in the post World War II period. 

The more we shine a light on these people, the harder it will be for them to hind behind the thin veneer of respectability they are trying to cultivate as cover for their odious behavior. In the case of Muslim extremists the response is perhaps a little more complicated, since part of what fuels their ability to find support in Europe lies in the hostile climate surrounding immigration and identity that the aforementioned right-wing nationalists are actively cultivating. 

Certainly education has a role to play in helping immigrants from Muslim and Arab lands to understand that lashing out at the Jewish community is not going to help them when it comes to finding their place in Europe. Prominent leaders have also pointed out that a hatred for Israel, often the propaganda target of choice for unfriendly Arab leaders, is also having a spill-over effect in Europe.  Such vitriol has had the effect of not only placating the masses at home in the Middle East and North Africa, but infecting emigrants with a hatred for a country they know nothing about, that they carry with them to their adopted countries. To be sure I am only offering a glancing touch at the surface of the issues that lie beneath recent acts of Anti-Semitic violence in Europe – the murders in Belgium and the attacks in France this weekend are but the tip of a very large iceberg of intolerance and hate that is creeping once again into European society, but they are warning signs nonetheless. I think it would behoove us to pay attention.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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