What’s Behind Europe’s New Toleration of Anti-Semitism?

by John O'Sullivan

I wrote in my earlier posting on the Gaza crisis that I would look at the rise of European anti-Semitism in my next one. This is not a morally complicated topic; anti-Semitism is unambiguously wrong, foolish, and vile. Almost for that reason, however, its return to the mainstream of European politics is important. No one who grew up in the 30 years after the Second World War could ever have imagined then that anti-Semitism might recover from its links with Nazism and the Holocaust. 

Yet, as the Middle East expert Tom Gross documents in his sterling e-mail service on international news about Israel, there are anti-Semitic incidents almost daily in Europe ranging from insulting remarks to attacks on individuals to riots targeting synagogues to murders. This upsurge of violent hatreds is linked in part to the rise of the Muslim population. Muslim anti-Semitism is a reality — regrettable, perhaps temporary, but currently undeniable. Non-Muslims are involved too, however, and unlike earlier adherents of anti-Semitism, they tend to be found on the left rather than the right and in such “progressive” occupations as the media and academia. The number of anti-Semitic incidents rises and falls in line with crises in the Middle East such as the present war in Gaza. But anti-Semitic incidents do not vanish entirely during lulls; indeed, the underlying trend is upwards. They occur more often in western European nations, notably France and Sweden, than in Central and Eastern Europe.

And what is almost more shocking than the violent riots is the respectable expression by academics and journalists of themes that would once have been viewed as plainly anti-Semitic and so beyond the pale.

One recent example is an editorial in the French left-wing magazine L’Express, which said of those French Jews who are contemplating emigration to Israel or other safer countries: “If they think that it is problematic to be Jewish while French, they vindicate those who say that it is problematic to be French while Jewish.” This contrast is extremely neat in the French style, but it glides over at least two bumps in the road.

The first bump is the different nature of the two “problematics.” Those Jews who wonder if they can be Jewish while French only do so because they are under attack from hostile non-Jews. That is a problem forced upon them by others whereas the second “problematic” opinion is embraced quite voluntarily. These two problems are not truly comparable.

But then there is the second bump: What is the nature of that second “problematic” opinion? Is it that one cannot be truly French while Jewish as L’Express suggests? That might have been the prevailing opinion among anti-Semites in the Dreyfus crisis or the 1930s or under Vichy. Anti-Semitism in those days was a kind of intellectualized extreme ethnic nationalism. But that is clearly not the prevailing sentiment — if it is a sentiment at all — in the current anti-Semitism. Indeed, most of the current anti-Semites in France have the same doubting problematic that they attribute to the Jews — either because they are left-wing academic citizens of the world who regard national identity itself as “problematic” or because they embrace a politicized Islamist identity that is an uncomfortable fit with traditional French republicanism.   

The L’Express editorial is the target — and I would guess also the stimulus — of a gloomy but passionate article by Michel Gurfinkiel, the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute in Paris, on the PJ Media website here.

To judge from its headline PJ Media evidently thinks that the explanation for this new toleration of anti-Semitism on the left is the growing electoral clout of French Muslims as a result of immigration. That is certainly one important cause. On his website Mark Steyn points out that the margin of victory for President François Hollande over former President Sarkozy was significantly smaller than the lopsided support he received from Muslim voters. Hollande is from an earlier generation of leftists whose political values were shaped by World War Two and its aftermath. He has strongly condemned anti-Semitism. But France’s socialist party will be increasingly dependent on the votes of Muslim immigrants as its older working-class supporters decamp to the National Front. And that is already having an effect on the broader (and younger) Left.

But if greater electoral clout is one reason, even a major one, why the Left in France and Western Europe tolerates Islamist anti-Semitism, or makes excuses for it, or denies it, or simply fails to notice it, that doesn’t fully explain matters. It is noticeable, as with Hollande, that older left-wingers are more resistant to this new tolerance than their juniors. This is evident outside France, indeed outside Europe, with the rise in Britain and the U.S. of the anti-Israel Boycott, Disinvestment, and Sanctions movement in college towns and major cities and in the obstructive and anti-democratic tactics it employs. In odd and unacknowledged ways today’s Left has a large overlap of ideology with non-Western groups and ideologies that until recently have lived on the margins of Western politics. In particular both are anti-national — for different reasons and in different ways.

Thus, Gurfinkiel described some of the Gaza protest marches organized around Bastille Day, the French equivalent of the Fourth of July, and he reached the following three conclusions:   

1. “Many people had been shocked, not just by the pro-Hamas demonstrators’ sheer anti-Semitism and violence, but also by their aggressively ethnic or even supremacist attitude. It was perhaps legitimate for demonstrators to wave Palestinian flags. Waving Hamas yellow flags or ISIS black and green flags was certainly more problematic. But what about Algerian, Tunisian, Mauritanian, and Turkish flags? And what about the conspicuous absence of French flags? The message, clearly, was that the immigrant Muslim community, as such, was showing its muscle. And that it was the wave of the future.”

People in London had made similar criticisms to me about the recent Gaza protest marches there.

2. “Conservative media and blogs — which on the whole had been a bit more supportive of Israel in the Gaza confrontation than the mainstream media — were very concerned about the pro-Hamas demonstrations’ implicit message (a ‘French intifada,’ as it was often described), and the rise of an Islamic counter-nation within the nation. The conservative political class, who usually lags much behind conservative public opinion in these matters, took heed.”

3. “Almost instantly, liberal, left-wing, and progressive media engaged in a global whitewashing of the pro-Hamas demonstrators — a trend culminating with Le Monde, the distinguished newspaper, praising ‘the #Gaza generation’ on its front page on July 25.”

That is increasingly the pattern of Western politics, not everywhere, but in some countries that had been marked until recently by a stable tolerance. An immigrant community with values and interests at odds with national traditions claims that its wishes should determine government policy and shape social life even if to the detriment of others. Conservative politicians, usually very late in the day, express anxieties that these claims divide the nation and weaken its common cultural understandings. At which point the Left steps forward to defend the immigrant community against the “bigotry” of the Right, to discourage its assimilation, to dilute any measures to strengthen the nation’s cohesion, and to promote a multicultural version of nationhood that maximizes the tensions inevitable in a multi-ethnic society and so promotes conflict.

France’s Jews, who used to be the target of an exclusivist ethnic nationalism of the Right, now find themselves the victims of the attempted deconstruction of France’s civic nationalism and common republican culture by the Left. But perhaps not the final victims. Gurfinkiel quotes the conservative weekly, Valeurs Actuelles — suggesting that it represents here the opinion of former president Nicolas Sarkozy — to the following effect: “What is going on now in terms of anti-Semitism is very worrying. . . . First, what is at stake is our Jewish brothers. . . .Then, it should be stressed that everybody is going to be somebody else’s Jew. . . . The next step is hatred for all French people.

Nations are cultural communities and the sense of common fellowship and destiny they promote enables different ethnic and religious groups to live together in relative harmony. If those commonalities evaporate or are frivolously destroyed, a war of all against all will erupt and spread by degrees. Europe’s current “war on the Jews” is the first flickering sign of that Armageddon.