Don’t Blame the Surge of European Anti-Semitism on the Populists

People wear kippahs as they attend a demonstration at a synagogue to denounce an anti-Semitic attack on a young man wearing a kippah in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
Downplaying the role of Muslim immigrants distorts the truth.

The latest news about the surge of anti-Semitism in Europe may not surprise people who worry about the rise of European populist parties. The populists opposing European unity and globalism are easily identified with the old Right in many countries. Many of their supporters — whether the right-wing AfD in Germany, the National Front in France led by Marine Le Pen, or the conservative ruling parties in such countries as Poland and Hungary — are also identified with traditional anti-Semitic attitudes.

So when a German federal official recently advised Jews to avoid wearing a kippah or religious head covering in public so they wouldn’t be targeted for violence, most foreign observers concluded that it was right-wing anti-Semites who have been attacking Jews, given that right-wingers have been making gains in elections, including in the recent European Parliament election.

The official, Felix Klein, Germany’s first “Commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism,” was criticized by many, including Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, for surrendering to the forces of hate. The outrage inspired the newspaper Der Bild to publish a cutout version of a kipah for readers to wear in solidarity with Jews.

Earlier this month, a New York Times Magazine story titled “The New German Anti-Semitism” reported that “police statistics attribute 89 percent of all anti-Semitic crimes to right-wing extremists.” But the same article went on to question that statistic. According to the Times, when German authorities can’t directly attribute a motive for an attack on a Jewish target (and they often cannot), they ascribe it to the Right. But a European Union survey of German Jews conducted last year showed that a plurality of Jews who say they experienced anti-Semitic harassment said the perpetrators were Muslim extremists. Yet, as the Times noted, the German government has been insisting that country’s anti-Semitism problem has not been imported from the Middle East.

The German government, as Klein’s controversial statement on kippahs made clear, is far from indifferent to anti-Semitism, whatever its source. The Bundestag recently voted to condemn the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against Israel. Yet the government seems far more focused on the threat from the right and the growth of what it describes as Islamophobia in response to the massive influx of Syrian refugees who arrived after Merkel opened up the borders to them.

As in many other European countries, the recent wave of immigrants from Muslim and Arab countries has created a vast new constituency for Jew-hatred. There is a long tradition of contempt for Jews in Islamic culture that has only been exacerbated by their resentment over the creation of Israel. Muslim expressions of hatred for Israel and Jews are now indistinguishable from the anti-Semitic invective of many Europeans. This has created a bizarre alliance among Muslims, leftist academics, and other elites who aim to delegitimize Israel, Zionism, and Jews.

Germany is not alone in this respect. As the New York Times reported last year in an article headlined “‘They Spit When I Walk in the Street’: ‘The New Anti-Semitism’ in France,” French Jews fear to be recognized as such when walking in parts of Paris. And some supporters of Marine Le Pen’s populist right-wing party engaged in anti-Semitic rhetoric during the Yellow Vest protests against President Emmanuel Macron. But the main source of violence against Jews is the Muslim-immigrant population.

Centrist and liberal opponents blame nationalist and populist parties in France and Germany for anti-Semitism. Ironically, Jews are far safer Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland — whose governments are controlled by right-wing populists — than they are in France and Germany.

Most Jews don’t feel comfortable making common cause with parties such as AfD or Le Pen’s National Rally party, despite shared concerns about Muslim violence. But the notion that those parties, for all their troubling baggage, are responsible for the increasing anti-Semitism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In the case of the AfD, the party has earned the enmity of the Jewish community for its resistance to Germany’s “culture of remembrance,” in which Holocaust education is compulsory and memorials have proliferated. But AfD has also gone out of its way to state its support for Israel and made clear that it would like improved relations with Germany’s Jews.

Both the French and German governments have said the right things about opposing anti-Semitism. But academic and other elites have helped delegitimize Israel and Jews in the name of anti-Zionism, and this has inevitably led to tolerating violence against Jews at the hands of Muslim immigrants.

It will be admirable if Germans don a cutout kippah for a day or two in solidarity with their embattled Jewish neighbors. But the problem isn’t merely a matter of head coverings, and anti-hate educational programs have clearly failed. It’s impossible to separate the routine delegitimization of Israel from the way Jews are treated. What’s happening in Europe is proving again that wherever anti-Zionism is legitimized, anti-Semitism grows and anti-Jewish violence follows.

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