|The Return of Antisemitism in Europe|
|By Professor Robert S. Wistrich|
Since the beginning of the new millennium, an ancient spectre – that of antisemitism – has been haunting the European continent. Once considered the preserve of reactionary clerics, conservative nationalists, fascist bigots, and ultra-radical leftists, Judeophobia has undergone a radical mutation in recent years. Since the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 – reinforced by the impact of 9/11 and the war against Iraq – antisemitism has become a central feature of the violent Islamic jihadism that has spread from the Middle East to parts of the Muslim diaspora in Europe. The new antisemitism has also been enthusiastically embraced by broad sectors of the anti-globalisation movement, which, like the Islamists, fervently believe in the existence of an American-Zionist conspiracy to dominate the world. This new “red-green alliance” reviles Israel and “Jewish-controlled” America, even as it opposes the exercise of Western military power abroad and the export of its democratic ideals to non-Western countries. The anti-globalisation enthusiasts are full of self-loathing with regard to the core values of the West, of which Israel is seen as an outpost, viewing them only as a cover for “racist” and “imperialist” occupations. Europe’s colonial guilt and self-criticism have also been important factors in leading it back to its old habits of antisemitism.
Anti-Israel feeling has clearly been the central feature in this revival of antisemitism. But there is also a larger strategic dimension. Israel has become an important pawn in a European power struggle with America for influence in the Middle East and in the wider world. Not by accident have antisemitic innuendos about shadowy Jewish “neocons” in the United States been echoing through the chancelleries of old Europe in the past few years. This coded language concerning oil, imperialism, and “neo-con” conspiracies reveals obsessions about the omnipotent Jewish lobby in Washington. In France, more than elsewhere in Europe, the theory of a “Jewish” intellectual clique driving American policy has indeed taken hold. The Quai d’Orsay retains its ambition to lead a united Europe as a counterweight to America. The desire to appease the large Muslim population in France has also fed a social climate conducive to a resurgence of antisemitism.
It is true that after the May 2002 elections, a new government, led by re-elected President Jacques Chirac, began to act more firmly and ceased to deny the existence of antisemitism in France. Some positive results were achieved, at least on the level of law enforcement, but the sense of insecurity of Jews has become almost permanent. Not for nothing did the chief rabbi of France advise his co-religionists in the autumn of 2003 to wear baseball caps rather than kippot in public places. Determined efforts by the French authorities to demonstrate “zero tolerance” for antisemitism did not prevent the number of reported antisemitic incidents from dramatically rising since the beginning of 2004.
Today there are 20 million Muslims within the borders of the EU. Many are law-abiding citizens, and some have themselves suffered from racial prejudice. The Islamists among them are an entirely different matter. They espouse dangerous conspiracy theories, promote fanatical religious passions, actively propagate jihadist ideology, and manipulate the emotive symbolism of the Palestinian cause to actively threaten Jews. Totalitarian Islam has managed to convince a growing number of disaffected, unemployed youth that they are living in dar al-Kufr, the land of impiety. It is a mind-set which produced the 7 July suicide bombings in London.
Judeophobia today is very different from traditional Christian prejudice or the racist antisemitism of six decades ago, which had its roots in the nation-states of late nineteenth-century bourgeois Europe. Contemporary carriers of Judeophobia in Europe are much less likely to be believing Christians – unless they belong to the so-called progressive wings of their churches, with their uncritical apologia for the Palestinian cause. The current wave of antisemitism in the countries of the European Union also has different causes. Unlike the 1930s, it is not related to mass unemployment, economic instability, cultural pessimism, or a crisis in the political system. Nor is it a product of financial scandals, social anomie, or disillusion with the established political parties and parliamentary democracy. In Western Europe, contemporary Judeophobia is more postnational than narrowly nationalist, more anti-American than anticommunist, more “liberal” and leftist than illiberal or antidemocratic. The most important exceptions to this rule are Germany and also – to a greater extent, if one considers the electoral success of radical populist parties – Austria and Switzerland.
The “new” antisemitism, on the other hand, is generally obsessed with stigmatising Israel. Its dream is to dissolve the hated “Zionist entity” and, in the name of human rights, make the world Judenstaatrein. The anti-Zionism of the radical leftist camp has now spread into the mainstream liberal left, whose rhetoric relentlessly seeks to undermine the moral and historic legitimacy of a Jewish state. Liberal leftists portray Israel as a state born of the “original sin” of displacing, expropriating, or expelling an “indigenous” population. They attribute to the Jews and Israel qualities of cruelty, brutality, bloodthirstiness, duplicity, greed, and immorality drawn straight from the arsenals of classic antisemitism. Such polemics transcend the question of double standards. They go far beyond the long-established media practice of singling out Israel for savage criticism never applied to any other nation-state.
The media debate over antisemitism and “criticism of Israel” that has raged in Europe for the past four years has been characterised by an extraordinary degree of hypocrisy, bad faith, and transparent political bias. In France, for example, a left-wing international relations expert, Pascal Boniface, cynically paraded himself as the victim and target of an organised campaign of [Jewish] intimidation and Zionist “intellectual terrorism” solely because he “criticised” the Sharon government. In Great Britain, the diplomatic editor of the Observer, Peter Beaumont, mockingly observed: “Criticise Israel and you are an antisemite just as surely as if you were throwing a pot of paint at a synagogue in Paris.”
The facts tell a different story. In October 2002, Jewish peace activists marching in the streets of London against the war in Iraq found themselves surrounded by hate-filled chanting and placards. The demonstration called by the Stop the War Coalition, together with the Muslim Association of Britain, included marchers replete with Hamas-style “martyrs’ headbands,” children brandishing toy Kalashnikovs and suicide bomber belts, and blood-curdling slogans and banners twinning the Star of David and the swastika. Similar scenes – including cries of “Death to the Jews” – were enacted in the streets of Paris, Rome, Berlin, and other European capitals during the past four years.
Judeophobia is often the symbolic other side of the “Palestinophile” coin. It is striking how often, even left-wiing secular publications rely on archaic Christian theological images to press the “anti-Zionist” cause. The “crucifixions” of Jesus and of Yasser Arafat by “deicidal” Israelis/Jews merge into a bizarre, timeless blur of suffering. Poor, downtrodden Palestinians mutate into tortured sacrificial lambs slaughtered by the ancient “Christ-killing” people. A totally de-Judaised Jesus is transmuted into the first Palestinian martyr, reviving the replacement theology that Christian churches in the West have only recently repudiated. In the French media, the thirty-nine-day Israeli army siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (April 2002) quickly became a metaphorical replay of the passion of Christ. Its symbolism echoed “the massacre of the innocents” by King Herod, graphically depicted in the New Testament and in Western art. The enduring image of the siege in Bethlehem was not the sacrilegious invasion of a major Christian holy place by armed Palestinians, but the photograph of one intrusive Israeli tank guarding the entrance to Manger Square. The Vatican contributed its part by unfounded reprimands to Israel that recalled some of the darker strands of Church history.
As if to underline the force of subliminal perceptions of Israel and Jews as “Christ-killers” in the European media, there was the cartoon (in the “non-antisemitic”) liberal Italian daily, La Stampa, on April 3, 2002, showing the infant Jesus in Bethlehem. In this insidious caricature, an Israeli tank points its gun at the baby Christ, who cries: “Are they coming to kill me again?” Four months earlier, an equally offensive cartoon appeared in the French left-wing daily Liberation (December 26, 2001), entitled “No Christmas for Arafat.” Yasser Arafat had been banned by Israel from attending the Christmas Mass in Bethlehem. In the cartoon Ariel Sharon was depicted preparing a cross for Arafat, with hammer and nails at the ready. An Israeli tank stood parked nearby. The caption underneath sarcastically suggested that Arafat “would be welcome for Easter.”
Europe’s current hostility to Israel cannot be separated from the demons of its own dark past, the legacy bequeathed by the Holocaust. Anti-Zionists have in recent years increasingly manipulated the Holocaust as a propaganda weapon against the Jewish state, to demonstrate that Jews are as bad as their former murderers. A classic example of this genre can be found in a caricature in Ethnos (April 7, 2002), a major centre-left, pro-government Greek newspaper, showing two Israeli soldiers in the disputed territories: One says to the other: “Don’t feel guilty, my brother! We were not in Auschwitz and Dachau to suffer but to learn.” The Nazi-like soldiers with the Star of David on their helmets are shown ruthlessly knifing Palestinians.
European elites have been remarkably slow to grasp the ways in which the methods, defamation techniques, and the vocabulary of anti-Israeli critics today follow a classic pattern of antisemitism. They do not condemn the myths of Jews as “warmongers” and of “Jewish cabals” or alleged Jewish control of America as pure antisemitism. Many do not yet grasp that the defamatory image of Israel itself as an oppressive “criminal” state in its essence is a modern blood libel masquerading as legitimate criticism. There has, in fact, been an extraordinary reluctance to recognise that the radical negation of Israel has liberated an increasingly antisemitic discourse, one which displaces the cause of all the world’s troubles onto the shoulders of the Jewish state – “nazifying” it, while simultaneously trivialising the Shoah. Former European imperialists – whether in Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Austria, or Italy – prefer to denounce Israeli “colonialism” rather than to deal with their own dismal record of collaboration in the Holocaust, or their failure to respond to postwar tragedies, such as in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan, Tibet, and Chechnya. Once more, so it would appear, Jews exist to fulfill their time-honoured role of serving as a projection screen for repressed European guilt.
Robert S. Wistrich is Neuberger Professor of Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Among his many books are Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (Pantheon, 1991), Nietzsche, Godfather of Facism? (Princeton, 2002), and Hitler, L’Europe et la Shoah (Albin Michel, 2005)