5762: a year of attacks and renewal of anti-Semitism leaves European Jews with unsettling state of m

Friday, September 6, 2002 | by

RUTH E. GRUBER



ROME—The aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict had a direct and unsettling impact on European Jews this year.

Most dramatic was the emergence of what some observers called a "new" anti-Semitism, which others saw as a resurgence of traditional Jew-hatred that had been lurking beneath the surface since the Holocaust.

"Anti-Semitism, it has been said, is a light sleeper," the London Jewish Chronicle stated in an editorial this spring. "It began ominously to stir from slumber with the obscenely mistitled U.N. anti-Racism Conference in Durban last year; arose further after the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States; and, notably in France and a number of other European states, has leapt fully awake with the escalation of Middle East violence."

Sources of the upsurge included growing Muslim communities, extreme right-wing movements, pro-Palestinian political networks—and what David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, called "the fashionable 'salon' anti-Semitism of some elites."

A poll of 2,500 people in five Western European countries, released in June by the Anti-Defamation League, indicated that 30 percent of Europeans cling to traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes. In addition, 62 percent of respondents believed the violence against European Jews over the past year was a result of anti-Israel sentiment.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman blamed anti-Israel sentiment on European governments—specifically on French, Danish and Belgian leaders—who termed the violence in their countries "political" rather than anti-Semitic.

While not all criticism of the Israeli government is anti-Semitic, the current tension linked to the Middle East conflict "rationalizes and legitimizes" acts of violence against Jews, Foxman said.

Attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in some countries had already risen sharply since the resurgence of the intifada in September 2000.

Following strong Israeli incursions into the West Bank this spring, however, isolated incidents intensified into a wave of violent attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions on a scale unseen since the Holocaust.

No one was killed, but synagogues were torched, Jewish cemeteries desecrated and Jews roughed up on the street. The European Jewish Congress counted some 360 anti-Jewish incidents in France in the first three weeks of April alone—most the acts of alienated young Arabs lashing out at Jews and Jewish institutions as surrogates for Israel.

These attacks took place mainly in Western Europe, which also saw a marked political shift to the right. In France, rightist Jacques Chirac was re-elected president in a second-round vote, but only after extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked voters by coming in second in the first round.

Anti-Semitic violence was also coupled with a more subtle ideological shift, with pro-Palestinian political sentiment fostering a demonization of Israel and a growing acceptance of classic anti-Semitic rhetoric in public discourse and private conversation.

The left wing, the peace movement and anti-globalization activists adopted a sometimes fiercely pro-Palestinian bias that included calls to isolate Israel with intellectual and commercial boycotts.

"In Italy, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic opinions are spread by local Italians," said Francesco Spagnolo, director of a Jewish music study center in Milan. "It is ideological, but very vocal. I am very disillusioned."

Jews who felt that much of the European media demonstrated an openly pro-Palestinian bias launched Web sites and letter-writing campaigns to lobby editors.

In April, the non-Jewish Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci entered the fray with a blistering indictment of Italy, Italians, the Catholic Church, the left wing, the media, politically correct pacifists and Europeans in general for abandoning Israel and fomenting a new wave of anti-Semitism.

Published as a cover story in a leading Italian newsweekly, her manifesto began by denouncing an Italian peace march that had degenerated into a vicious display of anti-Israel invective.

"I find it shameful," she wrote, "that in Italy there can be a march of individuals who, dressed as kamikazes, bawl infamous abuse against Israel, brandish photographs of Israeli leaders on whose foreheads they have drawn swastikas, incite the public to hate the Jews…"

Fallaci lashed out at the Vatican for fostering a pro-Palestinian bias. She also criticized leftists for forgetting the sacrifices Jews had made in the struggle against fascism, and for becoming opportunistic lackeys to a "stupid, cowardly, dishonest" political correctness.

European Jewish leaders themselves appeared at a loss as to how to combat anti-Semitism and rally mainstream support for Israel.

In the spring, the European Jewish Congress and European Council of Jewish Communities held a strategy session in Brussels and established a European Coordination Center to shape public opinion and lobby governments and parliaments.

Pro-Israel rallies in several cities, including a May rally in Brussels of 10,000 people from across Europe, sponsored by the new Coordination Center, raised spirits but did not appear to have much success in changing European politics.

"People think Israel is like South Africa was 20 years ago and that Sharon is like Milosevic," said Joel Rubinfeld, a founder of the Belgian-Israel Friendship Association, who helped organize the Brussels rally. "They are wrong, but I am not angry at those people in the street. I am angry at the media."

Post-communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe registered anti-Semitic incidents, but these did not appear to be directly linked to the Middle East. In general, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not have such a strong effect in Eastern Europe, whose governments and media seemed more pro-Israel.

Other developments, meanwhile, reflected new social, political and cultural realities that are redefining or overturning old models of Jewish identity and behavior.

While fears for Israel and concern over anti-Semitism drew many Jews closer together, communities were split politically over Israeli government policy toward the Palestinians.

Internally, religious issues and Jewish pluralism increasingly were on the agenda as traditional definitions of Jewishness eroded.

Liberal Jewish groups not generally recognized by the mainstream Orthodox community operated in Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere.

Holocaust issues, particularly regarding property restitution and compensation, also remained high-profile. This was particularly so in Eastern and Central Europe, where Jewish leaders remained disappointed with efforts to regain communal property, despite their governments' interest in addressing Jewish concerns as they negotiated to join the NATO military alliance and the European Union.

There were attempts across Europe to embrace and promote Jewish culture, both as part of a new, multicultural European reality and as a way of strengthening Jewish identity.

In January, the newly formed European Association of Jewish Culture announced 33 grants totaling more than $200,000 to Jewish artists, performers, editors and musicians in 12 countries.

Despite security and other concerns, more than 120,000 people attended some 500 events in 22 countries on the annual European Day of Jewish Culture in June.

And on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, several countries observed an annual day of remembrance for the Holocaust.