Downplaying Western European Anti-Semitism

Liam Hoare argues that Jonathan Freedland downplays the problems facing western European Jewry today.

Jonathan Freedland was not foolish for wishing to shatter the prism through which Americans interpret the condition of Jews in Europe. “In this conception,” Freedland argued in these pages, “the calendar might say 2013 but the year is forever 1938, with the Jews of Europe on the verge of another catastrophe—and once again too blind to see it coming.” Indeed, as Joel Braunold wrote in a Ha’aretz op-ed on the subject, Americans are indeed prone to “declarations of doom and destruction” that are seen, in Europe at least, as “unwelcome and uneducated.”

It is rather unfortunate therefore that in seeking to illuminate, to draw distinctions, and to demonstrate that Europe is not a monolithic space where every Jew shares the same fated experience, Freedland either downplays or in some cases downright ignores the real and existing problems facing western European Jewry in particular.

On the one hand, Freedland highlights the disturbing example of Malmö. Here, the Swedish city’s 1,500 Jews residents have been subject to repeated anti-Semitic attacks perpetrated by extremists from within the community of Middle Eastern and North Africa migrants which makes up 10 percent of Malmö’s population. As Paulina Neuding highlights in Tablet, the Jewish population has halved over the past forty years, a diminution whose pace has accelerated of late. The city’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, denies there is a problem with anti-Semitism at all, and has said of the exodus, “There have been no attacks against Jews, and if Jews want to leave for Israel that is not a concern for Malmö.”Yet Malmö is but one example of a larger, inescapable trend: it is becoming ever more difficult to be openly Jewish in some western European cities. The Israeli Embassy in Copenhagen, for instance, advised visitors in December not to wear kippot or jewelry with religious symbols, and not to speak Hebrew on the streets of the capital. Last May, a 25-year-old Jewish male was assaulted in Fælledparken Park by a gang of eight men who shouted “dirty Jew” and “death to Israel” as they left him with a concussion and black eye. A representative of Magen David Adom, who was wearing a kippah at the time, was attacked outside Copenhagen Central Station by three men. Verbal abuse near synagogues is not uncommon, either.

The inability to display one’s Jewishness is a problem in other Scandinavian capitals including Helsinki—where Jews were recommended to conceal their kippot in November—and Oslo, where violent and deadly threats have been made against the Jewish community by Islamist groups. Even in Paris—the capital of the nation with Europe’s largest Jewish community—there have been attacks on Jews leaving synagogues, including on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, when a 52-year-old man was knocked unconscious. The sole identifier was the Jewish philosophy book he was reading on the Metro. Dalil Boubakeur, the rector of the Grande Mosquée in Paris, has warned of radicalism amongst young Muslim males in the city.

Indeed, tensions between communities and the dual problems of extremism and radicalism within a portion of Europe’s Muslim population are something Freedland acknowledges yet does not particularly wish to comprehend. On one level, clashes between Muslims and Jews are intertwined with the politics of the Middle East, with Freedland noting the surges “in anti-Jewish hatred whenever the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians escalates.” This was not only the case during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, but also in and around the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000.

But this is a wholly inadequate and incomplete understanding of the crisis. When a 23-year-old French-born Algerian, who became part of a network of radical Islamists that extended to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and who travelled to Afghanistan for indoctrination and training, proceeds to take it upon himself to procure a firearm, journey to a Jewish day school, and murder a rabbi and three children as young as 3—including one 8-year-old girl whom he shot in the face while holding her by her hair—the situation is altogether more complex and the motive darker than whether the borders of Israel will one day extend to incorporate Ma’ale Adumim or not.

While it is the case that immigrant communities in Europe continue to suffer isolation, ghettoization, and desolation—all of which impact crime rates—it is difficult to ignore that the inspiration behind Mohamed Merah’s act of terror in Toulouse was a fundamentalist dogma which, as Douglas Murray argues, “extols hatred of Jews for being Jews” and is driven, Martin Bright adds, “by pure, irrational racism.” The sources of this for Merah were teachers and preachers in the Islamic world—where, as Mohamed Morsi’s recently-unearthed statements demonstrate, anti-Semitism is commonplace—but it is troublingly also to be found in some insidious forms in schools and mosques funded by Wahhabi Saudi Arabia built in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.

“There are dangers, but also great triumphs,” Freedland concludes, highlighting the scope of the contributions Jews continue to make to the continent’s culture. Essential as this point is, Freedland’s piece is ultimately hamstrung by it. In his desire to right the crude misperception of Europe as “one large Auschwitz-in-waiting,” Freedland has failed to record or deal adequately with the crises occurring right under his nose in the cities of western Europe. The hour is not five minutes to midnight, but the continent is hardly flooded with light, either.