In Defense of the Jews, Again

by Shlomo Ben-Ami Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. 03.02.2015


MADRID – Despite the impression given by massive unity rallies throughout France, the recent attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo does not mean that freedom of expression is under any serious threat in Western Europe. Nor does it indicate that Islamic radicalism is somehow about to engulf or transform Western societies. The threat that it does highlight is a less publicized one: the resurgence of discrimination and violence against Europe’s Jews.

Charlie Hebdo – the last vestige of a bawdy and somewhat savage nineteenth-century French tradition of outrageous caricature of religious and political figures – may well be an ideal icon of free expression. Europeans rose to defend a vital principle; free speech, however vicious, retains a place in any democracy.

Likewise, “Eurabia,” Bat Ye’Or’s prophecy of Islamic doom for the West, simply is not emerging. No Islamic parties hold seats in European parliaments; few leading Muslim figures feature in Europe’s major centers of cultural and political power; and European Union institutions are practically bereft of Arabs and Muslims.

Efforts by radicals to recruit and indoctrinate young European Muslims do not reflect the inexorable rise of Islamist – or even Islamic – influence in Europe. Rather, they highlight the radicals’ desperation to influence a region where the overwhelming majority of Muslims aspire to integrate into, rather than challenge, the established order.

What is truly under threat in Europe is its Jewish community. In 2006, the French Jew Ilan Halimi was kidnapped and brutally tortured in a cellar for three weeks, resulting in his death. In 2012, three Jewish schoolchildren and a rabbi were gunned down in Toulouse. And last April, a Jewish couple in a Parisian suburb were robbed, because, as the attackers put it, “Jews must have money” (though that did not explain why they then raped the woman). A month later, a French jihadist attacked the Jewish museum in Brussels, leaving three dead and one critically wounded. A few months after that, a mob assaulted a synagogue in Paris.

None of these events sparked anything remotely resembling the public outrage of recent weeks. Had the murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris, carried out by a confederate of the Charlie Hebdo attackers prior to their capture, occurred in other circumstances, one can assume that it would not have fueled a widespread movement to defend the values of the French Republic.


"Had the murder of four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris,.....occurred in other circumstances, one can assume that it would not have fueled a widespread movement to defend the values of the French Republic."


Some argue that the surge in anti-Semitic violence in Europe is motivated primarily by the plight of the Palestinians. But, according to a 2012 poll, more Europeans believe that violence against Jews is fueled by long-standing anti-Semitic attitudes, rather than anti-Israel sentiment.

Radical Islam propagated hatred for Jews long before Zionism, and it will continue to do so after the creation of a Palestinian state. Given this, it is not surprising that the increasing visibility of Islamist extremism has, by capturing the attention of frustrated young Muslim men in Europe and elsewhere, spurred increased violence against Jews.

But the problem runs deeper, giving Jews the impression that they have no future in Europe. A recent YouGov poll found that a substantial share of the French and British populations hold anti-Semitic views. Another poll, conducted by the Center for Research on Prejudice at Warsaw University, showed that, in 2013, some 63% of Poles believed Jews conspire to control the banking system and the world media.

This has serious implications not just for Jews, but for Europe as a whole. As Hannah Arendt pointed out six decades ago, the rise of anti-Semitism fueled Europe’s descent into totalitarianism. With right-wing extremist and populist movements gaining traction in many countries, Europe’s political system – and the values that underpin it – is at risk.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls recognizes this danger. In a recent speech at the National Assembly that recalled Emile Zola’s attack on the “blind stupidity” of Jew-hatred almost 120 years ago, he asked: “How can we accept that in France…shouts of “Death to the Jews!” can be heard in our streets?...How can we accept that French people can be murdered because they are Jewish?” He then warned that the revival of anti-Semitism in France – apparent, for example, in the anxiety over the Holocaust’s inclusion in the French school curriculum – indicates a crisis of democracy.

But Valls remains the only European politician to have highlighted the danger with the sense of urgency that it merits. It is time for his counterparts to step up, and doing so should not rule out bold policies, free of any complexes, aimed at influencing Israel’s policy toward Palestine.

At the same time, it is a dangerous fallacy to seek redemption for a problem that is so deeply ingrained in Europe’s history – and in Islam’s – by blaming it on the Israel-Palestine conflict or on young, alienated Muslims. Europeans must take a good hard look at themselves if they are to avoid falling back into the clutches of fear, hatred, and appalling politics.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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