Is Europe seeing a new wave of Jew-hatred?

While the murders in Toulouse are evidence that anti-Semitism certainly subsists in Europe, there is no reason to believe that European Jews need to be saved. In fact, the reality is that Jews are increasingly open and confident about expressing their Jewish identity.

By Dov Waxman

Reading much of the media commentary in Israel and the United States following last week’s cold-blooded killing of three Jewish children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse would easily give one the impression that Europe’s Jews are facing a scourge of deadly anti-Semitism. The murderous actions of Mohamed Merah, the 23-year-old self-described jihadist, who claimed responsibility for the attack on the Jewish school as well as the earlier killings of three French soldiers, would seem to be the most shocking and brutal manifestation of a much wider phenomenon afflicting Jews in Europe, and French Jews in particular.

Almost 70 years after the Holocaust, many believe that the specter of anti-Semitism is once again threatening the lives of European Jews. But is this really the case? Should the murders in Toulouse be understood as part of a new wave of Jew-hatred in Europe, as many commentators have suggested? How much of a threat is anti-Semitism to French Jews and European Jews in general?

The truth is that anti-Semitism in France and in Europe as a whole, though it certainly exists, is not nearly as great a danger as many outside observers in Israel and the United States believe. While the threat of anti-Semitism is real and must be taken seriously, it should not be exaggerated or blown out of proportion. In fact, far from being on the verge of catastrophe, European Jewry is experiencing a renaissance that we should be celebrating.

Western media skews reality

According to the Jerusalem Post, “The attack in Toulouse will undoubtedly add to European Jews’ feeling of vulnerability.” The editorial also noted that, “Since late 2000, the Jews of France…have been exposed to the most extensive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence since the Holocaust.” The Jerusalem Post repeated this claim in another editorial a few days later warning its readers that, “irrational hatred of Jews still runs rampant all over Europe.” The same claim was made on the blog of the right-wing American Jewish magazine Commentary, when one of its regular bloggers declared immediately after the Toulouse attack: “let us not be deceived into thinking this is an incident that can be isolated from the atmosphere of Jew-hatred that hangs over Europe.” Nor was it just right-wing media outlets that seized on the notion of a rabidly anti-Semitic Europe. CNN’s website featured an article with the headline “Europe’s blind spot on anti-Semitism” which also depicted Europe as awash in anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment. Although somewhat more qualified, even The Washington Post had an article with the headline: “In France, anti-Semitism isn’t usually violent but often lurks just below the surface.”

Having just spent the past few weeks travelling in France, Germany, and Poland—countries that are often at the top of people’s lists as bastions of anti-Semitism—I can’t square the image of Europe conveyed by this media coverage with what I encountered on my travels. Sure, I saw some anti-Semitic graffiti and, and after visiting Jewish cemeteries, ruined Synagogues and, above all, Auschwitz, I was painfully aware of the mass murder of European Jews that occurred not so long ago. But I also witnessed the remarkable revival of Jewish communities, marked by an explosion of Jewish religious and cultural activities that few would have imagined possible in the devastating aftermath of the Holocaust.

There are more Jewish schools, yeshivas, synagogues, and kosher restaurants in France today than ever before, and earlier this month a Limmud conference took place outside Paris for the sixth year running. In Germany and Poland, Jewish communities that were completely decimated in the Holocaust are now growing again and young Jews there are expressing their Jewish identities much more openly and confidently than their parents and grandparents.

Far from living in fear under the shadow of rampant anti-Semitism, Jews in France, Germany and Poland seemed to be proudly embracing their Judaism, creatively experimenting with new ways of being Jewish, and confidently envisioning the future of Jewish life in Europe—a future in which European Jewry could stand as a equal with Israeli and American Jewry.

This does not mean, of course, that anti-Semitism is not a problem in Europe. Anti-Jewish attitudes and stereotypes, intimidation and threats against Jews, and violence against Jews and Jewish sites are, sadly, still a reality that European Jews must contend with. But it does not rule their lives. While anti-Semitism remains a threat to Jews in Europe, as it does to Jews everywhere, it is not nearly as great a threat as many in Israel and the United States believe.

Statistics on anti-Semitism are a mixed picture

Contrary to the often-repeated claim that anti-Semitism is increasing in Europe, the reality is, in fact, much more complex. The Anti-Defamation League’s surveys of European attitudes towards the Jews show that anti-Semitic views have indeed gained ground in some countries in recent years (most notably in Hungary), while in most other European countries they have remained at roughly the same level. The ADL itself, however, seems unwilling to acknowledge this mixed picture.

When it released its most recent survey last week (I can’t help but wonder whether the timing was just a coincidence?) its press release declared that the survey revealed “large swaths of the population [in the ten European countries surveyed] subscribe to classical anti-Semitic notions.” While this was true in some of the countries – Hungary, Poland, and Spain – in others, anti-Semitic views (specifically, that Jews have too much power in business and in international financial markets, are more loyal to Israel than to their own country, and “talk too much” about the Holocaust) were held by only a minority of people, less than a quarter of respondents in most countries, while clear majorities rejected such views.

The press release also highlighted an increase in the overall level of anti-Semitism in France despite the fact that the purported rise in anti-Semitic attitudes there from 20 percent of the population in a previous ADL poll conducted in 2009 to 24 percent in 2012 was actually within the survey’s margin of error. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, from simply asserting that: “France has seen an increase in the level of anti-Semitism.”

More than anywhere else in Europe, the situation of Jews in France (the largest Jewish community in Europe) has been the subject of greatest concern. This has been the case long before last week’s terrorist attack in Toulouse. Back in 2004, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to a surge of anti-Semitic incidents in France by urging French Jews to seek refuge in Israel. A similar call for French Jews to “come home” was made last week after the Toulouse killings by Israeli Knesset member Yaakov Katz. Why do Israeli politicians counsel French Jews to flee to Israel to escape anti-Semitism, but they make no such appeals to American Jews when anti-Semitic attacks occur there?

When Jewish children were shot at while they played in a Jewish Community Center in the Los Angeles area in 1999, no one claimed that this heinous act was indicative of a widespread anti-Semitism in American society. Similarly, when six people were shot and one woman killed at the headquarters of the Seattle Jewish Federation in 2006, this was not interpreted as anything more than the actions of one hate-filled, and possibly deranged, individual.

Given what happened to Jews in France during WWII (both under the German occupation and the Vichy collaborationist regime), heightened concern about the safety of French Jews is understandable. But we must not let our fears cloud reality, and we should be careful not to subscribe to a simplistic narrative about anti-Semitism. To properly gauge the threat posed by anti-Semitism in Europe today we must rely upon empirical data, not traumatic collective memories. In France, the data reveals that anti-Semitic incidents have generally been declining in recent years since an upsurge of incidents in the first half of the 2000s following the outbreak of the Second Intifada (there was another upsurge in 2009 prompted by Israel’s war in Gaza). According to statistics compiled by the French Jewish community’s Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ), last year there were 389 anti-Semitic incidents, this was down 16.5 percent from the previous year (when 466 incidents occurred). Although more serious acts of anti-Semitic violence (physical assaults, vandalism, and arson) have not decreased, it is simply wrong to claim that France is experiencing a growing wave of anti-Semitism. In reality, anti-Semitism ebbs and flows in France and elsewhere.

The tragic events in Toulouse are certainly a reminder that hatred of Jews has not disappeared and that it can have murderous consequences. The twisted jihadist ideology which motivated Mohammed Merah is virulently anti-Semitic, as well as anti-Western, and it poses a real danger to Jews around the world, not just in Europe. But European Jews, and French Jews in particular, are not endangered and do not need to be saved. In fact, they are flourishing. Why can’t we start talking about that?


Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is the co-author of Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and the author of The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). He is currently at work on a book about the politics of diaspora Jews and their relationship with Israel.