Photo: AP/Bruno Martin
On March 19, 2012, a masked man gunned down a rabbi and three young children in front of a Jewish school.Initial suspicion fell on a group of soldiers with links to the far right, and a photo of them posing with a swastika was widely circulated in the press.
However, when the gunman was finally cornered by French anti-terror officials, he said he was an al-Qaeda jihadist who had killed the Jewish victims to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children.
While this single brutal incident has put the spotlight back on violence against Jews, it’s by no means unique. The year 2010 saw 614 global incidents of physical violence, threats, and vandalism against Jews, the third highest since the end of the 1980s, according to the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University.
The violence has not abated. March 2012 alone has seen incidents of Jewish students being harassed, threatening emails being sent to Jewish institutions, murders, rhetoric by politicians, commemorations of Nazi sympathizers, and vandalism of Jewish property.
But as the Toulouse example shows, the face of anti-semitism in Europe is changing in line with more modern tensions.
More familiar far-right perpetrators of violence are now being overshadowed by Muslim immigrants, who often bring with them the anti-Semitic religious and political teachings from the Middle East, says Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
The Arab-Israeli conflict plays a major part in modern anti-Jewish sentiment, Professor Jonathan Judaken of Rhodes College, Tenn. says. The anti-Semitism of the neo-Nazis, based mainly on racial prejudices, has been replaced by anti-Zionism, based on cultural and political struggles.
In essence, Jews are not hated for being an inferior race, but for what they represent to Muslim immigrants: an oppressor (Israel) of Arab nations. In fact, Judaken argues it isn’t anti-Semitism at all, it’s the new “judeophobia”.
These immigrants also have their own reasons to feel angry. Mainly from North Africa, they are often regarded with distrust and prejudice in their adopted European homelands, leading to what Judaken calls “institutionalized discrimination” and difficulty integrating. A poll published by youth organisation Afev says nearly 60 per cent of the French distrust youth from the immigrant (and often Muslim)-dominated suburbs.
European Jews, on other hand, are generally more successful and assimilated, making them obvious targets for Muslim immigrants’ resentment, says Professor Ethan Katz of the University of Cincinnati.
And this violence, coupled with the financial crisis (where losing one’s job to an immigrant has become a sore subject) feeds into the xenophobia and anti-immigrant discourse being perpetrated by the far-right and even certain sections of the far-left that are anti-globalization, says Katz.
This further strengthens people’s prejudices against Muslim immigrants in a vicious cycle, which is why the far-right has realised these immigrants are a better scapegoat than Jews to propagate their xenophobic ideas and gain legitimacy. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right, has changed her rhetoric from anti-Israel to anti-Muslim to court Jewish voters. “Certain Jews, at least in France, now feel less uncomfortable with the far-right and more uncomfortable with Muslim immigrants and the far-left,” says Katz.
Experts believe most European governments are making efforts to improve the situation. “On the whole, there is an awareness that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” Foxman says, pointing to the security and police cover given to most Jewish institutions in Europe today, and the French government’s response to the shootings. They do admit though that it often takes something as drastic as Toulouse to bring the issue to media attention.
But Foxman points out that not all nations perform satisfactorily when it comes to public consciousness on the issue. “The problem was that after World War II, it [anti-Semitism] wasn’t catharsized out… there’s a denial about it,” Foxman says, adding that countries that have come to terms with and accepted their anti-Semitic past are better able to tackle anti-Jewish sentiment in the present than those who continue to deny that it’s a serious issue.
Katz says the future of anti-Jewish sentiment depends on whether Europe can do two things: weather its current financial crisis so that it is not dealing with social and economic resentment that typically fuels anti-Semitism and racism; and successfully integrate its growing Muslim population, which would make it “far less likely that many of them will think that anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment is the most productive outlet for their politics and self-expression.”
A resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict could go a long way in “taking the wind out of the sails” of the situation, but the experts agree the tendencies will probably never completely disappear.
“If you look at groups like al-Qaeda, the only solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict would be to establish a complete Islamic presence throughout the Middle East and there would be no Israel. Any resolution we would think about wouldn’t appeal to those groups,” Judaken says. “If you ameliorated the conditions of life for Muslim immigrants in Europe, the problem wouldn’t disappear either… The far-right is still a very serious concern.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Professor Jonathan Judaken is a professor at the University of Memphis. He is in fact currently at Rhodes College, Tenn. The post has been changed to reflect this.
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