'Antisemitism is not the Jews' problem. It's Europe's'

Antisemitism ‘mainstreamed’ in Western European politics, says Israeli study

Researchers see convergence of far-left and far-right, crack in consensus against hatred of Jews; warn that Israel should not take leading role in fight against world antisemitism

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a demonstration against US President Donald Trump's state visit to the UK in central London on June 4, 2019. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses a demonstration against US President Donald Trump's state visit to the UK in central London on June 4, 2019. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

Fringe ideas and political parties are moving into the mainstream in Western Europe, bringing with them antisemitic views, according to an Israeli study to be released Tuesday that found a worrying convergence of far-right and far-left hate.

“We are seeing the penetration of the extremes into the political mainstream,” said Adi Kantor, one of the authors of “Contemporary Antisemitism in the Political Discourse of Five Western European Countries: Germany, France, Britain, Spain, Ireland.

The study, a joint project of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and the Jewish Agency, studied expressions of antisemitism by politicians and political parties in the five Western European nations between late 2019 and late 2020. The research does not include the spike in antisemitism that occurred in Europe and the US during Israel’s 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls against Hamas in May 2021.

“We wanted to try to understand how this phenomenon is on the one hand influenced by deep, global trends and broad social trends, where it is influenced by local characteristics, like Islamists in France, the right-wing in Germany, (former Labour Party leader Jeremy) Corbyn in the UK, and where it is influenced by unanticipated events like the coronavirus or the ‘yellow vest’ protests in France,” said INSS researcher Shahar Eilam, a former high-ranking IDF intelligence officer.

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask makes the ‘Victory’ sign during a protest of the Yellow Vests against rising oil prices and living costs, on December 1, 2018, in Paris. (AFP/Abdulmonam Eassa)

The project investigated antisemitism on the far right, which often distorts historical facts, claims victimhood, denies and minimizes the role of its country in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust, and scapegoats minorities, especially immigrants, Muslims, and Jews.

According to the researchers, far-right parties in Western Europe have been portraying themselves as Israel supporters and even defenders of Jews, at the same time that party members continue to use expressions of classic antisemitism.

They also examined antisemitism on the far left, which is usually disguised as criticism of Israel.

A BDS protest against Israel in Barcelona, Spain, June 2014. (YouTube screenshot)

The study found that the most common expressions of antisemitism – defined as “malicious attitudes and stereotypes,” “comparison between Israel and Nazis,” and “denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination” — are overwhelmingly expressed by politicians on the left.

Worryingly, the researchers identified a growing convergence of left- and right-wing antisemitism, with similar messages and symbols being used by both extremes.

“We have to ask ourselves why,” said Kantor. “Why have people who were once centrists found homes in far-right and far-left positions?”

“For the extreme left and right to meet, there needs to be a certain space that allows it. There needs to be a vacuum in the middle that allows the two edges to meet.”

Hatred in liberal democracies

The researchers chose to focus on Western Europe for several reasons. “It is particularly interesting to see in the liberal democracies – which are based on freedom of speech, freedom of press, individual rights, human rights, minority rights – it is there we discovered how present antisemitism is in the political discourse,” said Kantor. “We found, in the very countries you wouldn’t expect to find it, very prolific antisemitism from public officials.”

Stephan Balliet, who is accused of shooting dead two people after an attempt to storm a synagogue in Halle an der Saale, eastern Germany, is led by a police officer into the courtroom for the start of the 24th day of his trial on November 3, 2020 at the district court in Magdeburg, eastern Germany. (Ronny Hartmann / AFP)

They also determined that Eastern Europe had its own particular history that shapes antisemitic discourse there, and a separate research project should focus on those countries.

The study found that there are several common features across the five countries.

Across the continent, Europeans are facing the economic, political, ideological and social fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the lockdowns, Europe was marked by polarization between supporters of the European Union and its euro-skeptic opponents. Hot-button issues like refugees, minorities and immigration fueled “radicalization, hatred, and the rapid and unchecked dissemination of lies, fake news, rumors, and conspiracy theories,” the authors said.

Other elements were found in only some of the countries in the study. France and Germany, which were under Nazi control in World War II, both face attempts to revise the history of the Holocaust. In Spain and Ireland, with their minuscule Jewish communities, most of the antisemitism is directed at Israel and Jews in general.

A demonstrator wrapped in a flag of the German empire stands opposite riot policemen standing guard in front of the Reichstag building, which houses the Bundestag lower house of parliament, after protesters tried to storm it at the end of a demonstration called by far-right and COVID-19 deniers to protest against restrictions, in Berlin, on August 29, 2020. (John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

In Germany, according to the study, Jews are often described as responsible for every problem and the word “Jew” as a slur remains deeply rooted in common speech. Jewish institutions are under heavy security. Jews often feel that law enforcement does not care about antisemitism, and the burden of investigation often falls on the community itself.

France, Europe’s largest Jewish community, has faced a number of high-profile fatal terror attacks by jihadist groups including Islamic State. Antisemitism has reared its head in the discourse around the “yellow vest” protests, and in the COVID-19 debate. On the right, there is a trend of denying France’s role in deporting Jews during the Holocaust.

Thousands of people attend the funeral ceremony of the four Jewish victims of the HyperCacher store terror attack in Paris, that was held at the Har HaMenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem, January 13, 2015. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Brexit debate has been the dominant issue in British politics for several years, and antisemitism was a common feature of the discourse. In recent years, the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party faced repeated revelations of antisemitism on the part of elected officials and activists, which caused Jews to flee the party.

Spain faces “antisemitism without Jews,” as bitter criticism of Israel comes from the left, especially from the Podemos party. The far-left party is now part of the government coalition.

The study found that there is not a lot of antisemitism in Ireland, but there is significant hostility toward Israel. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is often seen through the prism of the Irish struggle for independence from the UK, with Israel playing the part of the British occupiers.

In all of these countries, almost every party and politician claims to be a partner in the struggle against antisemitism, even those that traffic in antisemitic tropes.

A European problem

The researchers came to several worrying conclusions.

Antisemitism is becoming politicized, they found, used as a political tool against foes by those who ignore antisemitism coming from their allies. The broad consensus against antisemitism has cracked in Europe, with disguised terms being used to express anti-globalist messages on the right and anti-Israel sentiment on the left. Those marginal parties are moving into the political mainstream, even joining government coalitions.

Illustrative People gather for a protest against anti-Semitism, in Creteil, east of Paris, Sunday, December 7, 2014, after an attack on a French Jewish couple revived worries about long-simmering anti-Semitic sentiment in France. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

They stressed that the responsibility for fighting these expressions of antisemitism falls first and foremost on the countries in which they take place and on the EU.

Israel’s job is not to lead the fight against antisemitism in European countries, said Eilam. “First of all, because it’s not Israel’s responsibility, it’s the responsibility of the country. And second, because Israel is seen as a problem, and as part of the political discourse, so it becomes an excuse why antisemitism is a political issue.”

“So Israel has to be very smart and determined to condemn every expression of antisemitism – and also hatred against other minorities, Israel has an important moral status – but not to be the leading player publicly. Behind the scenes, in some places there are communities that do need the actual assistance. But it must be done discreetly, in coordination with the host country.”

Eilam stressed that the sentiment that immigration to Israel is the solution to European antisemitism is not helpful, especially when said by Israeli officials. “It doesn’t help the Jews and it certainly doesn’t help their case in the countries they live in.”

“Countries in Europe need to see themselves as responsible for the fact that antisemitism exists within it and find as many solutions as possible,” Kantor emphasized. “Antisemitism is not a problem of Jews, we must make that clear. It’s a problem of European society.”

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