Jewish life in Europe ‘dying a slow death’?

It’s time to get out, urges Prof. Robert Wistrich, a leading authority on anti-Semitism. And he’s one of the scholars who dismisses a claim that 150 million EU citizens have demonic views of Israel

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A monument at a Jewish cemetery in Wysokie Mazowieckie, Poland is found desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti, March 2012 (Jedrzej Wojnar/AP)
Illustrative: A monument at a Jewish cemetery in Wysokie Mazowieckie, Poland is found desecrated with anti-Semitic graffiti, March 2012 (Jedrzej Wojnar/AP)

When Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay this week accused the “Jewish Diaspora” of orchestrating anti-government protests in his country, almost the entire Jewish Diaspora was up in arms. Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Vienna community, went so far as to call on the European Union to suspend its accession negotiations with Ankara.

But anti-Semitism could also be found last week deep in the European heartland: the editors of Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung considered a painting of a ravenous moloch to be the right type of illustration for a story about Israel. Critics pointed out that this might have been a problematic choice, yet the paper initially responded that “a hungry monster with horns has nothing to do with anti-Semitic cliches” (and only later apologized).

Clearly, anti-Semitic tendencies in Europe are alive and kicking. But how widespread, and how grave?

According to one Jerusalem-based researcher, the situation is dire, and he claims to have the numbers to prove it: More than 150 million European adults have anti-Semitic views, he asserts, in that they believe that Israel is waging a war of extermination against the Palestinians. “Numerical data from various studies provide evidence that well over 150 million citizens of the European Union embrace a demonic view of Israel,” Manfred Gerstenfeld, a former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, writes in his new book, “Demonizing Israel and the Jews.”

However high and curiously justified it is, some experts believe the figure might be accurate. Others who contend that Gerstenfeld’s line of argument doesn’t make much sense, scientifically speaking, argue nonetheless that anti-Semitism has become an irreversible trend that will soon make life unbearable for the continent’s remaining Jews. European officials hesitate to comment, though some say they are stunned to hear such a statistic. The EU is currently compiling its first comprehensive study on anti-Semitism, whose preliminary findings show an alarming number of Jews reporting to have been the victims of harassment.

Manfred Gerstenfeld (photo credit: Courtesy)
Manfred Gerstenfeld (photo credit: Courtesy)

Gerstenfeld, who immigrated to Israel many years ago from the Netherlands, bases his controversial claim mainly on a 2012 study conducted by the University of Bielefeld and published by the German-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The study, which surveyed 8,000 people across eight EU member states, found that “around 40 percent of respondents in most participating countries affirm the drastic assessment that the Israeli state is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.”

In Poland, 63% of respondents agreed with this claim. Nearly half of the German respondents — 48% — approved the statement. The number was 49% in Portugal, 42% in Britain, 41% in Hungary, 39% in Holland and 38% in Italy.

“These seven countries combined account for well over half of the EU’s population,” writes Gerstenfeld, the recipient of the Journal for the Study of Anti-Semitism’s 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award. “The EU counts over 500 million inhabitants. Of these, more than 80%, or 400 million people are sixteen years or older. One may assume — in view of the University of Bielefeld study — that in the entire EU the average percentage of those holding demonic beliefs about Israel is at least 40%. Thus, one obtains a figure of well over 150 million EU citizens who consider Israel a genocidal nation.”

There are other studies, conducted in recent years in individual European countries, which come to similar results, Gerstenfeld writes. For instance, he quotes a 2011-2012 survey that found that 38% of Norwegians “agree with the statement that Israel behaves toward the Palestinians in the same way that the Nazis acted toward the Jews.”

The EU’s working definition of anti-Semitism includes “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” which is why Gerstenfeld speaks of 150 million anti-Semites in the EU.

‘I can well believe that there are 150 million idiots in the European Union. But I don’t necessarily assume they’re all anti-Semites’

But according to Hebrew University professor Robert Wistrich, one of the world’s leading authorities on anti-Semitism, such conclusions are invalid. The fact that 40% of 8,000 people said that Israel is exterminating Palestinians does not prove that 150 million people are anti-Semites, he argued.

“A person who says [that Israel is waging a war of extermination against Palestinians] is a) a complete idiot, b) doesn’t know what a war of extermination looks like and c) doesn’t know the first thing about the Holocaust or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It doesn’t tell me he’s an anti-Semite; it tells me he’s a bloody fool and a complete ignoramus,” said Wistrich, who directs the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. “And I can well believe that there are 150 million idiots in the European Union. But I don’t necessarily assume they’re all anti-Semites.”

On the other hand, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said the idea of 150 million European anti-Semites neither surprises nor shocks him.

“I think the statistics that are quoted are alarming; they’re not alarmist. They’re deeply troubling,” he said about Gerstenfeld’s thesis. “If we’re going to be honest with ourselves collectively, the statistics that are quoted are probably closer to the reality than many of us really want to admit.”

Most Europeans do not think about Israel and the Jews on a daily basis as they have other worries, said Cooper, who was interviewed for Gerstenfeld’s book. The only time they hear about the topic is in news reports that – often unfairly – take Israel to task for its policies and actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, he argued. “The infection in many ways is taking hold. That doesn’t mean it’s irreversible. That doesn’t mean it’s overwhelming. But left unaddressed, it will only get worse,” Cooper said.

Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)
Robert Wistrich (photo credit: courtesy)

Even Wistrich, who refused to accept the number of 150 million European anti-Semites, paints a very bleak picture. All over the continent, the climate of opinion is “very, very hostile to Israel, and it automatically affects Jews,” he said. “The only Jews it does not affect are those who very loudly and ostentatiously denounce Israel. For the time being they’re okay, but that too will change eventually… It’s an irreversible trend at this point in time.”

Other scholars warn against such a “defeatist” position. “While it may be fallacious to think that investing massively in dissemination of evidence-based information about Israel could have a lasting effect on Israel’s image, we should not necessarily take for granted that because of the endemic anti-Semitism, Europeans are incapable of changing their minds and becoming more sympathetic to Israel,” Dov Maimon, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, wrote recently in a confidential paper to Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry. “The theory that Europe is lost discourages friends of Israel in Europe and beyond from doing anything, and it shrinks the international resources available to invest in pro-Israel activity in Europe.”

Winfried Kretschmann, the prime minister of the German state of Baden-Württemberg and president of the Bundesrat (Federal Council), said that significant anti-Semitism still exists everywhere in Europe. “This is frightening, and we need to take it very seriously,” he told The Times of Israel in Jerusalem last week. However, studies such as the one quoted by Gerstenfeld should “not be overrated,” he warned.

The president of the German Bundesrat, Winfried Kretschmann, with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, June 26, 2013. (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)
The president of the German Bundesrat, Winfried Kretschmann, with President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, June 26, 2013. (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/Flash90)

“We can’t always react with the highest alarmism to such surveys. That won’t help us either. Rather, we need to educate people and present them with the facts. Being appalled doesn’t bring us any further; we need to examine how such prejudices come into being,” he said. While anti-Semitism and racism should be opposed, there is no need to panic, Kretschmann suggested. In Germany, he added, anti-Semitism “is not present in the heart of society,” and there are no major political parties that would accept any anti-Jewish positions. Whenever anti-Semitism rears it ugly head, it is “forcefully confronted,” he asserted.

Has anti-Semitism gone up or down in the last 12 months?

Yet according to an annual survey by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry and the Moshe Kantor database for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University, 2012 has seen “a considerable escalation” of violent acts against Jews in Europe.

The number of violent and vandalistic acts against Jewish individuals, institutions, and private property increased by 30%, which followed two years of slow decline after a peak in 2009, according to the study. Today, the situation is especially worrisome in Hungary, Greece, Ukraine, and France, the researchers lamented.

EU diplomats contacted for this article refused to comment on the record. In private conversations, however, some of them said they were “surprised” and “appalled” at hearing statistics suggesting there might be 150 million European anti-Semites. “This is the first time a study takes a representative survey and turns it into absolute numbers. That’s an unusual way of presenting it,” one confounded diplomat said.

The EU is finalizing it first-ever report on the Jewish people’s experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism, hate-motivated crime and discrimination, which surveyed Jews in nine member states and is scheduled to be published in October. At an international conference about combating anti-Semitism last month in Jerusalem, Sandra de Waele, the head of the political and press section at the EU’s delegation to Israel, presented a few preliminary results.

The study found, for instance, that more than one in four Jews claims to have “experienced anti-Semitic harassment at least once in the 12 months preceding the survey.” About a third of respondents had experienced “anti-Semitic harassment” over the past 5 years and 7% said they had experienced “some form of physical attack or threats in the last 5 years.” Between 40% and 50% of respondents in Belgium, France, and Hungary said they had considered emigrating because they no longer felt safe, the study found.

“The European Commission will continue to make it clear to the relevant national authorities that they must strongly condemn any xenophobic and racist behavior and actively fight against it with all means at their disposal,” de Waele said. “Within its powers under the [EU] treaties and in line with the relevant European legislation… the Commission will continue to fight anti-Semitism when it manifests itself in the media and public life.”

Portrait of Hungarian lawmaker of the Jobbik party, Marton Gyongyosi (depicted with a Hitler mustache), at the protest called Mass Demonstration Against Nazism in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, Sunday, December 2 (photo credit: AP/MTI, Laszlo Beliczay)
Portrait of Hungarian far-right lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi (depicted with a Hitler mustache), at a mass protest against Nazism in Budapest, December 2, 2012. (photo credit: AP/MTI, Laszlo Beliczay)

For many Jews fighting anti-Semitism, such statements are laudable but insufficient. Wistrich, the Hebrew University scholar, for example, says that the atmosphere in Europe has become so polluted with hatred that Jews will not be able to stay there much longer.

“Any clear-sighted and sensible Jew, who has a sense of history, would understand that this is the time to get out,” he said, adding that, in two to three decades, the Jews’ history in postwar Europe will have come to an end. “It’s finished,” he said. “It’s a slow death.” The many efforts to counter anti-Semitism are important yet Sisyphean in that there is no chance for them to overcome the ever-strengthening forces of hatred, he said.

“These trends are far more powerful than people even begin to understand,” Wistrich said. “In that respect I’m a fatalist.”

At the same time, he asserted, the Jewish people will certainly survive the current wave of Jew-hatred. “We’ll overcome it. The anti-Semitism will go down, eventually, for a while, and then it will come up again, for new reasons and new circumstances. And we have to accept that.”


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