The surge of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, during the recent conflict in Gaza was both shocking and yet not surprising.
The shocking side of the phenomenon lay in certain manifestations of the hatred. Most egregious in this respect were the two incidents in Paris following an anti-Israel protest, in which demonstrators tried to invade two synagogues where Jews were meeting.
While the efforts failed, it was noted that this incident was the first of its kind in France since the horrors of the Holocaust.
Shocking as well was the appearance of vicious anti-Semitic signs brandished during anti-Israel protests in various cities across Germany. The fact that such things happened in of all places, Germany, is particularly hard to stomach.
These and other egregious incidents, however shocking, must be seen in the context of developments that have evolved over the last decade and more.
Anti-Semitism shares with other forms of prejudice characteristics such as stereotyping and discrimination. What makes it unique, however, and explains many anomalies about it is the underlying assumption of the hard-core anti-Semite that Jews are not what they appear to be: that the Jew is secretive, conspiratorial, all-powerful, and poisonous.
This notion, with its roots going back many centuries, found its full expression in the fraudulent document, the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which purported to be the secret discussions of Jewish leaders in the final years of the 19th century revealing their plans to take over the world.
The idea of a secret Jewish global plot is the leitmotif for blaming Jews whenever society enters a period of crisis and anxiety.
As an individual in France conjectured recently about why there were attacks against Jews: “somehow, some Jews control politics, information, business and finance.… Jews, in general, only let you see what they want you to see.”
Ever since 9/11, anxiety has been a characteristic of the modern world. Al Qaeda terrorism, the Middle East conflict, and the world financial collapse created a perfect storm. Blaming Jews for 9/11, demonizing Israel for all Middle East problems, or attributing the recession to Jewish manipulation became all too common.
At the same time, a major inhibitor of anti-Semitism for decades -- shame about the Holocaust -- is eroding. As time moves on, as survivors pass away and new generations are more remote from World War II, the lessons of Auschwitz and where anti-Semitism can lead are weakening.
Add to this the corrosive effect of year after year of withering attacks in some circles on the Jewish right of national self-determination and Israel as the achievement of that right, and it is no surprise that anti-Semitism has resurged in an unprecedented manner since World War II.
When Germans organized a rally to protest against this summer’s sudden outbreak of anti-Semitism, only 5,000 people attended, a disappointing number and much lower than past expressions.
While it is not totally clear why so few participated, it is reasonable to assume that many thought it would be viewed as supporting Israel in its war in Gaza.
Now questions are even being raised as to whether Jews have a future in Europe. A recent poll of Jews in European countries indicates that many are now fearful they may be victims of anti-Semitism in the coming year. Amid these growing concerns, however, there are some bright spots. Most significant was the response of government leaders. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel made an appearance and spoke forcefully at her country’s rally against anti-Semitism.
Other leaders, such as the French president, the British prime minister and the Italian prime minister condemned the outbursts of anti-Semitism and vowed to protect their Jewish communities.
People often ask me: is it happening all over again? I, of course, know what they mean when they ask that question -- Is it the 1930s and 1940s all over again?
My answer is that as severe as the resurgence of anti-Semitism is -- I’ve called it the worst since World War II – it’s not helpful to compare it to that uniquely horrible period.
After all, let's never forget that that was a time when, tragically, a party committed to the destruction of the Jews gained control in the most powerful country in Europe. Eventually, that evil state power led to the murder of six million Jews and millions of others.
Today, as noted, European leaders are not only not the source of anti-Semitism, they have clearly stood up against it.
Still, there's plenty to be anxious about.
ADL's groundbreaking survey of global attitudes toward Jews showed that classic anti-Semitic stereotypes remained deeply embedded. With the exception of the Middle East, Eastern and Western Europe were the areas of the world harboring the strongest anti-Semitic attitudes.
As if this was not discouraging enough, other factors on the ground make the situation in Europe look more ominous.
Incidents of violence against Jews are rising. In France, for example, recent years have witnessed significant attacks on individual Jews and Jewish institutions, highlighted by the brutal murders in Toulouse.
Moreover, the publics in many European countries are continuously exposed to a barrage of anti-Israel stories and commentary. So much so that it's hardly surprising that some of that translates into anti-Jewish activity. Criticism of Israel in itself is not necessarily anti-Semitism. But continuous exposure to such over the top condemnations makes anti-Semitism more likely.
Add to that the element of radicalism in parts of the Muslim communities in Europe, and it's not surprising that the Jews of Europe are uneasy.
We saw this nervousness come to the surface in a poll of European Jews in eight countries that was conducted before the Gaza war. The most telling result was that large percentages of Jews expected to be the target of an anti-Semitic incident in the coming year. And this was before the deterioration this summer.
While the survey did not go so far as to ask whether Jews have a future in Europe, that, too, has been on my mind.
My instincts, formed largely by stories of the Holocaust, tell me the Jews should get out.
Beyond my instincts, it all depends on how European governments succeed in integrating their growing Muslim populations. If they succeed and normalize the European Muslim situation, then I can see a future for Jews in Europe.
If they fail to do so, and Europe is way behind America in integrating diverse populations, then pessimism is the order of the day.
Two bad things are likely to happen. Muslim extremism will undoubtedly grow. With it will inevitably come more attacks on Jews and more insecurity for the community.
At the same time, a reaction, already in evidence, of anti-Muslim sentiment will grow significantly, providing support for extreme right wing parties.
This too, from an old perspective, will put normal Jewish life in jeopardy.
Nothing is inevitable, but there is plenty to worry about.
And what about America?
I am a believer in American exceptionalism, particularly with regard to Jewish life in this country. This is particularly so in the last five decades.
Life for Jews here has become the most positive of any diaspora community over 2,000 years. And yes, as we pointed out during our centennial year, we are proud of the role ADL has played in bringing about remarkable change and progress.
Today, when I look at the factors underlying the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe, the difference here remains profound.
ADL surveys of Americans over a period of years show far lesser strength of classic stereotypes about Jews. Still too high, but far less than the past and far less than Europe.
There still are significant numbers of incidents, but, overall, not of a kind that would lead American Jews to think they have anything less than a normal life in this country.
Anti-Israel sentiment and public discourse?
Problem areas exist, particularly on campuses and among mainstream Protestant groups. Still, the public and government bodies remain largely supportive.
The two areas that most challenge the comfort level of American Jews are the campuses and cyber-bullying.
Let's be clear: there are several thousand four- and two-year colleges in America and at most, Jews have normal college experiences. However, on a number of campuses, some 25 or 30, there is enough anti-Israel activity to make some Jews uneasy about their place.
ADL recently reported that this fall saw a significant increase of anti-Israel programs in campuses across the country. Whether this anti-Israel activity rises to the level of anti-Semitism or not, the fact that in some instances it has a negative impact on Jewish life on campus is disturbing.
We are working with university administrations and student groups to diminish the impact and combat hate. It is an ongoing struggle but one that at the same time should not be overstated.
Cyber-bullying of Jewish students is a concern as well. We are hearing more reports of this in lower and high schools around the country. It is a phenomenon that is of concern and one that we will continue to monitor. And we have the tools to help school administrators deal with the issue.
If the history of Jews in the world since World War II has been relatively benign, it is not only the shameful devastation of the Holocaust that has been a factor but the vital role as well of the United States.
As leader of the free world, as home to the largest Jewish community in the world, as the nation most associated with projecting democratic values, the U.S. has been there for the Jewish community when needed, whether it was the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, the security of Israel, the liberation of Syrian and Ethiopian Jews or the guaranteeing of safety for Jews in Europe and Latin America.
The impact of American leadership, whether through administrations or Congress, has been critical. Despite recent questioning of the U.S. commitment to that leadership role, the various branches of our government, including the section monitoring anti-Semitism at the State Department and the Congress itself have responded forcefully and publicly to the outpouring of anti-Semitism throughout the world.
Ultimately, the future of Jews in Europe may depend on how successful European Union governments are in integrating their Muslim populations.
If they succeed, the chances of minimizing Islamic extremism, a major source of attacks on Jews, increase significantly.
If they fail, and Europe is far behind America in integrating immigrant groups, then extremism is likely to grow within the Muslim communities and in the broader population, which will inevitably lead to greater support for extreme-right groups, a phenomenon that is also bad for the Jews of Europe.
For now, as it has always been, the most important need is for all good people to stand up and speak out. It isn't the 1930s all over again, but the growing manifestations of anti-Jewish hate are a serious and worrying development.