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-Qaida 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.
Further context was the Anti-Defamation League’s groundbreaking Global 100 survey of anti-Semitic attitudes around the globe, released in May, which revealed that 26 percent of people worldwide harbor anti-Semitic sentiments. The strength of such attitudes underlay events of recent months and for some of us lessened the surprise element of the resurgence.
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.
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.
Abraham H. Foxman, a Holocaust survivor, is National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.