Europe's Anti-Semitism Problem Needs a Reckoning

By Sharon Nazarian | Senior Vice President for International Affairs
  • February 20, 2018
    This article originally appeared in

It’s been just over three years since an Islamic extremist walked into a kosher supermarket in Paris and murdered four Jews. We had hoped that the attack, coming on the heels of so many others targeting Jews in France, including the horrific 2012 murder of a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in Toulouse, would be enough of a shock to the French Republic that it would mark a turning point in that country’s awareness of the problem of anti-Semitism. And it was.

The Paris killings were the third time in four years that French Islamic extremists had carried out terror attacks on Jewish institutions, resulting in numerous deaths. In 2012, Mohamed Merah shot three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse. In 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen, opened fire on the Jewish museum in Brussels, just 50 miles from the open French-Belgian border, murdering four people.

Steps have been taken since then. Security has been stepped up at Jewish institutions, and government leaders are now more willing than ever before to speak out against anti-Semitism whenever it rears its ugly head. Police are actively monitoring and protecting Jewish community institutions, which now in many cases have 24-hour police protection. But there’s much more that needs to be done to ensure the safety and security of the French Jewish community and to ensure a vibrant future for Jews across Europe.

France has come a long way in recognizing the problem. The wave of anti-Semitism in France that began in 2000 was at the time considered by French public opinion and French authorities as simply an importing of the Arab-Israeli conflict into their country and therefore effectively not their responsibility.

It was only after a series of repeated attacks, and the 2006 kidnapping and murder of Ilan Halimi at the hands of a band of Islamic terrorist thugs, that the country was able to come to a fuller reckoning. Halimi was targeted because his kidnappers believed that because he was Jewish, he was therefore wealthy and his family could afford to pay a hefty ransom. When they found out no money was coming, they tortured him and left him for dead in the woods outside of Paris.

Earlier this month, after an eight-year-old boy was beaten up in Sarcelles by a group of teenagers who singled him out because he was wearing a kippah, it was reassuring to hear so many French public officials speak out forcefully. French President Emmanuel Macron immediately condemned the incident, saying any attack on a citizen was an attack on the entire republic. The Interior Minister released a statement condemning the attack in the “strongest terms.”

But this latest attack didn’t come in a vacuum. It is the latest in a disturbing pattern of violence against France’s Jewish population this year. And it is part of a trend of rising anti-Semitic attacks and more subtle forms of discrimination across the European continent as well.

This trend is so pernicious because it's coming from all sides: from the right in the form of classical anti-Semitism, from the left in the guise of criticism of Israel, and from Islamic extremists who too often target Jews.

The good news is many European governments have seen the writing on the wall. Two weeks ago, I had the honor of meeting with members of the Jewish communities in Rome, Brussels and Paris and with officials at the European Commission and European Parliament. I also attended a meeting of an intergovernmental conference on anti-Semitism in Rome, where many European governments were represented, and each clearly recognized the severity of the problem and committed to take action.

I heard many similar stories. Everyone was ringing alarm bells. The sense of insecurity I perceived from some was, frankly, disheartening. This was the same week that reports were issued in Britain and France showing severe increases in anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, with our partner organization in the UK, the CST, reporting historically high numbers.

We heard shocking stories that gave rise to questions about whether Jews have a future in Europe, like the Jan. 10 attack targeting a 15-year-old teenager in Sarcelles, who had her face slashed by an unidentified assailant. She was wearing the uniform of her private Jewish school when the attack happened outside during lunch break.

In Austria, a man yelled “Heil Hitler” at a rabbi and his family during a visit to a concentration camp. In Belgium, the president of the community lamented the outlawing of kosher slaughter; in Denmark, efforts to outlaw ritual circumcision are gathering steam with a petition in parliament. And in Poland, the draft law on Holocaust speech — deeply problematic in and of itself — unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitic comments in Polish media, including the statement from one commentator that the death camps should not be called “Polish camps” but “Jewish camps.”

Taken together, the conditions that lead to insecurity in the Jewish community clearly are rising: violence, restrictions on religious freedom, and hate in the streets and online. This sense of insecurity has led some to leave, others to doubt the future of the Jewish community in Europe, and others to re-double their efforts to combat those conditions.

ADL is squarely in the “re-double” camp. We’re working with our interlocutors across the continent to find methods of reversing these trends, whether through raising awareness among law enforcement, through our efforts combating online hate, and joining forces with others who help expose extremism and respond to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias.

There’s still much work to be done, but our goal should be to protect Jewish life in Europe and to ensure that all Jewish communities across Europe are adequately shielded from anti-Semitism. This will benefit not only Jews, but all Europeans. Perhaps Isil Cachet, director of the Council of Europe’s Office of the Commissioner on Human Rights, put it best when she said that the danger of losing Jewish life in Europe is not only to the Jewish communities themselves, but also to the richness and diversity of all societies.

Jews should be able to live openly and freely as Jews in their own societies. On the continent that experienced the Holocaust, we should expect nothing less.