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Anti-Semitism in the European Union: Analysis of the Report

(Updated December 2003)

According to some observers, a new wave of anti-Semitism is sweeping across Europe; many are even speaking of the worst anti-Semitic wave since 1945. The latter claim is historically inaccurate. Above all directly after the war, in 1946, and in the course of the Stalinist “purges” in the early 1950s there were far more violent anti-Semitic excesses, persecution and discrimination. Antony Lerman, former Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, has correctly stressed, “that it is wrong to think that increases in incidents must mean an overall worsening of the anti-Semitic climate”. Indeed, since 1945 there have been repeated waves of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe (such as the graffiti wave of 1959/60, waves between 1990 and 1992 as well as waves tied to the periodic flare-ups in the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1967, 1973 and, above all, 1982), whereby concrete causes could not be given for these outbreaks in every case, nor had they resulted in a long-term increase in anti-Semitism. If, apart from incidents, further indicators are selected, such as anti-Jewish attitudes, the electoral success of far-right extremist parties espousing anti-Semitism, the membership numbers of right-wing extremist organisations, social and legal discrimination of Jews etc., the picture becomes far more differentiated – one that does not indicate a general increase in anti-Semitism and, furthermore, turns out to be different across the EU Member States. If we speak of a wave of anti-Semitism, we primarily mean incidents for which, on the basis of contagion effects, such a wave-like and cyclical course is typical.

The fact that a rise in anti-Semitic activities is clearly observable in most of the EU Member States since the beginning of the so-called al-Aqsa Intifada, which increased in frequency and the intensity of their violence parallel to the escalation in the Middle East conflict in April/May 2002, points to a connection between events in the Middle East with criticism of Israel’s politics on the one hand and mobilisation of anti-Semitism on the other. According to an Anti-Defamation League survey, almost two-thirds of Europeans (62%) believe “that the recent outbreak of violence against Jews in Europe is a result of anti-Israel sentiment and not traditional anti-Semitic or anti-Jewish feelings.” The international dimension of the problem was clearly evident as Shimon Peres, Israel’s Foreign Minister, told EU colleagues in Valencia in April 2002 that he saw a link between the growing anti-Semitism in Europe and the Union’s tilt towards the Palestinians. He added: “The issue is very sensitive in Israel (...). We ask for memory.” The Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Piqué rejected this criticism: “Please don’t confuse anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of policies of the current Israeli government.” Peres’ critical remark and the reply given by the European Foreign Ministers indicates that the core issue in this public conflict was the political question as to when does anti-Israeli criticism assume anti-Semitic characteristics and whether reproaches of anti-Semitism are being used as part of an attempt to silence criticism of Israeli policies. All NFP Reports point to this problem, one that was also discussed publicly in all countries and was an essential point of dispute in discussions; namely how to draw a clear distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli government’s policies towards the Palestinians – even if it is extremely sharp.

While it is certainly correct to view anti-Semitism as part of racism, at the same time it possesses very specific traits. As almost all of the reports emphasise, Jews in the European Union are well integrated socially, economically and culturally. Thus, the typical motives of xenophobia are hardly of consequence for the Jews (fear of competition for jobs, linguistic and cultural differences of migrants, external appearance). Instead, Jews are imagined to be a national and international influential group who allegedly exert a bad influence on or even steer politics, the economy and the media, which is a way of expressing the old anti-Semitic prejudice of hidden Jewish power. Furthermore, from within the culture of the Christian West, traditional historical anti-Judaist and anti-Semitic prejudices are again and again liable to be reactivated. On the level of accusations levelled against Jews, traditional motives prevail (see below). Perception of the Jews as victims of National Socialism is very strong, making them a preferred target for all “revisionist/deniers/negationists” and right-wing extremists. Anti-Semitic offenders make use of National Socialist symbols; but also the German language itself is used in non-German speaking countries (expressions such as “Juden raus!”) so as to refer affirmatively to the National Socialist persecution of the Jews.

A further aspect that needs to be noted is that the local Jewish population is closely associated with the state of Israel and its politics. It can be said that the native Jews have been made “hostages” of Israeli politics. Here anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and Anti-Zionist motives are mixed together. What is certainly quite new is the particular connection between anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism made in the Arab and Muslim world, so that anti-Semitism, due to its connection with a concrete political conflict, varies greatly with its escalation and de-escalation. That anti-Semitic offenders in some cases are drawn from Muslim minorities in Europe – whether they be radical Islamist groups or young males of North African descent – is certainly a new development for most Member States, one that offers reason for concern for European governments and also the great majority of its citizens. As members of the Arab-Muslim minorities in Europe are themselves target of racist and Islamophobic attitudes, there arises the precarious situation of a conflict that is primarily motivated by foreign affairs but played out on the domestic front, a conflict in which the members of one minority discriminate against another minority group.

Forms of anti-Semitic prejudice

Let us first of all look at the anti-Semitic prejudices and the groups expressing them. The range of motives stretches from racist to conspiratorial-oriented and religious prejudices; but Anti-Zionist notions, often coupled with anti-American patterns, were also activated. Anti-Zionism here is to be seen as a form of anti-Semitism, because Zionism is described by the extreme right, the extreme left and also by parts of Arab-Muslim circles as the evil of the world and therefore can be used easily as a wanted scapegoat. This implies the fight against the existence of Israel.

1) The dominating motive of contemporary anti-Semitism is still that of a Jewish world conspiracy, i.e. the assumption that Jews are in control of what happens in the world, whether it be through financial or media power, whether it be the concealed political influence mainly exerted on the USA, but also on European countries. This basic assumption is applied to explain very different phenomena. Here the Holocaust denial assumes a central role in European right-wing extremism. It is purported that the Holocaust has never taken place and that the Jewish side, exploiting their victim status, use the “Auschwitz lie” to apply moral pressure on mainly European governments (restitution, support for Israeli policies), but also to influence US policy towards Israel. Furthermore, the thesis of the “Auschwitz lie” naturally also negates the assertion that the foundation of the state of Israel was historically necessary in order to create a secure homeland for the survivors of the Holocaust and Jews in general.

Precisely at this point, extreme right-wing propaganda becomes employable ideologically for radical Islamist groups in their struggle against Israel, for the victim status and Israel’s right to exist are challenged by the “Auschwitz lie”. Here a learning process has taken place in which “revisionist” thought, that was propagated very early and very prominently by French intellectuals (lastly by Roger Garaudy), was adopted by some people in the Arab world. The influence of these ideas is supported by a number of Western Holocaust deniers like Jürgen Graf, Gerd Honsik, Wolfgang Fröhlich, who fled persecution in their homelands and found asylum in Arab countries, and last but not least by Roger Garaudy who was hailed as a hero throughout the Middle East when he faced persecution by the French government for inciting racial hatred. Via Arab-language media (newspapers and satellite TV) in Europe these notions reach in turn a small section of the Muslim population in European countries.

2) Reception of another European source has also influenced their conception of the world, namely the infamous anti-Semitic fake the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion”, which describes how a group of Jews apparently hold the thread of world politics in their hands. With help of this conspiracy theory explanations are found for why the politics of the United States and most of the European countries display a pro-Israeli bias in the Middle East conflict. A current example of this conspiratorial thought is offered by the attacks of 11 September 2001, which in some Arab newspapers (e.g. in Jordan, Egypt and Syria, but also in the London and Saudi-Arabian editions of Al-Hayat ) is presented as an action initiated by the Israeli secret service or even the Israeli Government itself, who were seeking to prevent the establishment of closer ties between the US and the Arab world so as to gain a free hand for their aggressive plans against the Palestinians. This rumour has also spread through Europe, where it found great resonance above all in Greece.

3) Following 11 September 2001, some hold that Islamist terrorism is a natural consequence of the unresolved Middle East conflict, for which Israel alone is held responsible. They ascribe to Jews a major influence over America’s allegedly biased pro-Israel policies. This is where anti-American and anti-Semitic attitudes converge and conspiracy theories over “Jewish world domination” flare up again.

4) The supposed close ties between the US and Israel give rise to a further motive for an anti-Semitic attitude, one that is also to be found amongst the far left. Due to its occupation policy, sections of the peace movement, opponents of globalisation as well as some Third World countries – as the World Conference on Racism in Durban 2001 had shown – view Israel as aggressive, imperialistic and colonialist. Taken on its own terms this is naturally not to be viewed as anti-Semitic; and yet there are exaggerated formulations which witness a turn from criticism into anti-Semitism, for example when Israel and the Jews are reproached for replicating the most horrific crimes of the National Socialists – apartheid, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, genocide. In the form of Anti-Zionism it could be said that the historical demonising of the Jews is transferred to the state of Israel (striving for world power, the vindictiveness and cruelty of “an eye for an eye”, the greed of capitalism and colonialism). In this way traditional anti-Semitism is translated into a new form, less deprived of legitimacy, whose employment today in Europe could extend more and more into the political mainstream. Thus, the issue at stake in judging statements critical of Israel is whether a double standard is being set, i.e. Israel is evaluated differently from other states, whether false historical parallels are drawn (comparison with the National Socialists), and whether anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes are used to characterise Israeli politics.

5) The United States of America is also faced with sharp attacks from sections of the peace movement, opponents of globalisation and some Third World countries as well as from sections of the extreme right as a world power categorised as imperialistic and as the protector of Israel. For example, especially in German speaking countries various political extremists use the word “East coast” (“Ostküste”) as synonymous to a supposed total Jewish influence on the United States and their policy. Sympathisers to these extremists immediately understand the meaning of this word without having to get any background information. Therefore they may use it without being afraid of any state persecution according to anti-discrimination laws. This makes clear how anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are sometimes very closely tied together.

6) While the historical victim status of Jews continues to be acknowledged, for many Europeans it no longer transfers to support of Israel. Israeli policies toward the Palestinians provide a reason to denounce Jews as perpetrators, thereby qualifying their moral status as victims that they had assumed as a consequence of the Holocaust. The connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment lies in this opportunity for a perpetrator-victim role reversal.

7) The fact that the Middle East conflict is taking place in the Holy Land of the Christians has lead in various countries to a revitalisation of anti-Judaist motives by church leaders and confessional as well as some liberal newspapers. This takes the form of current events (the conflict over the Church of Nativity, children and youths as the victims of military action) being brought into connection with events in the New Testament, which historically have clear anti-Jewish connotations (Massacre of the Innocents, crucifixion of Christ). Such phenomena are particularly virulent in Italy, but are also present in Protestant countries such as Denmark or the United Kingdom.

Perpetrators and kinds of anti-Semitic activities

For many anti-Semitic incidents, above all naturally for the violent and other punishable offences, it is typical that the perpetrators attempt to remain anonymous. Thus, in many cases the perpetrators could not be identified, so an assignment to a political or ideological camp must remain open. Nevertheless, looking at the perpetrators identified or at least identifiable with some certainty, it can be said that the anti-Semitic incidents in the monitoring period were committed above all by right-wing extremists and radical Islamists or young Muslims; but also that anti-Semitic statements came from the pro-Palestinian left as well as politicians and citizens from the political mainstream.

Specific forms of action can be assigned to each of these sections.

– Desecration of synagogues, cemeteries, swastika graffiti, threatening and insulting mail as well as the denial of the Holocaust as a theme networking various groupings, particularly in the Internet – these are the forms of action to be primarily assigned to the far-right spectrum.

– Physical attacks on Jews and the desecration and destruction of synagogues were acts mainly committed by young Muslim perpetrators mostly of an Arab descent in the monitoring period. Many of these attacks occurred during or after pro-Palestinian demonstrations, which were also used by radical Islamists for hurling verbal abuse. In addition, Islamic circles were responsible for placing anti-Semitic propaganda in the Internet and in Arab-language media.

– Anti-Semitism on the streets also appears to be expressed by young culprits without any specific anti-Semitic prejudices, so that “many incidents are committed just for the fun of it”. In the view of the sociologist Paul Iganski, in many cases – at least in the UK – represent a type of “thrill hate crimes”, “likely to be committed by a group of young offenders, outside their neighbourhood”, a type of action we are familiar with in racist attacks in other European countries and which Iganski views as “part of the repertoire of routine incivilities and antisocial behaviour prevalent in the street, shopping malls, cinemas, (...) and other public space”.

– In the left-wing scene anti-Semitic remarks were to be found mainly in the context of pro-Palestinian and anti-globalisation rallies and commentaries critical of Israel in the respective media during the monitoring period.

– More difficult to record and to evaluate than the “street-level violence” against Jews is the elite or salon anti-Semitism as it is manifested “in the media, university common rooms, and at dinner parties of the chattering classes”. The development in some EU countries suggests that today it appears legitimate, sometimes even en vogue to take an anti-Israeli stance. While such a standpoint is legitimate politically, in many cases a boundary is transgressed in the direction of anti-Semitic prejudices, for example when a politician in Germany used the concept “war of extermination” to characterise the actions of the Israeli army, thus equating it with the war of extermination undertaken by the German army against the Soviet Union and European Jewry. In this way anti-Semitic modes of thought can increasingly creep into public and private discourses and are seldom picked out and criticised by society, politicians and the press.

– During a wave of anti-Semitism like the one we could observe in April and May 2002, in which a heated public debate took place on Israeli politics and the boundary between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, persons become motivated to voice their latent anti-Semitic attitudes (mostly in the form of telephone calls and insulting letters) who are not politically active and do not belong to one of the ideological camps sketched above. Opinion polls prove that in some European countries a large percentage of the population harbours anti-Semitic attitudes and views, but that these usually remain latent.

The situation in the EU Member States

The difficulty in classifying anti-Semitic incidents makes it impossible to provide a quantitative comparison of the anti-Semitic manifestations in the EU Member States. The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that in some countries incidents are systematically recorded by state organs, while others reveal a high level of monitoring by NGOs, or indeed in a third group the collation of information proved to be extremely difficult. We thus have to assume that some EU Member States, due to their history and the significance anti-Semitism had and still has in their country, pay far greater attention to monitoring anti-Semitic incidents as others.

The extent and kind of anti-Semitic incidents vary from country to country. While a constant pattern valid for all countries is not recognisable, some constellations are evident. Due to the plurality of the actors and motives, the distribution of anti-Semitic manifestations only partially corresponds to the distribution employed in the annual “Anti-Semitism Reports” from the 1990s. They thus show hardly any connection with the spread of anti-Semitic attitudes and views in the population as a whole.

A rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents has been noticeable for almost all of the fifteen Member States since the start of the “Al-Aqsa-Intifada”. In the monitoring period this rise reached a climax in the period between the end of March and mid-May, running parallel to the escalation in the Middle East conflict. This leads to the conclusion that the occasion for anti-Semitic attacks was in this case triggered by a foreign event, one that however exerted a varying impact in the individual Member States.

There are a number of EU Member States, namely Ireland and Luxembourg, where anti-Semitic incidents in general seldom occur and were hardly evident in the monitoring period. At most threatening letters were sent to the Israeli consulate or to local Jews. The same applies to Portugal and Finland, where such threatening letters and telephone calls were evident and where there was one attack each on a synagogue, respectively.

On the other hand, a group of countries was identified with rather severe anti-Semitic incidents. Here, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK have to be mentioned. They witnessed numerous physical attacks and insults directed against Jews and vandalism of Jewish institutions (synagogues, shops, cemeteries). In these countries the violent attacks on Jews and/or synagogues were reported to be committed often by members of the Muslim-Arab minority, frequently youths (see reports on these countries). The observers agree that these are disaffected young men who themselves are frequently targets of racist attacks, i.e. here the social problems of these migrant minorities are obviously an essential factor for their propensity to violence and susceptibility to anti-Semitism. Far fewer anti-Semitic attacks committed by members of this group were evident in countries like Sweden and Denmark, where attacks – similarly to the Netherlands – were only seldom evident in the 1990s given general populations in which, according to polls, anti-Semitic attitudes are not widespread.

Other countries show a very specific expression of anti-Semitism. In Greece we find a series of cemetery and memorial desecrations, which point to a far-right background. Anti-Semitic/Anti-Zionist statements and sentiments were found in the mass media and were also expressed by some politicians and opinion leaders. Here the Greek foreign policy position perhaps plays a role; since the Second World War Greece has opposed Israel because of its alliance with Turkey. Spain offered a mixed picture where the traditional strong presence of neo-Nazi groups was evident alongside a series of attacks, with an Islamist background.

In Germany, where a large number of anti-Semitic offences have been registered annually since the 1990s, persons of Arab descent committed some of the few attacks on Jews in the monitoring period. Anti-Semitism manifested itself less in a higher number of attacks (between May-June there were no physical attacks) but more in the form of a flood of anti-Semitic letters to the Jewish Communities and prominent Jews sent by German citizens who by no means all belong politically to the far right. This was in part a reaction to a hefty political controversy (see the country report on Germany). The explosiveness in this controversy lay in how a well-known German politician and the Central Council of Jews stood opposed face to face, so that in the end all the political partners took a clear position against the FDP politician Jürgen Möllemann.

Italy showed a certain similarity with Germany; although no physical attacks were evident, there were threatening telephone calls, insulting letters, slogans and graffiti, whereby the perpetrators did not come from the Muslim population. However, particularly pronounced in Italy is a pro-Palestinian mobilisation within left-wing parties, organisations and newspapers, which in connection with public rallies partially took an anti-Semitic turn. From Austria no physical attacks were reported; verbal threats and insults were seldom. Anti-Semitic stereotypes in relation to Israel were found essentially in right-wing newspapers and amongst far-right groupings.

The countries can also be grouped together in another constellation when focus is switched to those actors who are present in the public discourse. In Italy, France, Spain and Sweden sections of the far left and Muslim groups unified to stage pro-Palestinian demonstrations. At some of these demonstrations anti-Semitic slogans and placards were to be seen and heard and some even resulted in attacks upon Jews or Jewish institutions. A similar trend was observed in the Netherlands, though without any great participation from the political left. In Finland, pro-Palestinian demonstrations passed without any anti-Semitic incidents. In Germany, and also less so in Austria, public political discourse was dominated by a debate on the link between Israeli policy in the Middle East conflict and anti-Semitism, a debate in which the cultural and political elite were involved, whereas the mobilisation of the extreme left remained low-key. In Germany the critical reporting of the media was also a topic for controversy, as it was also in the United Kingdom, where left-liberal papers (The Guardian and The Independent) were heavily criticised by Jewish representatives. In other countries such as Luxembourg, Ireland, Portugal, Denmark and Finland there was obvious no prominent public discussion on this subject.

The mass media

Some commentators discuss the possible influence of the mass media on an escalation of the number of anti-Semitic incidents. There is a connection seen between the sharp increase in anti-Semitic attacks in April 2002 and the events in Jenin at the end of March and in Bethlehem in April. Here the question at issue is whether this escalation was merely the result of the daily news reports on the violence in the Middle East, in the sense of an agenda-setting effect, or whether the reporting itself reveals an anti-Semitic bias. Judgement upon this is dependent on partisanship in the Middle East conflict. The Jewish communities regarded the one-sidedness, the aggressive tone of the reporting on Israeli policy in the Middle East conflict and references to old Christian anti-Jewish sentiments as problematic. The country reports (Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden) list some cases of anti-Semitic argument or stereotypes (cartoons) in the quality press, but as of yet no systematic media analyses are available. One study of the German quality press (see Germany) comes to the conclusion that the reporting concentrated greatly on the violent events and the conflicts and was not free of anti-Semitic clichés; at the same time though this negative view also applies to the description of the Palestinian actors. The report on Austria identified anti-Semitic allusions in the right-wing press. Here there is a need for further empirical studies. One study on the impact of the very critical reporting on the wave of right-wing extremist violence in Germany in the early 1990s concluded that the daily news coverage through television and the press had a “contagion effect” and contributed to a further escalation in violence; this though could not be said to be the case of the commentary-oriented background reports in the daily press. This means that the impact is not generated by the content of the reporting, which naturally evaluates the violence negatively, but rather from the massiveness and consonance of the overall media coverage. The intensive and consonant focus on events thus has a clear effect on the climate of opinion. In fact, those Europeans who followed media coverage of the events in the Middle East the closest were more likely to be sympathetic to the Palestinian case.

Openly anti-Semitic reporting is rather seldom in the European press, with the exception of the far-right spectrum. However, observers point to an “increasingly blatantly anti-Semitic Arab and Muslim media”, including audio tapes and sermons, in which the call is not only made to join the struggle against Israel but also against Jews across the world. Although leading Muslim organisations express their opposition to this propaganda, observers assume that its calling for the use of violence may exert a certain influence on readers and listeners.

Internet as an international action base

The Internet is named in almost all of the country reports as an important medium for anti-Semitic propaganda, precisely because it is suited to the international dissemination of anti-Semitism due to the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators. As the Internet represents an international medium, only those homepages have been included in the individual country reports, which have a direct relationship to the nationalist – mostly then far-right – spectrum. The international character of the medium itself allows only a trans-national assessment and so, correspondingly, a joint strategy in formulating and implementing counter measures. In addition, the dissemination of anti-Semitic thought via the Internet cannot be circumscribed to fit a specific period, for this worldwide transference of data is fast-moving, meaning that much of the information is accessible only for a short time or the relevant homepages are switched on and then off. Inherent to the medium, this is only seldom for political reasons. At the same time though, there are a whole series of homepages available, which are never or only seldom updated, but nevertheless are permanently present as a propaganda medium. The evaluation and monitoring of this organ for disseminating anti-Semitic stereotypes, particularly those with revisionist/denial and conspiracy theory content, must therefore be limited to a more general survey.

The Internet reflects a development observable since 2000, namely the networking of the extreme right scene via links with sections of the radical Islamist spectrum, some sites from anti-globalisation campaigners and from the anti-American far left. Since the end of the 1990s there has been a dramatic increase in the number of homepages present on the web from far-right groups and parties, which quite often also have ties to radical Islamic fundamentalists. Observers start from the assumption that there are some 3000 homepages with extreme rightist content on the web; in addition, there are discussion forums and chat rooms in which the corresponding body of thought is spread, mostly anonymously. Such groups create ideological ties, in particular by utilising the denial of the Holocaust as a component of anti-Semitic agitation, and build up a network. Revisionism is spread by European organisations such as the Belgian “Vrij historisch Onderzoek” (vho), the Swedish “Radio Islam”, the French “L’Association des Anciens Amateurs de Récits de Guerres et d’Holocaustes” (AAARGH), the Danish site “Patriot” or numerous homepages in German that are hosted in various countries. These are in turn linked to the entire international scene, i.e. the respective leading revisionist homepages in America, Australia and Canada are then accessible. Right-wing extremists have discovered how to conduct their war via the Internet, i.e. how to use “electronic warfare”. Such tactics have lead to state authorities warning of terrorist tendencies in the far-right spectrum. Furthermore, the potential for violence is fostered by the worst kinds of computer games. These are upgraded to a political weapon when neo-Nazis convert well-known apolitical games into malicious anti-Semitic hate campaigns.

In summary it can be said that the threatening nature of the situation, in particular for the Jewish communities, arose because in most of the countries monitored the increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks, committed frequently by young Arabs/Muslims and by far-right extremists, was accompanied by a sharp criticism of Israeli politics across the entire political spectrum, a criticism that in some cases employed anti-Semitic stereotypes. This parallel character arose out of the joint reference to the escalating situation in the Middle East; both phenomena, the attacks and the public discussion, have significantly receded since June 2002. In countries such as Denmark, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal and Finland there are only a few or no incidents known for the period after July 2002. In some Member States such as Belgium, France and Sweden the number of anti-Semitic incidents, including violent attacks and threatening phone calls, increased again in September and October, but it does not compare to the period monitored. Anti-Semitic leaflets, hate mail and phone calls were also reported in Germany and the United Kingdom. Factors which usually determine the frequency of anti-Semitic incidents in the respective countries, such as the strength and the degree of mobilisation extremist far-right parties and groupings can generate, have obviously not played the decisive role in the monitoring period.

Sources: C.R.I.F. - Released by the European Jewish Congress