Europe’s racists sail new waters

Image of Simon Kuper

The Marais neighbourhood of Paris has experience of anti-Semitic rants. The Marais was very Jewish until 1942. Today there are plaques everywhere – in our local park, on our local school – commemorating murdered children.

Fashion designer John Galliano was arrested here in February after an alleged anti-Semitic rant in local bar La Perle. Galliano says he has “no recollection”. On September 8, a Parisian court delivers its verdict. Christian Dior has already sacked him. This is a familiar ritual. A famous person – Lars von Trier, Charlie Sheen, Silvio Berlusconi – makes anti-Semitic comments, and the world sits up. That’s because these remarks, especially when made in Europe, occur before a certain backdrop: those plaques on schools. The question is whether incidents such as Galliano’s reveal a disquieting reality. How strong is anti-Semitism in Europe now?

Polls suggest it is still powerful. This year, the German political foundation the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung surveyed intolerance among 8,000 Europeans in eight countries. Some highlights: 69 per cent of Hungarians agreed that “Jews have too much influence” in Hungary; most Portuguese and about a quarter of French, Germans and Britons said that “Jews in general do not care about anything or anyone but their own kind”; and 72 per cent of Poles and nearly half of Germans believed that “Jews try to take advantage of having been victims during the Nazi era.”

Two years ago the US’s Anti-Defamation League found that 31 per cent of European respondents blamed Jews for the global economic crisis. (Pollsters had interviewed 3,500 Europeans in seven countries.) In the same survey, 74 per cent of Spanish respondents said: “Jews have too much power in international financial markets”, and most Austrians said Jews still talked too much about the Holocaust. Reading this stuff, you wonder what you’d find if you monitored topical conversations in European bars beyond La Perle.

But anti-Semitism comes in strong and weak forms, and in Europe now it is mostly weak. Erik Bleich, political scientist at Middlebury College in Vermont, author of The Freedom to Be Racist?, says few Europeans today think about Jews much. Consequently, he explains, if you ask people about Jews, “you are likely to get answers that reveal more anti-Semitism than these people actually feel on most days”.

Bleich adds: “There are people who hold anti-Semitic views, but they generally don’t hold them intensely. They don’t fear that Jews are going to threaten their livelihood or culture or any of the things that people truly worry about.” Not even many anti-Semites today want Hitler back.

Bleich proposes other gauges for measuring anti-Semitism. For instance, can European politicians make anti-Semitic comments without suffering consequences (no), are there large anti-Semitic parties in Europe (none any more), do states have laws against anti-Semitism (yes), and can Jews in western Europe live integrated lives and hold high public office (yes). Also, every European country recognises the state of Israel. Pushing for a “two-state solution” in Israel, as Europeans do, hardly seems genocidal. These gauges suggest quite weak anti-Semitism.

For most European racists today, anti-Semitism is a habit rather like nose-picking: something best not done in public. In their hearts, these people dislike Jews, but as a rabbi friend of mine says, “Who cares what’s in their hearts? As long as they don’t act on it.”

Europe’s far-right parties provide further evidence of today’s weak anti-Semitism. They have all but ditched Jew-baiting. Marine Le Pen, new leader of France’s Front National, embraces Jews. The Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, who once lived on a kibbutz, loves Israel. Last year the Sweden Democrats, Belgian Filip Dewinter and Heinz-Christian Strache, head of Austria’s Freedom party, made a bizarre far-right pilgrimage to Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. Strache posed for photographers in an Israel Defense Forces combat jacket. (Some recalled previous pictures of Strache in paramilitary outfits, amid young neo-Nazis circa 1990.) Similarly, the American nativist leader Glenn Beck has been holding rallies in Israel.

In short, even far-rightists are ditching anti-Semitism, which was only tarnishing their brand. Bleich says, “The electorate is not really susceptible to the appeal that Jews are the primary threat to European society. In fact, coming out and saying that is generally the way to completely discredit yourself as a political leader.” Instead, far-right parties prefer to talk about their best-selling product: Islamophobia.

Galliano’s rant doesn’t betoken a strong re-emerging anti-Semitism in Europe. Rather, the ritual frenzy that follows anti-Semitic remarks is the way European society affirms its taboo against anti-Semitism. In fact, the very existence of this taboo may inspire people in creative professions to break it. In their jobs, these people get praised for work that’s “shocking” or “transgressive”. They sense that attacking Jews ticks those boxes. When they do it, and get a bad response, other potential miscreants are reminded to try anti-Semitism only in the safety of their own homes. By contrast, Islamophobia is still allowed out in public.

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