Europe has a more balanced debate than America about the extent and causes of today's antisemitism. But in both places we must defend a firewall between criticism of Israeli governments and antisemitismby Tony Judt / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Antisemitism today is a genuine problem. It is also an illusory problem. The distinction between the two is one of those contemporary issues that most divides Europe from the US. The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally recognised in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and the middle east. Thus the increase in anti-Jewish incidents in France or Belgium is correctly attributed to young men, frequently of Muslim or Arab background: the children or grandchildren of immigrants. This is a new and disconcerting challenge and it is far from clear how it should be addressed, beyond the provision of increased police protection. But it is not, as they say, “your grandfather’s antisemitism.”
As seen from the US, however, Europe—especially “old” or western Europe—is in the grip of recidivism: reverting to type, as it were. Rockwell Schnabel, the US ambassador to the EU, recently spoke of antisemitism in Europe “getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 1930s.” George Will, a prominent columnist in the Washington Post, wrote in May 2002 that antisemitism among Europeans “has become the second—and final?—phase of the struggle for a ‘final solution to the Jewish question.'” These are not isolated instances: among American elites as well as in the population at large, it is widely assumed that Europe, having learned nothing from its past, is once again awash in the old antisemitism.
The American view clearly reflects an exaggerated anxiety. The problem of antisemitism in Europe today is real, but it needs to be kept in proportion. According to America’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has worked harder than anyone to propagate the image of rampant European antisemitism, there were 22 significant antisemitic incidents in France in April 2002, and a further seven in Belgium; for the whole of that year the ADL catalogued 193 such incidents in France, varying from antisemitic graffiti on Jewish-owned shops in Marseille to Molotov cocktails thrown at synagogues in Paris, Lyon and elsewhere.