They sang “La Marseillaise,” France’s rousing national anthem, on a gray day in the recently desecrated Jewish cemetery in the Alsace village of Quatzenheim, where 96 gravestones were spray-painted last month with Nazi slogans.
The gathering Sunday of hundreds wanting to mark their disgust at the desecration was somber.
And it was made even more mournful by news of another act of vandalism a day earlier in nearby Strasbourg, where anti-Semites vandalized a memorial marking the site of a synagogue that was was razed by the Hitler Youth in September 1940, after the region was annexed by Germany’s Third Reich.
“Who would have thought we would go back to situations that my parents experienced, that I didn’t experience at all,” a middle-aged man told reporters at the cemetery. “No, I didn’t think it could come back,” he added sorrowfully.
Somberness was seamed with fear at the remembrance event.
That is not an unusual mixture of feelings these days for Europe’s Jewish communities, which are facing an alarming resurgence in anti-Semitism, from attacks on Jewish buildings and cemetery vandalism to social-media taunting and bullying of Jewish lawmakers, journalists and business people as well as physical attacks.
In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orban has been accused of of playing up anti-Semitic stereotypes in its targeting of Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.
In December, a European Union study found hundreds of Jews in a dozen member states reported being physically or verbally abused in 2018. Over a third of 16,000 Jews polled say they avoid attending Jewish events out of fear of a possible attack. Ninety percent of respondents said anti-Semitism is growing.
Even more alarming for Europe’s Jews is that anti-Semitic prejudice and abuse has burst out from the far-right fringe where it has generally been confined since 1945 and is shared by left wing populists. Some analysts fear that as ordinary people are exposed to more openly expressed anti-Semitism across the political spectrum they too will start adopting similar intolerance.
French president Emmanuel Macron last month in the wake of the vandalism at Quatzenheim, and following Yellow Vest protesters baiting a prominent Jewish intellectual during a demonstration in Paris, vowed to “fight anti-Semitism in all its forms,” saying anti-Semitism is “the antithesis of Europe.” But as reports mount from Britain to Poland of a resurfacing of anti-Semitism, many of Europe’s Jews are asking whether it is the antithesis — or something so deep in the weave of a Continent, where anti-Semitism can be traced back to medieval times, that it can never be unpicked.
Getting to the root of the issue
Many Jews in France, home to Western Europe’s largest Jewish community, numbering more than half-a-million, are drawing the conclusion that it cannot be and they are selling up and leaving; thousands have emigrated to Israel in recent years. Between 2017 and 2018, there was a 74 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France, according to French authorities.
Jews in other EU countries also say they are thinking of joining the exodus. More than one third of Jewish respondents to a survey by the EU say they have considered fleeing the Continent, which is home to an estimated 2.4 million Jews. In Germany there has been a 60 percent uptick in anti-Semitic incidents and harassment.
There is no consensus about why there has been a resurfacing of Europe’s centuries’ old pathology of Jew hatred. Some point to an overall climate of hate which is seeing anyone deemed different or foreign being targeted, arguing that Jews are just one of many minorities subject to abuse by extremists in ‘real life’ as well as on social media platforms.
But with the Holocaust, which saw the Nazis systematically slaughter six million Jews, weighing grimly on Europe’s recent past that explanation strikes some as inadequate, especially considering the efforts undertaken by authorities since 1945 to dispel persistent blood-libels, poisonous myths and old stereotyping of Jews underpinning anti-Semitism.
A former British chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has said that the sources of anti-Semitism are protean but deeply rooted in European history, saying that Jews have been hated both for being rich and poor, loathed for either keeping themselves apart or for assimilating, and hated for being at the forefront of Communism but also because they have been leading capitalists.
Some place the roots in medieval culture; others in conspiratorial thinking about powerful Jews having too much influence in the media, finance and politics; and yet others see the uptick being less connected with the past and more linked to anti-Zionism and disapproval of Israeli policy towards Palestinians, overlapping with Muslim animosity towards the Jewish state.
Francis Bloch, president of Quatzenheim’s cemetery, says those who link the current wave of anti-Semitism to animosity towards Israel are mistaken. He has said Israel is being used as an excuse, arguing current anti-Semitism “hides behind an anti-Zionist discourse.”
That appears to be the impression of eight British lawmakers who resigned last month from Britain’s Labour Party, the country’s main opposition party. They complained that since the 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn, a far left anti-Zionist who has shared platforms with Holocaust deniers, as party leader, Jewish Labour lawmakers have been subjected to vilification and a campaign of anti-Semitic harassment involving taunts and slurs from party members as well as threats of physical violence.
While they acknowledge that some of the biggest incidents of anti-Semitic abuse have emerged from fierce debates about Israel, they also say that anti-Zionism has morphed too easily into obvious anti-Semitism and the old stereotyping.
Luciana Berger, a Jewish lawmaker who quit, said the party had become “institutionally anti-Semitic.” She and others say Corbyn and his far left followers have stoked anti-Semitism by pushing, among other tropes, virulent conspiracy theories about “Jewish” financiers manipulating World affairs.
That view is shared by prominent British sociologist David Hirsh, a veteran Labour Party member who this year quit in disgust at what he sees as a failure by Corbyn to address anti-Semitism. In a 2017 book called “Contemporary Left Antisemitism,” Hirsh plotted what he sees as a mainstreaming of anti-Semitism thinking on the left of the political spectrum since the 1980s, with anti-Zionism spilling-over into old-fashioned Jew-baiting.
He says Europe’s Jews are now threatened from both the populist left as well as its far right counterpart, caught in a pincer movement of hate.