Grounds for Hope?

Yes, European elites routinely turn a blind eye to the revival of anti-Semitism on the continent where six million Jews were murdered within living memory. But I’m still cautiously optimistic about the European Jewish future.

Daniel Johnson
Aug. 11 2013

As an Englishman, I smiled at the title of Michel Gurfinkiel’s brilliant essay. “You Only Live Twice” alludes, of course, to the 1964 James Bond novel by Ian Fleming, whose books (unlike the better-known films made from them) are peppered with stereotypical Jewish villains. It is well to be reminded that Fleming’s unabashed anti-Semitism was still common among right-wing Britons of his class and generation—the same generation that had fought and defeated Nazi Germany.

Gurfinkiel paints a somber, even apocalyptic vision of the long-term future for Jews in Europe. I share his concerns and to some extent also his pessimism. One estimate (by Andre Kaspi of the Sorbonne) is that by 2080 Europe will have only 600,000 Jews. But I believe there are still grounds for hope that Europeans could yet avert the hideous prospect of a posthumous triumph for Hitler and his latter-day avatars.

Gurfinkiel is right to observe that the majority of European Jews, unlike most of their American counterparts, have recent family memories of persecution, demonization, and expulsion. Increasingly often, they may also have personal experience of anti-Semitism, even in countries that were not involved in the Holocaust. One young German-Jewish student of my acquaintance, whose family came from Kiev via Frankfurt, is an enthusiastic Anglophile. “I always wanted to live in England,” she says. But her own first personal encounter with anti-Semitism came not in Germany or Ukraine but at the London School of Economics, where she found herself confronted by pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanting: “Throw the Jews into the sea!”

Nor are such public displays limited to the fringes. David Ward, a member of Parliament for Bradford East, belongs to the Liberal Democrats, now part of Britain’s coalition government. Earlier this year, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Ward wrote: “I am saddened that the Jews . . . could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new state of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.” Last month he returned to the subject, tweeting: “At long last the Zionists are losing the battle—how long can the apartheid state of Israel last?” His party responded by suspending him for two months in the summer—when Parliament does not convene. This token rebuke reflects the grim fact that nationally some 37 percent of Liberal Democrats agree with the views held in Ward’s own, largely Muslim constituency.

Turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism or, worse, tacitly encouraging it has insidiously become the default position of public authorities in Europe. When I recently asked the Czech foreign minister, Karel Schwarzenberg—at seventy-five, Europe’s leading elder statesman—what he made of the rising tide of hostility to Jews, evidenced not only by the re-emergence of anti-Semitic parties in some countries but by bans on circumcision and kosher slaughter, he dismissed such concerns as marginal. Israel, he argued (changing the subject), was to blame for its own unpopularity because it ignored European pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. When I criticized his comments in Standpoint, Prince Schwarzenberg protested that he had been misunderstood, insisting that he still remembered the day in 1948, “in the house that belonged to my parents” (i.e., the Palais Schwarzenberg), when Israel declared its independence. Such happy memories, alas, are little consolation. The European Union’s political elite seems blind or indifferent to the revival of anti-Semitism on the continent where six million Jews were murdered within living memory.

Why, then, am I cautiously optimistic? As Gurfinkiel acknowledges, Islam is seen by many Europeans as intolerant and violent, and Muslim anti-Semitism is one of the most visible manifestations of such intolerance. But many sectors of Western society feel threatened by radical Islam, just as Jews do, and this common threat has spurred some leaders into action. François Hollande, the French president, has set a good example to his countrymen and to the European Left by refusing to equivocate about the murder of the Sandler family by the Islamist terrorist Mohamed Merah, the incident with which Gurfinkiel opens his essay. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has striven to make Germany a country where Jews feel welcome, moving swiftly to pass a law overturning the ban on circumcision imposed by a German court. Pope Francis, as philo-Semitic as his two predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has made a point of telling Jewish leaders that Christianity and anti-Semitism are incompatible.

It is tempting to dismiss such European shows of solidarity, as Gurfinkiel largely does. Some undoubtedly are mere gesture politics. I was present at a Conservative Friends of Israel event in 2007 when David Cameron declared: “I am a Zionist.” As British prime minister, by contrast, he has been decidedly cool toward Israel, a country he has yet to visit. In this respect, Gurfinkiel is right to contrast Cameron with his Canadian counterpart Stephen Harper, who is much more supportive of Israel. Other European leaders, such as Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy, have been friendlier, but have not been able to stop the EU from dancing to the Palestinian tune. Victor Orban, the Hungarian premier, told the World Jewish Congress meeting in Budapest last May that he would show anti-Semitism “zero tolerance”—while, outside the hall, the fascist party Jobbik was whipping up hysterical mobs against “the Israeli conquerors.”

This is an old story. But there is also a newer, more hopeful one. Despite the noise made by the boycott movement, for instance, the “Silicon Wadi” of the Middle East exercises a real magnetism for young Europeans. Exports from Israel to the UK are growing by 50 percent a year, and the Jewish state is now Britain’s largest trading partner in the Middle East. Exports to the rest of the EU are growing equally rapidly. Cultural links, too, despite their greater sensitivity to political prejudice, are becoming stronger. European and Israeli security and intelligence cooperation has become even more intensive as a result of the turmoil in the Muslim world. True, EU politicians continue to snub their Israeli counterparts in public, preferring to be seen with Muslim leaders, even deposed ones; a particularly ludicrous episode was the recent Egyptian démarche of Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the EU, who poses as the protector of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood while seeking to damage Israel by restricting export products with any connection to Jewish settlements. Fortunately, European consumers are fond of Israeli goods and vote with their credit cards.

At the grassroots level, Jewish communities in Europe are not in terminal decline, as even the Fundamental Rights Agency survey and the study by Dov Maimon cited by Gurfinkiel attest. Spectacular acts of Islamist terror, like Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse or the beheadings in London and Amsterdam, are no more typical of Europe than the Boston bombing was of the United States. Security around Jewish schools, synagogues, and other institutions has been tight for so long as to be taken for granted.

What affects Jewish morale more deeply are the hundreds of more or less serious anti-Semitic incidents that the police typically fail to prosecute, such as last year’s attack on a Berlin rabbi with his six year old daughter. (The four Muslim youths responsible have yet to be caught.) There are more of these incidents every time Israel is vilified in the media, usually after it responds to some intolerable provocation. However, in most EU countries, the Jewish community tends to live in the more prosperous districts, well away from large concentrations of Muslim immigrants; France, with its large proportion of poorer North African Jews, may be unusual in this respect. What does, of course, strike fear into the hearts of all European Jews, rich or poor, is the specter of a pogrom. When Muslim “youths” riot in Paris and Stockholm, threatening lives and property, accompanied by anti-Semitic agitation, it is hardly surprising that French or Scandinavian Jews tell pollsters they are considering emigration.

Few Jews have actually left, however, and many of these have moved elsewhere in Europe. In Hungary, the rise of Jobbik has caused some Budapest Jews to pack their bags and move to nearby Vienna (which has its own anti-Semitic populists). Even those who have left Europe may not be doing so out of insecurity: European Jews in general are a mobile, globalized population, and quite a few keep apartments in Israel for family reasons or because they like it there.

Nor do all Jewish communities in Europe suffer from declining numbers. Germany’s Jewish population has increased steadily despite the conflict over circumcision, while in the last decade Britain’s has halted a half-century of decline. Europe as a whole is characterized by low birthrates and an ageing demographic profile; Jews are not special in this respect, but neither is the profile a uniform one across the Jewish spectrum. All that one can say for certain is that, as things stand, there is little likelihood of a mass exodus by European Jewry, and demographic extinction is by no means inevitable.

Gurfinkiel’s nightmare scenario is certainly possible. Entire regions where Jews had lived for thousands of years have witnessed mass expulsions and emigrations: think of North Africa, the Middle East (apart from Israel), or the former Soviet Union. But for Europe to revert to the pattern of the mid-20th century in its treatment of the Jewish people would imply the abandonment of Western civilization. This outcome is eminently preventable if European leaders make it clear to Muslims that while they and their religion are welcome, shariah law and Islamist supremacism are not.

Merkel and Cameron, among others, are to be commended for rejecting multiculturalism. But they have not dared to denounce the radical Islam that threatens Europe’s Judeo-Christian identity by seeking to supplant the church and abolish the distinction between mosque and state. Such cowardice is largely to blame for the predicament of European Jewry. Yet this failure of leadership can and must be rectified. Bankrupt as Europe may be, morally and economically, most Europeans are not ready to renounce their core values. For any civilized person, a Europe without Jews would be uninhabitable.

Daniel Johnson, the founder and editor of the British monthly Standpoint, writes widely on politics, culture, and religion.  

More about: Anti-Semitism, apartheid, Circumcision, European Jewry, Israel, Michel Gurfinkiel, slaughter