The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Anti-Semitism Here and Abroad

Posted in: Other Commentary

The last few years have witnessed high-profile assaults on Jews in various European countries. Last February, for example, a Danish man attacked a synagogue hosting a bat mitzvah in Copenhagen, killing two, and wounding five. One commentator tells us, “Anti-Semitism is on the rise worldwide, though America is a happy exception.”

Not so. In fact, the opposite is true. The evidence suggests that anti-Semitism is on the rise in the United States, particularly in our colleges—which we like to think of as bastions of liberty and free speech. And, in Europe, polls show that people are becoming less anti-Semitic. First, let’s look at Europe.

High-profile anti-Semitic violence is increasing in Europe. For example, in January 2015, Islamic militants killed 16 people in France, including four Jews gunned down in a kosher supermarket. In May 2014, a radical Muslim killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry, based in Tel Aviv University, has reported that for 2014 violent anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe. The grim statistics (at p. 6 of the Report):

The highest number of violent cases was registered in France, for a number of consecutive years now: 164 compared to 141 in 2013 There was a sharp rise in violent incidents in the UK (141 compared to 95), in Australia ( 30 compared to 11), Germany (76 compared to 36, more than double), Austria (9 compared to 4), Italy (23 compared to 12, again more than double), Sweden (17 compared to 3!), Belgium (30 compared to 11) and South Africa (14 compared to 1). The situation in Eastern Europe is different: In the Ukraine (28 compared to 23), Hungary (15 compared to 14), and in Russia and Romania numbers even slightly decreased.

Some of this violence may be a function of the increased Muslim population in Europe. Studies show that about 50 percent of Muslim-European students in second and third grade embrace anti-Semites, versus 10 percent of other students. That same year another study showed that a majority of Muslim males (average age 19) in Berlin, Paris, and London voiced some, or strong anti-Semitic feelings. “They expressed them openly and often aggressively.”

We should not judge all of Europe (or all of European Muslims) because of the violence of a few. I do not want to sound Pollyannaish, but in general, polls show that Europeans as a whole are becoming less anti-Semitic, even in France, which brought us the Dreyfus Affair. After these recent well-publicized attacks on Jews, surveys reported a significant drop in anti-Jewish attitudes in France, Belgium, and Germany. France showed the biggest decrease —anti-Semitic attitudes dropped to 17 percent in 2015, compared with 37 percent from a similar survey in 2014. Germany dropped from 27 percent in 2014 to 16 percent in 2015. Belgium dropped from 27 percent to 21 percent. Now, large majorities in Germany (78 percent), France (77 percent), and Belgium (68 percent) agree, “violence against Jews in this country affects everyone and is an attack on our way of life.”

Why? Why is anti-Semitic feeling in Europe dropping, even though a small but murderous few are increasing the number of their atrocities? The commentators suggest that the reason is that more European leaders are using their bully pulpit to attack anti-Semitism. Unlike the past, the government leaders in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, and other countries have been swift to condemn anti-Semitism, and that has changed people’s attitude. People tend to follow their leaders. If the leaders condemn anti-Semitism, the people are less likely to embrace it. If the leaders are silent or blame the victims for the problem, the people are more likely to keep or embrace anti-Semitic opinions.

As Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League explained, “Government response to anti-Semitic manifestations, violence, death, etcetera [sic], do have a positive impact on anti-Semitic attitudes.” In the summer of 2014, there was a firebombing of synagogue in the town of Wuppertal, Germany, and anti-Semitic chants punctuated a protest against the Gaza incursion. Shortly after that, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at the Brandenburg Gate at a rally against anti-Semitism, exclaimed, it was “our national and civic duty” to fight anti-Jewish prejudice. She spoke forcefully and emotionally. Foxman acknowledged, “People are always cynical—does it really matter what the government says?” Yes, he says. The polls back him up.

While all this is good news for Europe, in the United States we find anti-Semitism rising. A few weeks ago, a Jewish community in San Antonio woke to widespread anti-Semitic vandalism that included spray-painted swastikas, “KKK” lettering, and similar graffiti on 30 cars and homes near the Orthodox synagogue. Vandals threw a large rock breaking the window of at least one car. The Anti-Defamation League reported over 900 anti-Semitic incidents in 2014, a 21 percent increase from 2013. Some of the people attacking Senator Chuck Schumer of New York call him a traitor and invariably mention that he is Jewish and subject to “dual” loyalties. In contrast, those Jewish leaders who do not oppose the Iran deal are not called traitors by opponents of the nuclear agreement.

The increase in anti-Semitism in our nation’s colleges and universities is particularly worrisome because those who attend college today are the leaders of tomorrow. Nearly five percent of Jewish students personally experienced a physical attack or witnessed one in the last year and a half. More common are verbal attacks. In the last 18 months, Jewish students in our nation’s universities have reported over 100 incidents of students being intimidated, harassed, or bullied as a Jewish and/or a pro-Israel student on campuses today.

A Brandeis University study last month found that nearly 75 percent of Jewish students report personally experiencing anti-Semitism statements in the last 12 months. For example, college students tell Jewish students, “Jews have too much power,” or “Jews are like the Nazis,” or “go burn in an oven.” More than a third of Jewish students report that their college colleagues tell them that the Holocaust either is a myth or often exaggerated. In July, we learned that members of Ohio State University’s marching band for years have published an unofficial satirical songbook containing lyrics (“small town Jew . . . who took the cattle train to you know where”) making fun of Jews being murdered in concentration camps.

It is passing strange that university administrators are often overwrought with “microaggressions” and “trigger warnings”—one should not say, “America is a melting pot.” Yet many of these administrators are not nearly as quick to condemn anti-Semitic bullying. The Chair of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, Colette Avital, complained that Ohio State University limited itself to stating that the marching band incident was “shocking behavior” but chose to do nothing else. “We expect the university to take stronger action—as we believe that Jewish organizations will do,” she said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders have used their bully pulpits to condemn, most forcefully, anti-Semitism. The European population responded by moving away from anti-Semitic attitudes. That alone does not stop the violence, but it is a start. While this country has not experienced as much high-profile violence against Jews, it is experiencing an increase in anti-Semitic feelings by our college students, our future leadership. University administrators and our political leaders should step up to the plate and follow Merkel’s lead.