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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

March 11, 2003

The Way We Live Now

This article by Tony Judt appears in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. If you are pro-war against Iraq, you may not like this article, but it is well worth reading because it examines a good deal of what it considers myth-making about Europe, anti-semitism, and Iraq. As such, it helps us to clarify our thinking and this as always is a useful thing to do. A longish article, I will cut to the part I consider pertinent for this site
[...]A second Europhobic myth now widely disseminated in the United States is more pernicious. It is the claim that Europe is awash in anti-Semitism, that the ghosts of Europe's judeophobic past are risen again, and that this atavistic prejudice, Europe's original sin, explains widespread European criticism of Israel, sympathy for the Arab world, and even support for Iraq. The main source for these claims is a spate of attacks on Jews and Jewish property in the spring of 2002, and some widely publicized opinion polls purporting to demonstrate the return of anti-Jewish prejudice across the European continent. American commentary on these data has in turn emphasized the "anti-Israel" character of European media reports from the Middle East.[7]

To begin with the facts: according to the American Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has worked harder than anyone to propagate the image of rampant European anti-Semitism, there were twenty-two significant anti-Semitic incidents in France in April 2002, and a further seven in Belgium; for the whole year 2002 the ADL catalogued forty-five such incidents in France, varying from anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish-owned shops in Marseilles to Molotov cocktails thrown into synagogues in Paris, Lyon, and elsewhere. But the same ADL reported sixty anti-Semitic incidents on US college campuses alone in 1999. Measured by everything from graffiti to violent assaults, anti-Semitism has indeed been on the increase in some European countries in recent years; but then so it has in America. The ADL recorded 1,606 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in the year 2000, up from 900 in 1986. Even if anti-Semitic aggression in France, Belgium, and elsewhere in Europe has been grievously underreported, there is no evidence to suggest it is more widespread in Europe than in the US.[8]

But what of attitudes? Evidence from the European Union's Eurobarometer polls, the leading French polling service SOFRES, and the ADL's own surveys all point in the same direction. There is in many European countries, as in the US, a greater tolerance for mild verbal anti-Semitism than in the past, and a continuing propensity to believe longstanding stereotypes about Jews: e.g., that they have a disproportionate influence in economic life. But the same polls confirm that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than their parents were. Among French youth especially, anti-Semitic sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible. An overwhelming majority of young people questioned in France in January 2002 believe that we should speak more, not less, of the Holocaust; and nearly nine out of ten of them agreed that attacks on synagogues were "scandalous." These figures are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the US.[9]

Most of the recent attacks on Jews in Western Europe were the work of young Arabs or other Muslims, as local commentators acknowledge.[10] Assaults on Jews in Europe are driven by anger at the government of Israel, for whom European Jews are a conven- ient local surrogate. The rhetorical armory of traditional European anti-Semitism—the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," Jews' purported eco- nomic power and conspiratorial net-works, even blood libels—has been pressed into service by the press and television in Cairo and elsewhere, with ugly effects all across the youthful Arab diaspora.


The ADL asserts that all this "confirms a new form of anti-Semitism taking hold in Europe. This new anti-Semitism is fueled by anti-Israel sentiment and questions the loyalty of Jewish citizens." That is nonsense. Gangs of unemployed Arab youths in Paris suburbs like Garges-les-Gonesses surely regard French Jews as representatives of Israel, but they are not much worried about their patriotic shortcomings. As to Jewish loyalties: one leading question in the ADL surveys—"Do you believe Jews are more likely to be loyal to Israel than to [your country]" —elicits a consistently higher positive response in the US than in Europe. It is Americans, not Europeans, who are readier to assume that a Jew's first loyalty might be to Israel.

The ADL and most American commentators conclude from this that there is no longer any difference between being "against" Israel and "against" Jews. But this is palpably false. The highest level of pro-Palestinian sympathy in Europe today is recorded in Denmark, a country which also registers as one of the least anti-Semitic by the ADL's own criteria. Another country with a high and increasing level of sympathy for the Palestinians is the Netherlands; yet the Dutch have the lowest anti-Semitic "quotient" in Europe and nearly half of them are "worried" about the possible rise of anti-Semitism. Furthermore, it is the self-described "left" in Europe that is most uncompromisingly pro-Palestinian, while the "right" displays both anti-Arab and anti-Jewish (but often pro-Israel) bias. Indeed, this is one of the few areas of public life in which these labels still carry weight.[11]

Overall, Europeans are more likely to blame Israel than Palestinians for the present morass in the Middle East, but only by a ratio of 27:20. Americans, by contrast, blame Palestinians rather than Israel in the proportion of 42:17. This suggests that Europeans' responses are considerably more balanced, which is what one would expect: the European press, radio, and television provide a fuller and fairer coverage of events in the Middle East than is available to most Americans. As a consequence, Europeans are better than Americans at distinguishing criticism of Israel from dislike of Jews.

One reason may be that some of Europe's oldest and most fully accredited anti-Semites are publicly sympathetic to Israel. Jean-Marie Le Pen, in an interview in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz in April 2002, expressed his "understanding" of Ariel Sharon's policies ("A war on terror is a brutal thing")—comparable in his opinion to France's no less justified antiterrorist practices in Algeria forty years earlier.[12] The gap separating Europeans from Americans on the question of Israel and the Palestinians is the biggest impediment to transatlantic understanding today. Seventy-two percent of Europeans favor a Palestinian state against just 40 percent of Americans. On a "warmth" scale of 1–100, American feelings toward Israel rate 55, whereas the European average is just 38—and somewhat cooler among the "New Euro- peans": revealingly, the British and French give Israel the same score. It is the Poles who exhibit by far the coolest feelings toward Israel (Donald Rumsfeld please note).[13] [more]