My first inkling that America's Jewish community was being fed a distorted view of European Jewish life came last May during a BBC-TV program. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch was lashing out against increases in anti-Semitism in Europe. A month later, I heard similar comments over dinner with one of my mother's best friends.
As a Jew living and traveling in Europe for more than a decade, I was bewildered. Save for one nonviolent incident I experienced in Switzerland years ago, I could fill this page with my own evidence that Jewish communities are an accepted piece of the European mosaic.
But then the mystery began to unravel. "A Growing Threat to European Jews" screamed the bold script across the length of a large envelope in the mail. In a quest for money and members, inside was a plea from Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center about the "dramatic rise in hate rhetoric and hate crimes toward Europe's Jewish population."
The letter said the highest incidence of anti-Semitism had occurred in France over a period going back to October 2000. In that time, "1,300 anti-Semitic acts have been perpetrated," it said, including "verbal and physical attacks, synagogue fire-bombings and even an assault on a school bus loaded with Jewish children."
The appeal, signed by Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center, went on to cite "15 violent attacks on Jewish individuals" in Britain during the first three months of this year. And in Berlin, a man wearing a Star of David necklace was spat on, kicked and called a "dirty Jew" -- and police failed to arrest anyone.
Any racially discriminatory act is one too many; any surge in anti-Semitism is lamentable. As always, opponents of racism need to be vigilant. But what the center's appeal said next was so exaggerated and opportunistic it's painful to recount.
"The situation," Hier wrote, "has grown so serious that Simon Wiesenthal, now 95, told me that 'there is more anti-Semitism today than we experienced in the 1930s.' "
This is tantamount to revisionist history. To claim that incidents of anti-Semitism in Europe today are comparable to what went on just before World War II is an affront to those who perished and those who suffered under the Nazis. Today is the 65th anniversary of Kristallnacht -- the Night of Broken Glass -- and a time to remember what happened in 1938 in Nazi territory: "Rampaging mobs ... freely attacked Jews in the street, in their homes and at their places of work and worship. At least 96 Jews were killed and hundreds more injured, more than 1,000 synagogues were burned (and possibly as many as 2,000), almost 7,500 Jewish businesses were destroyed, cemeteries and schools were vandalized, and 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps," according to the Jewish Virtual Library, of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.
The Wiesenthal appeal states that much of today's "hatred is coming from Islamic fundamentalists" -- in other words, a minority within a minority, as opposed to society at large in conjunction with governments. And the mere fact that the Wiesenthal Center now calls upon European leaders to protect and defend Jewish citizens illustrates that today's Europe can't be compared with that of the prewar era.
In fact, Rabbi Hier quickly moves away from that time frame: "Help us stand with Europe's beleaguered Jews in their most desperate hour since the end of the Second World War." But this too is an exaggeration. European Jews are neither "desperate" nor "beleaguered." In Western Europe, the rule of law and a civil society have been the norm for over 50 years. Eight Eastern European countries have made steady progress down the same path in the 14 years since communism's fall.
The Wiesenthal Center has built a sterling reputation by promoting public awareness of the Holocaust and the need for tolerance. But this appeal for money and members descends into demagoguery and divisiveness.
Yes, anti-Semitic incidents have increased in Europe over the last year. But they've also increased in the United States, including a worrisome 24% rise on college campuses, according to the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University.
I guess that after a four-page diatribe aimed at Europe, there was no more space left to point out the problems in the center's own backyard.
Bruce I. Konviser, based in Prague, is at work on a book about the Czech Republic.