New Anti-Semitism Stirs Old Anxieties

Times Staff Writer

The crimes seem lifted from a Nazi-era scrapbook: a rabbi beaten with a beer bottle, swastikas painted over Stars of David, a gasoline bomb hurled at a synagogue. But they appear in police blotters across Europe today, disturbing omens of new strains of anti-Semitism.

Intolerance toward Jews is changing. Traditional anti-Semitism is coinciding with leftist opposition to Israel’s response to the Palestinian intifada. And attacks on Jewish institutions in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere suggest that a burgeoning population of frustrated Muslim men is transplanting Middle East animosities into Europe.

This comes as a uniting continent -- seeking to assert itself as a global power -- wants to transcend the grainy, horrifying images of the Holocaust. Though the continent is an eloquent testament to constitutions and human rights, as Europe reinvents itself, so does the way it hates.

This is a “warning cry, a warning to Europe,” said Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress. “Anti-Semitism and prejudice have returned. The monster is with us again.

“What is of most concern to us, however, is the indifference of our fellow European citizens.”


Government leaders acknowledge that problems exist for Europe’s 1.7 million Jews, although they are concerned that some Jewish groups may be creating unjustified panic. Officials do not want European anti-Semitism confused with the more systematic and politically motivated campaigns waged by groups such as Hamas and Al Qaeda.

“We do see attacks against synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and physical assaults on Jews,” Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, said recently at an anti-Semitism conference in Brussels. “But let us be honest and keep things in perspective.... I do not believe that any organized form of anti-Semitism comparable to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s is rampant in Europe today.”

The failure to find a Middle East peace and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have sparked two phenomena in Europe: a rise in anti-Jewish fervor and the mistrust of a Muslim community that has nearly doubled over the last decade to as many as 15 million. In cities such as Hamburg, where several Sept. 11 hijackers lived, the suspicions that Germans harbor toward Islam have created essentially parallel societies, embittering thousands of Muslim men and limiting their opportunities.

One of France’s Islamic leaders, Dalil Boubakeur, urged Muslims and Jews to “pull in their horns” and cooperate because they both face prejudice from ultraright political groups such as the National Front in France and Germany’s National Democratic Party. The National Front, whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, once described the Holocaust as a “detail of history,” has the allegiance of 16% to 20% of the electorate.

Echoes of the Mideast

Statistics on anti-Semitism can be misleading and limited in scope. There are, however, definable trends. Anti-Semitic incidents -- including physical assaults, vandalism, hate mail and threats -- increased in Europe after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000, according to government and independent data. Although they have since tapered in Europe’s largest countries, authorities say, their threat has created a disturbing atmosphere.

In France, where anti-Semitic incidents surged in the late 1990s, the number of reported incidents declined from 1,669 in 2002 to 1,051 in 2003.

In Germany, they fell slightly from 1,629 in 2001 to 1,594 in 2002.

Britain documented its highest number in 2000 with 405 reports; the total for 2003 approached the record, with 375 incidents, which included 54 assaults.

“There is a very clear and distinctive pattern,” said Michael Whine, security spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which supports the country’s Jewish population. He pointed to “substantial increases following tension in the Middle East” in recent years. That trend continued this week when a Jewish center in southern France was set ablaze a day after Israel killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas.

The backlash against Jews over the Palestinian struggle to gain statehood is more pronounced in countries with large Muslim populations such as France, where about 700,000 Jews live amid more than 5 million Muslims. Germany has about 100,000 Jews and 3.5 million Muslims, and Britain has 300,000 Jews and about 2 million Muslims.

“There are those from the Middle East who are carrying the wounds and resentments of a clash in the Middle East that has not ended,” said Tullia Zevi, a former leader of the Italian Jewish community in Rome. “It would be tragic if a Jewish community that survived the Shoah [Holocaust] and is integrated with Europe were to find itself faced with hostilities with roots in another part of the world.”

Those hostilities are making many European politicians and intellectuals restive. Less wary of criticizing Israel as the specter of the Holocaust fades, the continent’s leftist editorial pages and legislators blame the Sharon government for wielding anti-Semitism like a trump card to stifle legitimate political dissent. Jewish leaders say such criticism from parts of the European elite is a polished form of the prejudice stoked by street-level extremists.

Many of today’s leftists led pro-Palestinian rallies on university campuses in the 1960s and ‘70s. Some liken Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Adolph Hitler. One British cartoonist sketched Sharon preparing to take a bite out of a Palestinian baby in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip. A diplomatic firestorm ensued over a recent European Commission poll of 7,500 Europeans that found that 59% of respondents considered Israel the major threat to world peace.

In an interview with the European Union’s online newswire, Sharon said that “there is no separation” between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel.

“These days,” the prime minister added, “to conduct an anti-Semite policy is not a popular thing, so the anti-Semites bundle their policies in with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Jewish member of the European Parliament, said, “Israel is playing what I think is a dirty game. You shouldn’t play with anti-Semitism” when it comes to genuine political disagreements between countries.

Ingrained Attitudes

European sensitivity toward Muslims over anti-Semitic incidents grew controversial in November, when an EU-funded research group refused to publish a study concluding that Muslim immigrants were largely behind the increase in attacks against Jews. The center said the report was poorly researched, but critics said the group did not want to upset a community that includes economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from North Africa, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan.

A more complex task is identifying ingrained anti-Jewish attitudes among the continent’s broader population. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel recently called this the “European disease.” Such sentiments may lie dormant for years and be aroused by neo-Nazi violence and the coded language of right-wing politicians.

A 2002 survey of 1,250 Germans by the American Jewish Committee in Berlin found that 60% of respondents believed anti-Semitism was a problem. Twenty percent said Jews had too much influence in society. Fifty-two percent of Germans polled asserted that Jews were exploiting the memory of the Holocaust. Despite those statistics, right-wing extremists in Germany number only in the few thousands, according to law enforcement authorities.

Most European Jews lead middle- and working-class lives and, by most accounts, don’t contend with anti-Semitism on a daily basis. The Jewish population in Germany, for example, has roughly doubled since 1990 -- largely the result of immigration from the East Bloc -- and families are rekindling communities and synagogues that were decimated 60 years ago.

There are also successes in countering racial hatred. In December, the lead singer of German rock band Landser was sentenced to prison for lyrics venerating Nazism. And Prodi, the EC president, has called for increased police action and better monitoring to combat anti-Semitism.

But like a faint coda, skinhead slogans and Muslim extremist charges that U.S. imperialism and Zionism are threatening the Arab world are always present.

“You still have the old anti-Semitism and the traditional European anti-Semites,” Cohn-Bendit said. “But now you have this new type of anti-Semitism from the new Arab population growing in Europe.”

‘A Delicate Moment’

With the largest populations of both Muslims and Jews in Europe, France is a combustible mix of cultures. The most volatile group is young Muslim men living in the bleak, violent high-rise projects in the Paris suburbs. They despise Israel and the United States, as well as France, which in February banned women and girls from wearing head scarves in school.

These neighborhoods have become zones of conflict because sizable Muslim populations coexist with smaller but visible Jewish communities. There and elsewhere around France, Orthodox Jewish men routinely wear baseball caps to conceal their yarmulkes and avoid insults and assaults. Police or private guards are stationed at synagogues across the country because of recurring arson and vandalism.

Boubakeur, rector of the Great Mosque in Paris, has condemned the anti-Semitism but believes it is less a political statement than a “letting off of steam” over “Islamophobia” and other hardships encountered by Europe’s Muslims.

“It’s a kind of Third World form of anti-Semitism,” Boubakeur said.

One French intelligence official said: “This is a delicate moment for the evolution of Islam in France. It could go in a dangerous direction.”

Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala is one of the most provocative personalities among France’s minorities. A muscular, French-Cameroonian stand-up comic, M’Bala is considered an ingenious satirist by his fans, but Jews accuse him of peddling a thuggish intolerance that poisons minds in ethnic neighborhoods.

Appearing on television in December, M’Bala wore the hat and sideburns characteristic of Orthodox Jews, along with a military uniform.

In a mock appeal to Africans and other minorities, he invited “the young people watching out there in the projects today ... to join the axis of good, the American-Zionist axis.” He then raised his arm in a Nazi-style salute and yelled, “Heil Israel!”

Jewish groups condemned the stunt, and Paris’ Olympia theater canceled M’Bala’s show in late February. Hundreds of protesters turned out to support the comedian.

German Jewish groups raised an uproar after Martin Hohmann, a conservative Christian Democratic lawmaker, said in October that Jews could have been considered culpable of murder during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

“With certain justification,” Hohmann said, “one could ask in view of the millions killed in the first phase of the revolution about the ‘guilt’ of the Jews.”

He added: “Jews were active in large numbers in the leadership” of execution squads, and “one could with some justification describe Jews as a race of perpetrators.”

The Christian Democratic leadership condemned the comments and stripped Hohmann of his party posts. Then Brig. Gen. Reinhard Guenzel, one of the German army’s most decorated officers, wrote a letter praising Hohmann for “an extraordinary speech with the courage to say the truth which has become rare in our country.... You can be sure that you exactly express the feelings of a majority of our people.”

The German Defense Ministry relieved Guenzel from duty.


Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Paris, John Daniszewski in London and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.