Anti-Semitism in Europe is back, and some blame recent refugees for fuelling it

The horror of anti-Semitism — creeping fear, physical attacks, even killings — has returned to Europe's two biggest countries, France and Germany, staining their civility yet again.

Existing far-right hatred of Jews in France and Germany is being stoked by recent refugees, say some

Men wear Jewish skullcaps, or kippahs, as they attend a demonstration against anti-Semitism in Cologne, Germany, on April 25. (Henning Kaiser/The Associated Press)

A spectre that many hoped had all but disappeared has returned to haunt Europe.

The spectre is anti-Semitism, and it has caused great disquiet in the two largest countries of the European Union, Germany and France.

Add to that the stain of coded, and in some cases openly anti-Semitic, language in countries farther east in the EU, and the outlook is darkly clouded.

A personal experiment led to the incident that  triggered such foreboding in Germany.

A 21-year-old Israeli-Arab student, Adam Armush, living in Berlin, donned a kippah, the kind of skullcap worn by orthodox Jews, and walked out on April 17 with a friend, largely to prove to himself that rumours of anti-Semitism were a myth.

Instead, he was set upon by three young men, one wielding a belt and yelling "Yahudi," meaning Jew in Arabic, as they beat him. Armush videoed his own attack on his phone.

That video posted online caused an uproar and consternation. Police quickly arrested a 19-year-old Palestinian refugee from Syria.

Germany had close to 1,500 anti-Semitic incidents last year

It's understandable that those who are scared for the safety of the children would consider leaving Germany.- Felix Klein, special representative on anti-Semitism

There are 100,000 Jews now living in Germany (in 1933, when Hitler took power, there were 500,000) and most, according to the World Jewish Congress, came to the country from countries in the former Soviet Union in the last generation.

And now, many are afraid. The attack on Armush was not an isolated case.

In 2017, according to German government statistics, there were 1,468 anti-Semitic incidents reported in the country.

In the wake of the attack on Armush, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, said that Jews should avoid wearing kippahs in urban areas.

And the special representative just appointed by the government of Angela Merkel to deal with the spread of anti-Semitism seemed just as rattled.

Berlin had the biggest protest against anti-Semitism, but demonstrations also took place in Erfurt, Potsdam and Cologne. (Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

"It's understandable," Felix Klein said, "that those who are scared for the safety of the children would consider leaving Germany. We must do everything to avoid that."

Others were much more robust in their response. They organized "kippah marches" in different cities. In Berlin, there were more than 2,000 people in the streets wearing them.

One of them was Yair Lapid, a senior Israeli opposition politician and a former cabinet minister. Before the march, he issued this battle cry: "I say people should go out with a kippah on their heads and a cudgel in their hands to protect themselves."

'Soundless ethnic cleansing'

In France, anti-Semitism is also front-page news, in the form of an extraordinary manifesto published on April 22, a manifesto "against the new anti-Semitism."

More than 250 French political and intellectual leaders, including a former president and three former prime ministers, signed it.

Its warning was sobering. It talked of "an almost soundless ethnic cleansing" in the European country with the largest Jewish population — approximately 500,000. It came after the latest murder of a Jew in late March.

Mireille Knoll, 85, was found dead in her Paris apartment in March by firefighters called to extinguish a blaze. (Laetitia/AFP/Getty Images)

Mireille Knoll, an 85-year-old who, as a child, had escaped the murderous roundup of Jews in Paris 1942, was killed — stabbed 11 times — in her small apartment in Paris. She knew her killer, a man of Arab origin whom she had helped.

He told an accomplice: "She's Jewish; she's got money." Police described it as an anti-Semitic crime.

A huge march to honour her and to show solidarity with French Jews took place on March 28. French President Emmanuel Macron attended her funeral.

There are crimes other than murder. According to police statistics cited in the manifesto, French Jews are 25 times more likely to suffer attacks than Muslims in France, despite the fact that the Muslim population is 10 times larger.

One result, according to a study by the CRIF, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France, is that, in the Paris region, several thousand Jews have moved away in the past three years out of fear, fear born of direct assaults or bullying of children in schools.

Displays of anti-Semitism in Poland, Hungary

Further east in the EU, anti-Semitic rhetoric flourishes. The re-elected prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, spent his election campaign sending coded messages.

Activists from the Egyutt (Together) party tear down an ad by the Hungarian government against Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros in Budapest on July 12, 2017. The billboards, posters and TV ads had been criticized by Hungarian Jewish leaders and others for their anti-Semitic overtones. (Pablo Gorondi/Associated Press)

"We are fighting an enemy that is different from us," he said at a rally in March. "Not open, but hiding; not straightforward, but crafty … not national, but international, who doesn't believe in working but speculating with money."

And he openly attacked the billionaire George Soros, who funds an independent university in Budapest, whose president is Michael Ignatieff, the former Canadian Liberal Party leader. Soros's origins are Hungarian and Jewish.

In Poland, on Jan. 27, state-controlled television ran a crawl of "viewer comments" such as "Why is no one trying to control the inflow of Jews? It's worse than the Islamists and Communists together."

This was on International Holocaust Day. It wasn't a one-off incident.

Michal Bilewicz, director of the Warsaw University Centre for Research on Prejudice, told the French newspaper Le Monde on April 20 of a steady progression of anti-Semitism in Poland, particularly "repressed anti-Semitism, which blames Jews for their own problems, and accuses them of trying to profit from their status as victims."

For his comments he was attacked, notably by two government MPs, who wrote to complain officially to the Ministry of Education.

Refugees blamed for bringing 'different type of anti-Semitism'

The attack on Armush in Berlin gave rise to a new interpretation of anti-Semitism, notably by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"We have refugees now, for example, or people of Arab origin, who bring a different type of anti-Semitism into the country," she said during an interview with Israel television on April 23.

That view was echoed in the French manifesto. It says the traditional, far-right anti-Semitism in France has now been reinforced by an Islamist anti-Semitism.

Recent inflammatory comments of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas only reinforce that idea. Speaking on April 30 of the pogroms against Jews culminating in the Holocaust, he said: "The Jewish question that was widespread throughout Europe was not against their religion but against their social function, which relates to usury and banking and such."

In Germany, Klein agrees that there is an element of "imported" anti-Semitism. But he points out that the vast majority — 1,381 of 1,468 — of the anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 were committed by German ultra-right elements.

Surveys consistently show, he says, that regardless of the refugee influx, "around 20 per cent of all Germans hold anti-Semitic views, a statistic that has remained stable for years and has never gone down."

The German magazine Focus put in more bluntly on April 26: "Germany has a problem with hatred of Jews."

Whether new or old, the results are plain. Fear mounts. In Germany, in answer to a survey by Bielefeld University, two-thirds of Jews in 2017 said they "don't feel themselves to be part of German society."

And in France, the CRIF calculates that 55,000 Jews have emigrated since the beginning of this century — equal to 10 per cent of France's Jewish population — and more than 16,000 in the last three years alone.

The poison still lurks in the bloodstream of Europe.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.