“Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!” “Death to the Jews!” Those are two of the cruelest expressions of a phenomenon that is gripping Europe: anti-Semitism, that monster of hatred that many of us thought had been buried since the end of World War II but has resuscitated with unprecedented force and virulence.
The conflict in Gaza, which the Palestinians are using effectively as an ideological and propaganda weapon on European streets, has released the latest and most violent anti-Semitic wave, but the tide of hatred had been rising in recent years along with the rise of Islam in the Old Continent.
Before dealing in detail with the offensive gestures (such as the so-called “quenelle”), insults (such as “the Holocaust is historical pornography”) or Judeo-phobic attacks (with Molotov cocktails, harassment and threats) that are surfacing in societies and street demonstrations — which this writer has witnessed in several European capital since June — it is fitting to recall events that moved history.
Two events are key: the end of World War II (1945) and the toppling of the Berlin Wall (1989-90). In the 45 years between them, Jewish communities lived mostly in peace, protected by the “new moral order” of a Europe that was intent on eradicating every kind of intolerance or racism. On not writing its history with blood ever again.
The central dogma of that new order was to eliminate the innate nationalist impulses, while simultaneously celebrating foreign nationalism, particularly the Palestinian kind, to display an example of diversity and multiculturalism.
Little by little, the exaltation of Palestinian nationalism turned into a new version of anti-Semitism, given wings by the massive Muslim immigration of the past two decades. Through one of those ironies of history, the ideology of diversity — born as a result of the Holocaust — served as an anti-Semitic vehicle.
In that process, the academic, artistic and media elites, the so-called “intelligentsia of the left,” played a crucial role. Within it, a blatant anti-Semitism is professed today. Not only was it “cool” to speak ill of Israel (it still is) but also it became almost an obligation, lest you be marginalized. And, for the same reason, an idyllic version of the Palestinian “cause” needs to be promoted.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the “left-Palestine-Islam” ties of solidarity were already established. Since then, they gradually turned into a strategic alliance.
Bereft of a political project, communism needed new “victims” for whom to “struggle” to replace the proletariat. It found them among the Muslim immigrants in Europe, especially the Palestinians. And the Palestinians found the perfect godfathers.
That's the background for the current anti-Semitic epidemic that — in various degrees — is spreading through the continent, from north to south. With the peculiarity that the traditional “godfathers” are being joined by neo-Nazis and xenophobic nationalist parties from the far right, 73 percent of which admit to being anti-Semitic, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn.
Or the Hungarian Jobbik Party, which won the European elections with an openly anti-Jewish message (”anti-Semitism is not only our right but also a patriotic obligation. We must prepare for an armed struggle against the Jews,” said a campaign statement.)
Here in Copenhagen's City Hall Plaza, we see almost daily a “festival of hatred” for the Jews, masquerading as a “demonstration of solidarity” with the Palestinians. The same happens in public squares in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Germany.
It is in France and Germany —where the anti-Semitic stream flows most strongly, penetrating the layers of the middle class — that we find the most worrisome aspect of this trend. Because the protests, the violent acts, the harassment, would not be possible without the underground hatred, the silent or explicit complicity.
European governments are trying desperately to slow down the trend, but reality is stronger. And the reality is that being anti-Semitic is no longer taboo. In France, 37 percent of the population openly expresses its anti-Jewish sentiment; in Germany, 27 percent; in Spain, 29 percent; in Italy, 20 percent.
And in Poland, the country where millions of Jews were massacred at Auschwitz, no less than 45 percent of the citizens declare themselves anti-Semitic. Greece and Hungary set records with more than 60 percent.
France is home to half a million Jews, the largest community in Europe and the country where the largest number of incidents have been reported, more than 300 since January, including the bombing of synagogues and businesses, the beating of Jews and the painting of swastikas on Jewish homes.
Fear is fueling an exodus to Israel: 3,200 Jews emigrated last year; so far this year the number is estimated to be 5,000.
The incitement to hatred is manifested in several forms. One of them was created by the anti-Jewish stand-up comedian Dieudonné on his show The Filthy Beast. It is a reverse Nazi salute called the “quenelle”; it has become a viral phenomenon in Europe, displayed at soccer games, weddings, parties, even in military and parliamentary events!
The quenelle is only part of Dieudonné's litany of insults, such as describing the Holocaust of “historical pornography.” The problem is that his show at the Théâtre de la Main d’Or in Paris plays to full audiences every weekend.
In Germany, the hashtag “#Hitlerwasright” has appeared on Twitter. In Italy, the slogan “Jews out” is everywhere. And in Spain, actors Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem and director Pedro Almodóvar have issued a manifesto accusing Israel of “genocide.” A list of insults and provocations would not fit on these pages.
How to end with this epidemic? I turn to what the prestigious German historian Theodor Mommsen warned, more than a century ago.
“You are wrong if you think that something can be achieved through reasoning,” he wrote. “Anti-Semites listen only to their hatred and envy, to their vilest instincts. . . . Anti-Semitism is a horrible epidemic, like cholera; it is impossible to explain or cure it. One must wait patiently until its poison consumes itself and loses its virulence.”
Rosa Townsend is a European journalist who covers international politics.