With thousands of European Jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq, Western anti-terror officials have feared that many could one day return to carry out attacks back home. That day is now.
French journalist Nicolas Henin, a former Islamic State hostage who spent several months of his captivity with American reporter James Foley (later beheaded by a British jihadist), told a Sept. 6 press conference that Mehdi Nemmouche was one of his sadistic captors. Nemmouche, a French Islamist, is about to stand trial in Belgium for murdering four people in the Brussels Jewish Museum in June.
That this first terror attack by a European IS returnee targeted a Jewish site underscores the precarious situation of Europe’s Jews. Two years ago, French Islamist Mohamed Merah murdered three Jewish children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.
Islamist terror is not the only threat. Almost daily Jews experience physical or verbal violence amid a highly charged anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic public discourse from voices from the radical left and the extreme right.
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The Gaza War brought this poisonous stew to a boiling point. Ostensibly pro-Palestinian rallies in West European countries turned viciously anti-Semitic, with calls such as “Hamas, Hamas, Jews into the Gas,” trashing of Jewish businesses and physical violence. Pogrom-like scenes played out in the streets of France. Riot police and Jewish security personnel had to prevent an angry mob from storming a Paris synagogue filled with 200 congregants praying at a Shabbat service.
Two factors complicate the fight against this explosion of Jew hatred.
▪ First, the perpetrators are disproportionally of Arab-Muslim background. Perhaps out of fear of stigmatizing an entire community, anti-Jewish sentiment among Muslims has so far been largely ignored, played down or, in the rare occasion when it is acknowledged, “explained” as an understandable reaction to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The sheer dimension of the anti-Jewish outburst has finally shocked some European leaders into action. The German, French and Italian foreign ministers issued a joint statement in July condemning anti-Semitism. Other leading politicians have followed suit, but stay mum when it comes to identifying the source of this hatred.
We'd be much closer to solving this problem if politicians listened to and empowered those Muslims who speak openly about the bigotry within their community. Take Mehdi Hasa, the editor of Huffington Post UK, who last year wrote: “It pains me to have to admit this but anti-Semitism isn't just tolerated in some sections of the British Muslim community; it's routine and commonplace....It’s our dirty little secret. You could call it the banality of Muslim anti-Semitism.”
▪ The second factor complicating the fight against anti-Semitism is that it increasingly hides behind so-called Israel-criticism. Here Europe’s politicians have thankfully started becoming more vocal. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says the old anti-Semitism of the extreme right has been “renewed” and “feeds off hate for Israel. It feeds off anti-Zionism. Because anti-Zionism is an invitation to anti-Semitism.”
Media miscoverage of the Gaza war may have won quite a few converts to this “renewed” anti-Semitism. As former AP Jerusalem editor Matti Friedman wrote in a recent critique: “The world is not responding to events in this country, but rather to the description of these events by news organizations.” And these descriptions were full of distortions, half-truths and outright lies. Israel’s unparalleled efforts to avoid civilian casualties were just as underreported as Hamas's use of human shields, creating the impression that Israel targets-even-enjoys-killing civilians.
Unless politicians start confronting this issue head on, the media and other opinion makers reassess how their distorted analysis of Israel fuels anti-Jewish violence and the silent majority of Muslims who oppose extremism and anti-Semitism becomes more vocal, the exodus of Europe's Jews will accelerate.
Daniel Schwammenthal is director of the AJC (American Jewish Committee) Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.