Europe Taking Action on Anti-Semitism

There are, indeed, some things to cheer about. If we compare today to where matters stood a year ago, a significant difference is the willingness of European leaders to acknowledge there is a problem. Denial is out.

French President Jacques Chirac, after more than two years of avoiding the issue, now recognizes that anti-Semitism in France is a problem. He has denounced it publicly as unacceptable.

Following the publication of a European poll that found more Europeans seeing Israel as a threat to peace than any other country, Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, recognized the seriousness of this kind of thinking and organized a conference in Brussels in response. And the European Union monitoring group has conducted a full-blown report on anti-Semitism in Europe in response to the worsening situation.

Beyond the end of denial, steps have been taken and structures put in place to combat the hatred, most notably in France. President Chirac established a special task force, led by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and including the ministers of justice, interior, education and foreign affairs. The group meets monthly, with each minister expected to report on what his ministry has done in the past month to deal with anti-Semitism.

Already, a number of initiatives have emerged from this structure, among them Holocaust education projects for the schools and legislation that would prohibit hateful satellite broadcasts from the Middle East. Aside from the substantive efforts, the message of seriousness emanating from the highest levels of government was important in itself.

The coming together of leaders from the 55 OSCE participating nations represents the move beyond an end of denial toward commitment to take action. The task now before those leaders is to concretize and institutionalize the fight against anti-Semitism.

The Berlin meeting and all such efforts are only as meaningful as the follow-up framework they leave behind after the photo-ops are over. Sustained, long-term monitoring, law enforcement action and education efforts must be championed by the OSCE conference and put into place by participating states.

Europe still has a long way to go. The gap between what is being done and what needs to be done is symbolized by the recent release of the E.U. Monitoring Center (EUMC) study of anti-Semitism. The report itself suggested that the surge in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe in the last two years was mostly the result of action by radical Muslim activists acting on anti-Israel emotions.

But in releasing the report, the EUMC felt compelled to sanitize the findings — focusing first on anti-Semitism perpetrated by "young, disaffected White European[s]." Not surprisingly, the international media used this as the focus for their stories, and so to much of the world, that became the story.

This speaks to the continuing reluctance of Europe to address satisfactorily the connection of anti-Israel bias to the explosion of anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, too many in Europe still see efforts to address the impact of anti-Israel activity as a vehicle to stifle legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. This becomes an excuse to avoid looking inward to understand how Europe has come to this pass and how it can get to the other side.

It also inhibits one of the most important responsibilities Europe has: to denounce on a consistent basis the Goebbels-like hatred toward Jews and Israel coming out of the Arab world.

Let’s be clear. No one who is serious about these issues is seeking to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. Identifying the sources of this new anti-Semitism and finding ways to combat it, not politics, are the goals of these endeavors.

In this regard, it was helpful that the E.U. report identified as anti-Semitism the use of classical anti-Jewish stereotypes (Jews as all-powerful, as deceitful) in describing Israel. What the report failed to do and, indeed, much of Europe fails to do, is to look at the connection between the one-sided criticism, the demonization, the delegitimization of Israel and anti-Semitism.

These images, often themselves manifestations of anti-Semitism, create the climate in which anti-Semitic incidents are more likely to occur, and in which there is hesitancy to act against the perpetrators.

It has been appropriately said that comparisons between today’s situation in Europe and the 1930s are absurd and counterproductive. There is no anti-Semitic party committed to the destruction of the Jewish people in control of a powerful state in the heart of the continent. And unlike the 30s, there are mechanisms in place that have within them the potential to deal with the very real manifestations of anti-Semitism in today’s Europe.

But what is also reality is that Jews in Europe are feeling intimidated and threatened once again, not by Nazi racist thugs and their allies, but by attacks on persons and institutions, by harassment of their youngsters in schools and by a sense of isolation as the media and universities bombard the public with images of Israel as the great source of evil in the world.

These circumstances should be unacceptable anywhere, but particularly on the Continent, where millions of Jews were murdered. Disagreement with policies of the government of Israel must not be the excuse to allow anti-Semitism to flourish once again in Europe.

Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.