A man in Toulouse, France, threw three firebombs at a Jewish community center Saturday after a pro-Palestinian protest. Last Sunday, chants of “Gas the Jews” and “Death to Jews” could be heard as pro-Palestinian demonstrators attacked businesses in the “Little Jerusalem" district of Paris. In the UK, more than 100 incidents of anti-Semitism have been recorded in the last month. At a pro-Gaza rally in Berlin, protesters could be heard chanting “Death to Israel.”
Gaza solidarity protests have erupted all over Europe in the last two weeks, but they prompted something more than solidarity with the Gaza Palestinians now engaged in a bloody conflict with Israel. They raised a specter of Europe's darkest past, an upswing in anti-Semitism. Foreign ministers from France, Germany and Italy had to issue a statement condemning the actions. “Anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish belief and synagogues have no place in our society,” it reads.
The severity of attacks on Jews is certainly not the norm in European society. But some see the Gaza conflict is serving as a pretext to express anti-Semitic sentiments that had been present all along. “Events in the Middle East can serve as a trigger for anti-Semitic actions in Europe,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
“What is driving many of these so-called anti-Israeli protests is not so much a concern for Palestinians but it is driven more by hatred toward the Jewish state and Jews in general,” said Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels. “If you attack a synagogue, explain to me what this has to do with being concerned about Gaza. You just want to hurt the Jews.”
According to a study published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights last year, 83 percent of people polled considered anti-Semitism to be a “very or fairly big problem” in France and only 4 percent said it was not a problem at all. Across all 28 EU member states, 63 percent of people polled considered it be a problem.
In 2013, there were an estimated 5 million Muslims in France, mostly Arabic-speakers, making up nearly 8 percent of the population, whereas Jews make up less than 1 percent. It would be easy, from the videos and documentation of protests available on social media, to say that much of the anti-Semitic behavior seen at demonstrations in France comes from Arabs. But, as Schwammenthal pointed out, Arab immigrants in France also fall victim to attacks. Racism does not discriminate between religions in France.
“Most Europeans who have never met a Jew, will never meet a Jew, and this contributes to our ignorance,” Schwammenthal said.
Another part of the European problem, according to Schwammenthal, is history. A resurgent trend in Europe in the last year has been the rise of far-right political parties, particularly in Italy, Hungary and Greece. In Greece, Ilias Kasidiaris, a deputy from the neofascist Golden Dawn, once read in Parliament from "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a century-old forgery that details a supposed Jewish plan for world domination. He also has a swastika-like tattoo depicting his party's symbol. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Hungarian Jobbik party ran a campaign advertisement showing a family eating dinner next to a bookcase filled with anti-Semitic authors. In the past four years, support for both those parties has risen, signaling a revival of fascist tendencies prevalent in Europe before and during World War II.
“The Holocaust killed 6 million Jews but it didn’t kill anti-Semitism in Europe,” Schwammenthal said. “This has been with Europe, part of its legacy, unfortunately, for 2,000 years.”