May 16, 2002
Differing Views on European Anti-Semitism
Journalists ask, can we be critical and not anti-Semitic?
The talk here in Los Angeles -- about anti-Semitism and Europe -- is by turns angry and cynical. And not just from the proverbial "Jewish man on the street," so quick to respond both to real and imagined slights. It is almost as though the suspicion that Europeans could not be trusted, that they were fundamentally bred to the bone as anti-Semites, had finally been confirmed.
A Jewish leader here, with considerable professional experience working with European organizations, is bitter: The Europeans need oil, he tells me, and the Arabs have it. The rest is conversation.
A local Holocaust scholar's voice is resigned. After 2,000 years of history, of expulsion or religious and national hatred, why should we be surprised at the reaction of Europeans?
There is almost no disagreement here. "What's there to disagree about?" a journalist friend asks me. He is referring, of course, to the attacks on synagogues and the assaults on individual Jews the recently in France, Great Britain and Belgium, among other nations. Germany, which has been Israel's staunchest friend these past 50 years and has maintained the severest laws punishing expressions of anti-Semitism, has also been the scene of attacks against Jews; today German police are guarding the synagogues.
Even Hollywood is alarmed. Last week, a film producer called on the French government to oversee the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, ensuring that there would be no demonstrations or discrimination against Israeli films. French officials scoffed at the charge: There is neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic policies in France or at Cannes, came the reply.
That sentiment -- neither anti-Israel nor anti-Semitic behavior is rampant in Europe -- to my surprise, has been echoed with some modification by responsible observers abroad. It is, of course, the modifications that bear looking at -- and make most of us uneasy. Nevertheless, how to explain the different perceptions here and abroad?
In Great Britain, for example, two of the leading newspapers, the Guardian and the Independent, have been particularly strident on Israel's policies in the Middle East. Coupled with what a longtime (British) Jewish journalist calls the BBC bias in favor of Arab nations, it seems to suggest a public opinion debacle for Israel.
But on closer examination, it appears that it is the British left that opposes Israel's policy. The Times of London and the Telegraph are supportive. Moreover, the authoritative leading British weekly, The Economist, has adopted what might be defined as a balanced but sympathetic attitude toward the Jewish state.
In a recent editorial (May 4-10), The Economist reported that, yes, criticism of Israel had increased in Great Britain and throughout Europe. Part of the criticism reflected an increase in the Muslim population -- particularly in France -- and part had to do with a general disapproval of colonial policy throughout Europe. Israel's occupation of the West Bank, and its treatment of Palestinians, was viewed as "colonial action" by many Europeans. In any case, argued The Economist, criticism of Israel did not mean a society was anti-Semitic.
The facts on the ground in Great Britain were hard to refute. Its 300,000 Jews have moved these past 30 years into the professions, the universities and the government -- especially under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, who headed the government when it was controlled by the Conservatives. Many Jews in Great Britain had, in fact, shifted from Labor to the Conservative Party; though at present, Labor Prime Minister Blair is viewed as philo-Semitic and an ally of Israel by English Jews. The House of Lords, itself, not a body known for its enthusiasm toward Jews, is 10 percent Jewish today.
Compared to Arabs, Pakistanis and blacks living in Great Britain -- many of whom feel like outsiders -- Jews are much closer to being part of the establishment. Although, it should be added, many claim they are perceived first as Jews and only then as British subjects, or so they feel.
In France, where today there are 6 million Arabs (and about 600,000 Jews) matters are different. The Arabs are congregated, for the most part, in rundown slum housing projects at the outer edges of Paris and other French cities. Often they live in close proximity to poor Jews -- especially from North African countries. And it should be clear that the Arabs are furious at the French government and at Israel, as well. They -- the Arabs living in France -- are the culprits primarily responsible in the attacks against synagogues and individual Jews.
But Arabs in France are also the targets of widespread animosity toward immigrants. Le Pen's National Front Party, which is known for its anti-Semitism, has been fierce in its cries against Arabs in the recent elections. You would scarcely know the party was critical of Jews and/or Israel.
In France, as in Great Britain, journalists will tell you that Jews are part of the mainstream. Maybe not always included in "society," but certainly part of the worlds of government and the professions. Yes, the journalists will explain, many French officials are critical of Israel, as is most of Europe. But that is because Israel has become a colonial power (not unlike the French in Algeria 45 years ago) and is in the wrong. It is not that YasserArafat is right; just that Israeli policy and Ariel Sharon's government are considered the culprits here.
The French and the British journalists (and the Germans, as well) ask: Who is right, the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress or the rest of the world? Is Israel the victim here or the Palestinians? And why can we not be critical of Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic?
It's a question that non-Jews in the United States have begun to ask, and one for which we tend to answer by falling back on our feelings. Invariably, we are so closely identified with Israel, that attacks against the Jewish state become attacks upon us. And while anti-Semitism has been on the wane in the United States the past half century, and in Western Europe, as well, feelings of rejection and victimhood have become almost atavistic among Jews. It does not take very much to revive them. And that is something the Western Europeans have still to learn.