Letter from London

By Guttenplan, D. D. | The Nation, July 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Letter from London


Guttenplan, D. D., The Nation


A specter is haunting the Jews of Europe: the specter of anti-Semitism. A synagogue is firebombed in Belgium; three more are burned in France, where Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front attracts millions of votes. In the town of l'Union, near Toulouse, a man opens fire at a kosher butcher shop, and in Berlin the police advise Jews not to dress in a conspicuous manner. Here in Britain two Orthodox Jews were attacked outside Harrods in broad daylight, and a synagogue in North London was desecrated only a few weeks ago. Britain's broadsheet newspapers agonized over whether the French ambassador's reference to Israel as a "shitty little country" was anti-Semitic or just anti-Israel, and Rupert Murdoch's Sun, a tabloid more famed for its topless page 3 "stunners" than for its high moral tone, ran a full-page editorial assuring readers, "The Jewish faith is not an evil religion." In Europe, argues Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, "it is not safe to be a Jew."

Something is happening. I've had more conversations about anti-Semitism here in the past six months than in the previous six years. Last autumn, after listening patiently while a friend wondered whether American support for Israel wasn't in some sense to blame for September 11, and seeing a writer who'd never expressed an opinion on the Middle East denounced as a "Zionist," I organized a panel on anti-Semitism and the press at London's Jewish Book Week. So if I say that Americans who argue it is time for Europe's Jews to pack their bags are either fools or rogues, it isn't because I'm looking at the situation with my head in the sand. When I went to synagogue in Florence with my older son on the last day of Passover this year, I was glad to see the Italian soldier standing guard at the door.

But the big danger in Florence that week was to Americans, who were warned by the State Department to stay away from public places. More Jews died in the World Trade Center than in all of Europe's anti-Semitic outrages of the past two decades put together. What's missing from the current furor over European anti-Semitism is any recognition that the whole world is now a dangerous place--and not just for Jews.

Some historical perspective might also be nice. It was widely reported here that Asher Cohn, rabbi of the vandalized synagogue, is himself the son of a rabbi who fled Germany after his synagogue was torched on Kristallnacht--the kind of coincidence journalists find irresistible. But the damage to Cohn's synagogue was repaired within days--by volunteers who included a Labour Cabinet minister and a member of the Conservative shadow Cabinet. The rise of Austria's Jorg Haider and the murdered Dutch maverick Pim Fortuyn are often depicted as heralds of a fascist revival. Haider is an anti-Semite, whose talent for racist double-entendre prompted Austrian journalist Eva Menasse to wonder why the foot in Haider's mouth always seems to be wearing a jackboot. Yet overt anti-Semitism has no place in either Freedom Party propaganda or in the program of the Austrian government. Hitler had a militarized state, a genocidal ideology and open contempt for democratic norms--a combination not found anywhere in the current European political landscape.

What Europe has instead is xenophobia. Since September 11 a wave of hostility to foreigners has swept over the Continent. Some of this has come out as anti-Semitism, particularly on the neanderthal right in Germany and among the marginal but mediagenic British National Party. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism has also seen a revival: in Greece, where left- and right-wing nationalists momentarily united in stressing US culpability after the World Trade Center bombings, and on the wilder shores of British and French Trotskyism. But the primary target of xenophobic rhetoric and xenophobic violence has been Europe's Arab and Muslim inhabitants. Fortuyn labeled Islam a "backward" religion and campaigned on a platform opposing Muslim immigration. …

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