Europe’s New Problem With Anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism isn't just a problem for Europe's Jews. It's a problem for Europe.
On July 11, a mob firebombed a synagogue outside Paris, one of eight anti-Semitic attacks in France that week. Later that month, attackers threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, and in Hamburg thugs beat an elderly Jewish man at a pro-Israel rally. Those attacks, among many others this past summer, followed the shooting in May that killed four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. “These are the worst times since the Nazi era,” Dieter Graumann, the president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, told the Guardian in August.
Several factors, including the intensifying violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have contributed to the resurgence of anti-Semitism across Europe. But perhaps none is as toxic or frightening as the ascendance of far-right political parties. These groups are not just bad for Jews; they are bad for Europe. The ascendant far right are equal-opportunity haters, demonizing Muslims, Roma, sexual minorities, socialists, and immigrants, as well as Jews. They openly promote hatred, division, and exclusion, threatening the economic and political systems of countries still reeling from the financial crisis. And as the formation of a far-right block in the European Parliament becomes more likely, the risk that these parties will destabilize not only their own countries but the European Union itself — a crucial U.S. ally and trading partner — is serious.
Parties like France’s National Front and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands aren’t merely Euroskeptics — they are Euro-enemies that oppose the very ideals that undergird a unified Europe. Ranging from nationalist to openly fascist, these parties receive relatively little public support. But in countries like Hungary and Greece, they have exploited economic distress and anti-immigrant animus to become influential, and not only at the national level. In elections in May, 59 far-right candidates from 14 countries won seats in the European Parliament. Ruling parties in many of these countries have been negligent at best in opposing extremists. At worst, they have indulged and empowered them.
Ostensibly opposed to the far right, mainstream politicians have embraced some of their policies and played to the prejudices fueling them. That’s precisely what’s happened with Hungary’s Jobbik party, which describes itself as the EU’s “most successful radical nationalist party.” Already the second-strongest party in Hungary, Jobbik’s popularity continues to grow. Last spring, it won three seats in the EU Parliament and, after obscuring its extremist ideology with an anti-corruption message, won more than 20 percent of the vote in national parliamentary elections. But there should be no mistaking the party’s true nature: In 2012, one of its leaders called for a list of Jews in the government, claiming they pose a national security risk. Another claimed that the “Israeli occupation” that controls Hungary uses the Roma as a “biological weapon.” Pollster Andras Kovacs notes a “clear correlation” between Jobbik’s rise and the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Hungary.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party were evidently taking notes. Since his election in 2010, Orban has essentially co-opted parts of Jobbik’s agenda, promoting Hungarian ethnic nationalism as part of a broad move to the right. By the end of 2012, Fidesz had implemented 12 of Jobbik’s policy priorities, including a measure requiring students to visit “Hungarian territories seized from us” and a Roma-targeted measure requiring home inspections of people receiving social welfare benefits. Orban has also come under fire from Hungarian Jewish groups for commissioning a World War II monument that ignores Hungary’s complicity in the Holocaust. “There are no longer any clear boundaries between the thinking of Fidesz and Jobbik,” says historian Gyorgy Dalos.
Meanwhile, Orban plays a double game, denouncing anti-Semitism one moment and catering to it the next. At a 2013 meeting of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) in Budapest, Orban condemned anti-Semitism but rejected WJC’s call to criticize Jobbik. And in the summer, he selected a notorious anti-Semite, Peter Szentmihalyi Szabo, to serve as ambassador to Italy. Facing criticism, Szabo ultimately withdrew from the position. But by selecting him, Orban delivered a message of solidarity with the far right.
It’s difficult to know whether these moves have sparked an increase in violent hate crimes, since the Hungarian government, like many in Europe, fails to keep reliable statistics. But there is no doubt that the mounting ethnic nationalism and anti-Roma rhetoric are exacerbating hatred that has already led to a number of violent attacks. A spree of hate crimes in 2008 and 2009 killed six Roma Hungarians, including a 4-year-old boy, and wounded 55 people. Nearly all were Roma.
Some 600 miles to the south, in austerity-ravaged Greece, Jobbik and Fidesz may have met their match in fascism. Golden Dawn, an overtly Nazi-glorifying party, came in third in both Greece’s 2012 national elections and the 2014 European parliamentary elections, despite promoting views so extreme that even Jobbik refuses to ally with the group. In Greece, where there are fewer than 5,000 Jews, anti-Semitism is less part of a practical program than a marker of white supremacy — a sign of fascist street cred.
No European party of comparable size is as openly anti-Semitic as Golden Dawn. Ilias Kasidiaris, a member of the Greek parliament and a leader of the party, reportedly sports a swastika tattoo and has read from the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion — a piece of early-twentieth-century anti-Semitic propaganda that describes a fake plan for Jewish world domination — on the floor of the parliament. “We are ready to open the ovens,” said one Golden Dawn parliamentary candidate in March 2013, expressing his desire to purge Greece of migrants. “We will turn them into soap.”
While taking measure of the group’s brutality is difficult due to the negligence or alleged complicity of law enforcement, reports implicate Golden Dawn in beatings, torture, and murder of migrants and other minorities. A 2013 investigation by a Supreme Court deputy prosecutor reported that the party’s “operational” wing is specifically charged with carrying out violent attacks against those deemed the party’s enemies.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and the ruling center-right New Democracy Party were slow to confront Golden Dawn. New Democracy officials, in fact, use Golden Dawn members as bodyguards, and there are reports of an ongoing relationship between the parties, as well as evidence that Golden Dawn has received the support of business executives, the police, and bishops in the Orthodox Church. In August, Human Rights First released a report that uncovered some of these connections, including a New Democracy-affiliated businessman’s funding of Golden Dawn.
Late last year, the government finally launched a criminal investigation of Golden Dawn. In October, authorities recommended indicting 70 people, including all of Golden Dawn’s MPs, in connection with violent attacks against immigrants. But even if these prosecutions are successful, it’s unclear whether they will stunt Golden Dawn. While the government should be commended for finally recognizing the threat to public safety posed by the party and acting accordingly, some say it is nothing more than a politicized effort to harm a rival. To make matters worse, a video leaked in the spring showed an aide to the prime minister telling Kasidiaris that his boss initiated the criminal probe because he feared losing votes to Golden Dawn.
It’s no coincidence that Jobbik, Golden Dawn, and most extremist parties in Europe support Russia. (Golden Dawn Leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos says Greece and Russia are “natural allies.”) The far right shares President Vladimir Putin’s espousal of “traditional” values and his opposition to the EU and the United States. And despite Russia’s historic anti-fascism, Putin has good reason to return the support — and the anti-Semitism of his far-right allies doesn’t appear to be a deal-breaker. Political scientist Mitchell A. Orenstein says Putin hopes to “destabilize his foes and install in Brussels politicians who will be focused on dismantling the E.U. rather than enlarging it.” Recently, France’s National Front — whose leader, Marine Le Pen, has effusively praised Putin — received a major loan from a Russian bank. (Le Pen has been trying to cleanse her party of its well-earned reputation for anti-Semitism, an effort that suffered a blow in June when her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, “joked” that Jewish singer Patrick Bruel should face the ovens.) In Russia, even private banks are overseen by the central bank, so it’s unlikely that the Kremlin did not have hand in the loan. The New York Times reports that the loan is “yet another sign of growing closeness between Europe’s far-right parties and Russia.”
It’s clear that these far-right parties threaten more than the marginalized populations they rail against. They threaten Europe and they must be curtailed. Strong efforts to monitor, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes will help. Ruling politicians and parties should also actively oppose with both rhetoric and actions the resentments on which far-right parties feed, from Islamophobia to anti-Semitism to anti-immigrant animus. Perhaps most daunting of all, European governments must improve the dismal economic conditions that make far-right parties appealing to the disaffected. But few, if any, European governments have these capabilities. And those that do seem to be losing their resolve.
In November, European governments gathered in Berlin to commemorate a 2004 agreement to make concrete steps to stem the tide of anti-Semitic violence, such as legal reforms and Holocaust remembrance programs. U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who led the U.S. delegation, struck the right note, calling anti-Semitism an “insidious threat to the European liberal ideal that rose up when the Berlin Wall came down.” Yet her European counterparts don’t seem up to the challenge: Only a third of the countries that sent a foreign minister or other cabinet-level official in 2004 bothered to send one in 2014.
It is not 1939 in Europe. But the recent rise in anti-Semitism is a serious human rights problem, and unless the governments there get serious about opposing extremism, it’s going to get worse. European governments are kidding themselves if they believe they can be complacent about anti-Semitism and its purveyors without weakening their democracies and the social fabric of their countries. The failure to tackle this problem head-on will lead to weakened countries, a weakened EU, a weakened trans-Atlantic partnership, and a strengthened Russia. Those are outcomes none of us can afford.
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