BORENSTEIN: Anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe

We need to be aware of a recent dangerous spike in a historically rooted ideology of hate

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The roots of Nazism have not been completely eradicated from Germany or Europe as a whole.

Courtesy Ben Borenstein

Walking through the Nazi concentration camp of Sachsenhausen did not feel right. As a Jewish individual, I had always imagined what my first experience at a concentration camp would be like. Many say that you never feel exactly what you expect to feel. I did not expect to see high school students laughing, playing games and rapping on the site of a former concentration camp. I did not expect to be stared and pointed at by European visitors for wearing a yarmulke at a place where Jewish people were imprisoned in horrible conditions less than a century ago. Although it is understandable for high schoolers to be immature and unfamiliar with Jewish dress, we need to recognize the continued threat of anti-Semitism in present-day Europe. 

Anti-Semitism has deep historical roots in Europe, tracing as far back as the Middle Ages. In its most basic definition, anti-Semitism involves hating an individual for being Jewish. Jews in Medieval Europe were restricted in their trade, property ownership, citizenship and even worship. Accusations of blood libel — allegations of Jews’ murdering Christian children to use their blood for rituals — appeared as early as the 12th century and would later be incorporated into Nazi propaganda in the 1930s. This anti-Semitism never died and would later manifest in the genocide that we know as the Holocaust. 

The roots of Nazism have not been completely eradicated from Germany or Europe as a whole. This spring break, I went on a trip called Germany Close Up which grants American Jews the chance to spend a week in and around Berlin to learn about the history of German Jewry. Over the course of the trip, I encountered many great German people who do everything they can to acknowledge the atrocities of the Holocaust in the past and fight anti-semitism in the present. Nevertheless, even Germany is not fully sanitized from its past. The Alternative for Germany political party in present-day Germany propagates anti-semitism by downplaying the relevance of the Holocaust in German history and advocating for bans on ritual circumcision and kosher slaughter. These bans would make a strict religious Jewish lifestyle virtually impossible and demonstrate how the AfD attempts to thinly veil its anti-Semitism through policy measures. Though Germany has laws preventing Holocaust denial, Germany’s policy efforts have clearly not been completely effective in eradicating anti-Semitism throughout the country. 

Anti-Semitism manifests in several forms and goes far beyond ignoring or denying the Holocaust. A CNN study in 2018 found that 1 in 20 Europeans have never heard of the Holocaust. However, anti-Semitism is not just a rhetorical threat to European Jews, it often leads to hate crimes against Jewish people. Just under a month ago, 100 graves in France were desecrated with swastikas, demonstrating current anti-Semites’ eagerness to disrespect even those who have already passed away. Events like this have not happened in isolation. The UK experienced a record total of 1,652 anti-semitic incidents in 2018, which is a 16 percent increase from 2017. Even more troubling, France saw a whopping 74 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2018 from the previous year. We need to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is not just a way of thinking, it is a motivation for hate crimes.

Anti-Semitism has invaded certain aspects of European culture, manifesting in stereotypes and conspiracy theories that have become increasingly popular in recent years. On March 5 in Belgium, a mayor defended a parade float which featured featured puppets of stereotyped religious Jews holding rats and on top of money bags. In 2015 in Denmark, a Jewish volunteer security guard was murdered as he was protecting a Danish synagogue. Synagogues across Europe have extensive armed security just so that they can conduct regular services.

There are ways that Europe can look to combat this recent spike in anti-Semitism. First, Europe needs to make sure that its policy decisions reflect a strong stand preventing discrimination against Jewish people. National and local governments set an example for the populous and need to set a strong example of acceptance. Moreover, Europeans should advocate for the concept of religious pluralism — the inclusion, appreciation and coexistence of various types of religion within a nation. Many European countries do not have much religious diversity. Judaism will never become a majority religion in any European country, nor does it intend to. However, religious differences can lead to respectful cultural exchange instead of unnecessary hate. Lastly, the remnants of Nazism and white supremacy in Europe must be combated in European democracies. The AfD party in Germany has power because of its voter base. Many other European political parties in Europe have these same hateful techniques. European voters need to support institutions with values that do not further propagate anti-Semitism. 

Rising anti-Semitism in Europe is a serious problem. Seeing as Nazi-inspired extremism has wreaked havoc on many parts of the world, it is important to acknowledge that anti-Semitism and other forms of hate are not geographically isolated to just a few countries. A recent European rise in anti-Semitism has led to violence, hate crimes and unacceptable propaganda. We need to be global citizens in the fight against all forms of hate, including anti-Semitism.

Ben Borenstein is a third-year student in the College and the Community Chair of the Jewish Leadership Council. 

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