Malcolm F. Lowe on Les Habits neufs de l’antisémitisme en Europe

, November 15, 2007

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:3-4 (Fall 2007)


Old-New Anti-Semitism in Europe

Les Habits neufs de l’antisémitisme en Europe edited by Manfred Gerstenfeld and Shmuel Trigano, Editions Café Noir, 2004, 286 pp. [French]

Review by Malcolm F. Lowe

This collection provides a needed introduction to a pressing problem. Its title could be translated as “The New Guises” or more literally as “The New Clothes of Anti-Semitism in Europe.” About one-quarter of the book is an “Introduction” and the rest consists of contributions from individual authors on specific countries. Even so, it is less a comprehensive treatment than an exercise in raising awareness and promoting further involvement.

In the narrower sense, the editors have done a thorough job apart from occasional slips (thus the title of the contribution on the United Kingdom speaks of “Grande-Bretagne” but the running header has “L’Angleterre”). More broadly, however, it was clearly impossible to impose uniformity on contributions most of which were originally made in some other context and subsequently translated for this volume. Usually the contributions are well-footnoted, but some barely at all. Whereas a few have an appended bibliography, preferable would have been a single bibliography at the end.

The lesser part of the book is devoted to the situation in formerly communist countries, mainly Poland, Hungary, and Russia. Here the “classic” model of anti-Semitism prevails, as a phenomenon mainly connected with the chauvinistic Right. The Muslim populations of Russia are not significantly involved. Governments are officially opposed to anti-Semitic manifestations and there are laws prohibiting them. But whereas these laws are sporadically applied to prosecute acts of violence, anti-Semitic literature is often easily available. Hostility toward Israel in the mainstream media is noted only in Hungary.


The Europe of the Fifteen

Most of the book focuses on the countries that were members of the European Union before its eastward expansion of 2004. A contribution is devoted to each of the fifteen except Portugal and Luxembourg. Here a very different, yet remarkably uniform, pattern emerges.

Old-style anti-Semitism is socially marginalized and shunned in these countries. The Holocaust is officially commemorated and even its denial is sometimes illegal. On the other hand, official attitudes underrecognize or try to explain away the new-style hatred and violence against Jewish targets that comes from the growing Muslim populations. Few, other than Jews, stand up to combat the farfetched hostility toward Israel of certain mainstream intellectuals, politicians, and media. All this promotes an atmosphere in which, once again, Jews are under threat and made to feel alien in the societies of their citizenship. The biggest question is how all this is related to the levels of anti-Semitism that were socially acceptable in those same countries until their suppression following World War II.

To this question the book offers a variety of answers or attempts to answer. Even the “Introduction,” which actually consists of four unequal contributions from different authors, offers two main answers. Manfred Gerstenfeld considers anti-Semitism to be an integral part of European culture. He compares it with ballet: most Europeans have no interest in ballet and maybe even disdain it, yet it is a distinctive and permanent part of the European scene.

Georges-Elia Sarfati, with much justice, argues that henceforth “Judeophobia” should become the most general category. He sees it as a constantly evolving phenomenon. Its original matrix was theological, Christian and Islamic anti-Judaism; it later became social and cultural as anti-Semitism in the eighteenth century; now it is political and national in the form of anti-Zionism. This last is the denial to Jews alone, among all peoples, of the right to national independence.

Sarfati’s evolutionary scheme is instructive, but deficient on two accounts. Unlike Gerstenfeld, he has no separate category of racial Judeophobia. Second, like some other contributors, he imagines that Judeophobia began with Christianity. There can be no adequate understanding of Judeophobia without correcting this fundamental error.

The Jewish historian Josephus catalogued ancient pagan Judeophobia in his Against Apion, as found in such authors as Manetho, the Greek-speaking historian of Egypt whose writings predated the New Testament by three centuries. Many of the typical accusations against Jews were already commonplace: they use foreigners in their sacrifices, they are racially tainted by hereditary diseases, they hate all other peoples, their monotheism is in reality an atheistic attack on all true religion.

Especially the racial accusations were fostered by the Latin historian Tacitus, whose writings were virtually lost in the Christian Middle Ages, but rediscovered and increasingly admired in modern times. Thus the evolution of Judeophobia was not simply linear but was anciently racial, then predominantly theological, then again dangerously racial, and today also national.

Still, we should thank Sarfati for a vital clarification. That anti-Zionists tend to lapse into anti-Semitic stereotypes is well known. But they are all the more dangerous precisely where they avoid that, because neither their audience nor, in many cases, they themselves are aware that they are innovating a further evolution of Judeophobia.

Also some of the writers about specific countries venture answers to that broader question. It is, in fact, an advantage of the lack of uniformity in the contributions that one or another devotes more space to some particular component of the general issue.

The article on Spain concentrates on documenting the historical origins of anti-Jewish stereotypes that played a substantial role in defining Spanish national consciousness. The one on Belgium is a very careful analysis of the most recent events. Its analysis of the columns of Le Soir, the newspaper most widely read by French speakers, provides a model for characterizing the ingrained media anti-Zionism that other contributors document more sporadically. The report from the United Kingdom is entirely devoted to hate crimes. That on Greece explores the connections between anti-Zionism and hostility to the United States, mentioned by other contributors in passing.

The article on Sweden pays particular attention to determining just when certain anti-Israeli themes emerged from marginal groups into the political and media mainstream. Comparing Israelis with Nazis first became standard, surprisingly, not in regard to the Palestinians but when the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was widely described as a new Holocaust. It was in reaction to the Second Intifada that it became common and acceptable to ascribe mythic power to the “Jewish lobby,” operating not merely in the United States but in Western countries in general. Although it was leading Social Democrat politicians and journalists who pioneered these new-old stereotypes, they eventually made their appearance among Liberals as well.


A Growing Uniformity

Why, then, are all of the above and more noted by the contributors from so many countries? Presumably the answer lies in the increasing uniformity of European press practice, which in turn creates a uniformity among the meditations of intellectuals and politicians. It is not merely that the foreign press corps in any particular country develops its own esprit de corps and presents a misleadingly uniform version of events. Rather, the standards of what can and cannot be published, of what is or is not newsworthy, have become standard throughout the “serious” press of Europe.

An example is the emergence of evidently anti-Semitic cartoons in leading newspapers in distinct countries. Uniformly, protests against them were swept aside in the name of legitimate comment. The cartoons were praised by other journalists, in the main, as particularly meritorious. They could even earn a high award for their author.

Unnoticed so far, however, is the price that the Palestinians themselves pay for all this. The longstanding tolerance, bordering on encouragement, for Palestinian terrorism has the effect of legitimizing violence as the Palestinian political means of choice. That the Palestinians now endow violence against each other with the same legitimacy should not have surprised anyone, but did. Likewise, tolerance for Palestinian corruption may now have made it ineradicable. Palestinian society is gripped by the collective acceptance of grave distortions of reality because it is so rare that they are exposed to criticism. If ever all this is understood, it will likely be cited by some as the ultimate proof that the Western press is controlled by a Jewish lobby.

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MALCOLM F. LOWE is a Welsh academic in the fields of Greek philosophy, the New Testament, and Christian-Jewish dialogue.