To put it very mildly, dark portents of resurgent antisemitism are making news all over Europe. According to provisional figures released in recent days, the number of antisemitic incidents recorded in Germany climbed to 1,646 last year, a rise of nearly 10% on the previous year.
Along with acts of abuse or desecration, the 2018 total included 62 physical attacks, up from 37 in 2017. In France, a distinguished Jewish intellectual, Alain Finkelkraut, has just been assaulted and taunted in the street by anti-government protesters. The reasons given by seven British politicians for leaving the Labour opposition included the party’s perceived failure to tackle antisemitism in its ranks. And in Belgium, football supporters were recently heard chanting a song about burning Jews.
One aggravating factor in this grim situation is that social media have made it easier than ever to propagate prejudice and target scapegoats. Ideas and insinuations that would find no place in the respectable media or political discourse can cascade all too easily from phone to phone.
As is pointed out by Raya Kalenova, Executive Vice-president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC), the proliferation of new electronic platforms has unfortunately turned out to be a boon for those bent on reviving old dark myths or simply playing on people’s fears and frustrations with life. And words of hatred can all too easily translate in acts of deadly violence.
That dire background lends urgency to an initiative undertaken this week by the EJC, an umbrella body based in Brussels. Backed by partner organisations in the United States, the EJC presented the governments and bureaucrats of the European Union with an “action plan” which they feel is needed to turn high-minded rhetoric into tangible change.
The plan calls on the EU’s 28 member states, individually and collectively, to spend more money on monitoring and measuring antisemitism, on countering it through targeted education programmes, including holocaust education, and on ensuring the physical security of Jewish communities. Whenever the EU discusses human rights with countries outside its ranks (a category that will soon include Britain) it should make a point of raising the question of antisemitism, the plan insists.
In other words, the EU’s dream of “exporting human rights” by using its diplomatic and commercial heft should include, as a matter of priority, the welfare of Jewish communities, especially where there is good reason to think they are under threat. The plan demands more resources for the EU’s co-ordinator on combatting antisemitism, Katharina von Schnurbein.
The document was offered as a way to give concrete form to a pledge made by European leaders in December to work together to make life safer for European Jews.
Ms Kalenova told Erasmus that the plan’s publication reflected a troubling and paradoxical trend in Europe: governments and institutions are gradually becoming more sensitive to the problem of antisemitism, but in civil society, antisemitic sentiment is proving much harder to control, especially in an electronic age. In her view, the single most worrying country was France, where slogans chanted by anti-government protesters (such as “France is ours”) were a throwback to much darker eras of modern history.
Meanwhile, the EJC’s president Moshe Kantor issued a statement about the situation in Britain that found some merit in the complaints of the Labour rebels. “The time is now long overdue for [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn to act once and for all to stamp out the scourge of anti-Semitism from his party…The necessary first step will be for Mr Corbyn to apologise for all his past comments and affiliations with Jew-haters and to expedite urgently the disciplinary process against all Labour Party members accused of antisemitism.”