Brussels shooting, election results spotlight threats for Europe’s Jews

Click photo to download. Caption: A march by Jobbik, the neo-Nazi Hungarian political party, in October 2013. Credit: Wiktor Baron via Wikimedia Commons.

By Alina Dain Sharon/JNS.org

The recent fatal shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels, as well as the results of continent-wide parliamentary elections, has brought the multidirectional threats faced by Europe’s Jews back to the forefront.

These problems are coming together from the “right-wing, certain elements of the Muslim community, and at the same time also from the radical left, which is viciously anti-Israel,” Daniel Schwammenthal, director of American Jewish Committee (AJC) Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, told JNS.org.

A shooter killed four people in the May 24 attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. On Friday, 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national with suspected ties to Islamic radicals in Syria, was reportedly arrested in connection to the shooting. Two of the victims were an Israeli couple in their 50s, Mira and Emmanuel Riva. On the same day as the shooting, two Jewish brothers were beaten by two still-unknown assailants outside of a synagogue in Creteil, a suburb of Paris.

French media reported that Nemmouche, the man arrested in connection with the shooting, is suspected of having been in Syria with jihadist groups in 2013. At the time of his arrest on Friday, Nemmouche was in the southern French city of Marseille in possession of a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun similar to the ones used in the Brussels attack. Even before the arrest of Nemmouche, there have been several European Muslims, including from Belgium, who have traveled to Syria to join the fighting in the civil war there, leading to some theories of a possible jihadist motive for the museum attack.

The Brussels Jewish community has been forced to significantly increase security following the shooting. Schwammenthal, whose children attend a Jewish school in Brussels, said that “when the kids are being brought and picked up, now they have police protection throughout the entire day.”

European voters, meanwhile, went to the polls Sunday to elect MEPs—members of the 751-seat European Parliament, which is also based in Brussels. Eurosceptic (opposing the political integration of Europe), right-leaning, and in some cases far-right parties gained electoral ground in the elections, in results that were dubbed a “political earthquake” by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

In France, the right-wing National Front party won 25 percent of the vote for that country’s parliament seats, and in the United Kingdom the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 27 percent of the vote. Additionally, the son a Nazi SA assault division member was the first candidate from the extreme-right National Democratic Party (NDP) of Germany to be elected to the European Parliament.

Click photo to download. Caption: Marine Le Pen, leader of France's right-wing National Front political party. Le Pen has tried to distance herself from the extremism and anti-Semitism of Jean-Marie Le Pen, her father and the party's founder. Credit: Jérémy Jännick via Wikimedia Commons.

Jewish groups and leaders have expressed concern about the election results. But Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish-Jewish activist, journalist, and expert from the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained that many right-wing parties throughout Europe are actually reaching out to the local Jewish community for the purpose of the struggle against Muslim immigration. 

There is “violence that is disproportionately targeting Jews, and in most cases the perpetrators are Muslim immigrants or descendants of Muslim immigrants who believe it’s legitimate to reek revenge on Jews for real or alleged wrongs of Israel,” Gebert told JNS.org

For example, in 2012, three children and a rabbi were killed in a shooting at a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse by Islamic extremist Mohammed Merah, a French national of Algerian origin. Due to such incidents, European Jews in some places have become more accepting of far-right parties that take a tough stance against radical Islam.

“They (some European Jews) legitimately fear for their physical safety, and the right-wing is willing to patrol the streets and pick up threatening-looking Muslims,” Gebert said, citing as an example the Flemish extreme-right party Vlaams Belang, which sees Jews as allies.

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, AJC’s Paris Director, told JNS.org that the National Front party has managed to capture a French public—especially young people and working people—that is critical of how the mainstream conservative and socialist parties have handled the country’s economic crisis and growing Muslim immigration.

“In an opinion poll a few months ago, 90 percent of French respondents said they did not trust their current political leaders. Marine Le Pen (the National Front’s current leader) has managed to convince voters that she is a credible alternative to the current system,” Rodan-Benzaquen said. 

“While parts of the electorate hold clear anti-Semitic views, and certain elements in the party and around it do too, I do not believe that the majority of the electorate of the National Front necessarily votes for the party because they despise Jews,” she said. “The link between a rise in anti-Semitism and a growing National Front is the unhealthy environment in which extremism and populism prosper.”

Gebert said that Le Pen has tried to distance herself from the extremism of her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“She has taken great effort to show that she is not anti-Semitic, and that what she really cares about is what the every man in France cares about,” he said.

There is a “feeling by the European common man that he’s no longer in control of events,” a sentiment Le Pen has targeted, according to Gebert. The National Front’s strategy is all a “smoke and mirrors act,” Gebert said, but since Le Pen has attempted to distance herself from extremism, it has become more acceptable to vote for the party.

Meanwhile, the election of the NPD candidate from Germany, while “an outrage, and an affront to Germany,” was a fluke due to the recent cancelation of a three-percent threshold for European Parliament elections in the country, explained Gebert.

Of greater concern, he said, is the rise of Britain’s far-right-leaning UKIP, as well as the advances of the far-right Golden Dawn party in Greece and far-right Jobbik party in Hungary.

But Dror Eydar, a columnist for Israel Hayom, questioned the public’s tendency to group certain right-leaning European parties together as threats to society.

“Has fascism returned to Europe, as we have been informed this week?” Eydar wrote regarding the elections. “Is it accurate to talk about all of Europe as a single entity? Are we on the brink of catastrophe, similar to the one that transpired there less than a decade ago? Is the case of the neo-Nazi party in Germany similar to the case of the National Front in France? In Germany, the neo-Nazi party feeds directly off the unholy ‘classic’ Nazism, whereas in France the far-right party feeds off the growing Muslim presence.”

“When I encounter the catchphrase ‘fascism shall not pass,’ I immediately get suspicious,” he added. “Especially when it is surrounded by a media consensus. As far as a particular bunch of windbags is concerned, we, the Israeli majority, are afflicted with fascism. The radical global Left views all of Israel in this way. In short, it is best to review events without the Pavlovian filter called the fear of the Right.”

A controversial memorial statue for the Holocaust is set to be unveiled in Hunagry on May 31. The statue depicting the German imperial eagle devouring the Angel Gabriel, who represents Hungary, is being called out for “whitewashing” Hungary’s own role in the deportations of more than 400,000 Jews.

Both the Hungarian and Greek parties won just three seats in the European Parliament, but when an explicitly neo-Nazi party gets “10 percent of the Greek vote, and not in the deepest moments of the [economic] crisis but when something of a recovery is underway, the people voting for Golden Dawn are voting for exactly what the party is selling,” Gebert said.

Another frequent problem for European Jews is being confronted with false accusations about Israel, especially from left-wing elements.

“The average Jew in the office around the water cooler is suddenly being confronted with ‘What are you doing in the West Bank again?’ and that sort of thing,” AJC’s  Schwammenthal said.

Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement provided to JNS.org that the “anti-Semitic attack in the Jewish museum in Brussels, with four innocent people being killed, just showed us how irrational hatred became brutal and murderous reality.”

“The very first message of the newly elected [European] Parliament therefore should be the strong condemnation of any kind of hatred against minorities,” Graumann said. “Anti-Semitism and racism have no place under our common European roof. This is something that we are more than ever requested to state loud and clear.”

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Posted on May 29, 2014 and filed under Features, News, World.