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Behind Europe’s anti-Semitism ‘perception gap’

Disturbing confirmation that opinion in Europe about “the Jews” and their troubles is much more divided than one might have hoped.

An observant Jewish man seen waiting on the streets in Munich, Germany. May 05, 2018. Credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90
An observant Jewish man seen waiting on the streets in Munich, Germany. May 05, 2018. Credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, Haaretz and many other publications.

A comprehensive survey of European attitudes to anti-Semitism released last week by the European Union displays what its authors call a “perception gap.” In this context, the term means that Jews in Europe regard the problem of anti-Semitism as far more immediate, pressing and urgent than do their non-Jewish fellow citizens.

From a Jewish perspective, the survey—carried out in all 28 E.U. member states, and involving more than 27,000 respondents—is a welcome clarification on where Europeans stand on the matter of resurgent Jew-hatred, a trend that nearly two-thirds of respondents say has not increased over the past five years. It can also be seen as disturbing confirmation that opinion in Europe about “the Jews” and their troubles is much more divided than one might have hoped, despite all the memorials to the Holocaust, the Jewish museums, the restored synagogues, the Jewish film and food festivals, and the other historical and cultural markers that help to immunize the continent from a revival of Nazi barbarism.

Because of the vast scope of the survey, I want to focus here on what it reveals about the three E.U. countries with the largest Jewish communities in order of size: France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Even when combined, the overall size of these Jewish communities is about half of the 1.5 million Jews in New York alone, but their modest presence in numbers is offset by the enormous contributions they have made to their respective countries, as well as the knowledge that the roots of modern Jewish political emancipation can be found in all three Western European nations.

What impression has this history, on top of the turbulent present, made on how the non-Jewish population views the anti-Semitism now manifesting in their societies? Here are some key indicators from the E.U. survey, which was conducted just last month.

  • In France, 71 percent of survey respondents agreed that anti-Semitism was a problem on a scale from “fairly” to “very” serious. The equivalent figures for Germany and the U.K. were 66 percent and 62 percent, respectively. Those who thought the problem was “fairly serious” outweighed those who considered it “very serious.”
  • In France, which has a Jewish community of 460,000 out of a total population of 67 million, 36 percent of respondents said that they had Jewish friends or acquaintances. In the U.K. (with 270,000 Jews out of a total population of 66 million), that number was 32 percent, while in Germany (with 117,000 Jews out of a total population of 83 million) it was 11 percent.
  • Despite the consistent presence of the word “anti-Semitism” in the news cycles of all three countries, there was notable dissonance between them on whether anti-Semitism had increased over the past five years. Some 61 percent of Germans agreed that it had risen, compared to 51 percent of the French and 44 percent of the British respondents.

The “perception gap” identified by the E.U. becomes very stark when comparing these figures with the responses given by European Jews on the same subject to a separate E.U. survey of 12 countries published last month. A full 85 percent of the Jews surveyed regarded anti-Semitism as a growing threat; broken down nationally, 95 percent of French Jews saw the problem in those terms, compared with 85 percent of Jews in Germany and 75 percent of those in the U.K.

That survey  also quoted from the daily experiences of its Jewish respondents, much of which sounds distressingly familiar. Like the woman in her 60s living in Germany, who remarked that “for the past 12 years, anti-Semitism has no longer been a taboo in Germany, and so it occurs more often—verbally and physically, on German streets and in social media.” Or the woman in her 40s living in France, who said that “at work and in the media and social media, anti-Semitism is a daily and unrepressed occurrence.” Or the woman in her 20s living in the United Kingdom, who revealed that she had to put up with “anti-Semitic comments made to me at work such as ‘all Jews are rich.’ ”

It is not, of course, surprising that non-Jews are less sensitive than are Jews to the prevalence of anti-Semitism; they are not its targets. But in addressing that point, it needs pointing out that the anti-Semitism “perception gap” is as significant in terms of  demography as it is in terms of the political questions it raises.

What the E.U.’s 28-country survey revealed—and emphatically so in the case of the three countries under discussion—is that older, better-educated Europeans with friends and colleagues of different religious and ethnic backgrounds are far more likely than any other demographic category to understand why Jews on the continent are so fearful these days. And this group, it must be stressed, is at best about 25 percent of the overall population. Meanwhile, about half of the population in France and Germany, and more than half in the U.K., don’t believe that the current manifestations of anti-Semitism are anything to be overly alarmed about. It is among these respondents—most of whom also say they are not familiar with the Jewish religion of Jewish history—that you will find the people who are most receptive to anti-Semitic messages in the future.

Jews on the other side of the Atlantic are likely wondering how to both close this gap and blunt anti-Semitism’s appeal, while many Jews in the United States and Israel will conclude—much to the irritation of their European cousins—that Europe is a lost cause, and the sooner the Jews leave, the better.

Far more productive than handing out unsolicited advice is to concentrate on the nature of the problem. European anti-Semitism today is a social phenomenon from which Jews are in principle protected by the law. A significant minority of Europeans correctly understand that anti-Semitism is a social poison, but the younger and less educated they become, the less likely they are to grasp that. Most importantly of all, a majority of Europeans—even when confronted with daily headlines about anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party, in French inner cities, or in Italian soccer stadiums and so forth—remain unconvinced that the problem is as bad as the continent’s Jews believe it to be. That has to be the starting point for any response.

Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in “Commentary,” “the New York Post,” “Haaretz,” “The Wall Street Journal” and many other publications.

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