For the second time in two months, a major study has shown that anti-Semitism in Europe is surging, and the far-right isn’t primarily to blame. Yet American Jewish leaders remain fixated on the idea that right-wing anti-Semitism is the principal threat to Jewish life.
Last month’s study by the Joint Distribution Committee surveyed 893 Jewish leaders and professionals from throughout Europe. Inter alia, it found that Jews felt safer in right-wing Eastern Europe than the liberal West by a 20-point margin.
The new study, by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, surveyed almost 16,500 Jews in the 12 E.U. states where most European Jews live. Overall, 89 percent of respondents said anti-Semitism had worsened in their country in the last five years, 85 percent considered anti-Semitism a “very” or “fairly” big problem, and 38 percent have considered emigrating because of it. Additionally, 28 percent always or frequently avoid “wearing, carrying or displaying” anything identifiably Jewish, and 43 percent sometimes do.
But though every single country scored poorly, countries commonly viewed as liberal generally fared worse than those viewed as having “right-wing” governments. The highest proportion of respondents deeming anti-Semitism a big problem was in France (95 percent), followed by Belgium (86 percent), Germany and Poland (85 percent), Sweden (82 percent), Spain (78 percent), Hungary (77 percent), Britain (75 percent), Austria, Italy and Holland (73 percent) and Denmark (56 percent). Thus of the countries perceived by their own Jews as having the worst anti-Semitism problems, all but Poland are considered liberal bastions.
In contrast, the lower end of the scale consisted almost exclusively of countries widely deemed to have populist or even borderline fascist governments: Italy’s coalition of the right-wing League and the populist Five Star Movement, Austria’s coalition of traditional conservatives and the far-right Freedom Party, Britain’s pro-Brexit conservatives, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and in Denmark—home to some of Europe’s most draconian anti-immigration laws—a minority government dependent on support from the far-right Danish People’s Party.
Moreover, of the seven countries covered by a previous E.U. study in 2012, the proportion of respondents deeming anti-Semitism a major problem declined in only one: Hungary, which registered a drop of 12 percentage points, whether despite or because of being under Orbán’s rule that entire time. France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and Britain all registered substantial increases. Britain’s was the biggest, propelled mainly by Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left Labour Party. Close behind were the liberal bastions of Germany and Sweden, up 23 and 22 percentage points, respectively.
In fairness, more specific questions produced murkier results. Some faithfully mirrored the overall pattern: The three worst countries for “expressions of hostility … in the street or other public places” were liberal France, Belgium and Germany (with 91, 81 and 80 percent deeming this a problem); the best were conservative Poland, Hungary and Austria (37, 46 and 46 percent). In contrast, the worst countries for “anti-Semitism in political life” were Britain, Poland and Hungary (84, 77 and 74 percent).
Nevertheless, two questions in particular help explain why liberal countries fared worse overall.
One relates to who actually perpetrates anti-Semitic harassment. Though respondents frequently couldn’t identify perpetrators’ political views, when they could, it was most often a “Muslim extremist view” (30 percent). Next came “left-wing political view” (21 percent), and trailing in the rear was “right-wing political view” (13 percent).
In short, despite the widespread perception that anti-Semitism comes mainly from the far right, in Europe, Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism are bigger problems. And both are more prevalent in liberal Western countries, simply because the liberal West has much larger (and more influential) populations of both Muslims and hardcore leftists than the conservative, anti-immigrant East.
The second illuminating question showed that “feelings of being blamed” for Israel’s actions were far more common in liberal countries than conservative ones. In Hungary and Poland, only 8 and 19 percent of respondents, respectively, said this happens frequently. In Germany, Spain, Belgium and France, 50 percent or more deemed this a frequent occurrence.
Non-Israeli Jews obviously shouldn’t be blamed for anything Israel does. But it’s hardly surprising that this happens more often in countries where antipathy to Israel is greater to begin with. And since both Muslims and liberals are generally more anti-Israel than conservatives nowadays, countries with large Muslim and left-wing populations are more prone to this problem.
None of this means right-wing anti-Semitism should be ignored. But given two major surveys showing that Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism are bigger problems in Europe than the far right variety, and that liberal countries consequently have worse anti-Semitism problems than conservative ones, American Jewish leaders’ continued fixation on the far-right is shocking.
Take, for instance, the reaction to the latest survey by World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder—someone deeply involved in supporting European Jewish communities, and therefore ostensibly familiar with European realities. “How can one be surprised by these results,” Lauder said, “when in Chemnitz, Germany, anti-Semites practicing the Nazi salute were allowed to march while the police stood idly by; when in France, Marine Le Pen, whose father was a virulent anti-Semite was almost elected president; when in Austria and Hungary, the FPO and Jobbik, both of which were originally founded by neo-Nazis, are now the second-largest parties and members of the governing coalition; and when in the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the Labour Party.”
In other words, aside from in Britain—where the anti-Semitism spewing from Corbyn’s Labour has become impossible to ignore—Lauder was concerned solely about the far-right. He completely ignored the two more serious sources of European anti-Semitism.
Since most American Jews lean left, it’s understandable that they would rather focus on right-wing anti-Semitism, which comes from the enemy’s camp, than left-wing and Muslim anti-Semitism, which come from their political allies. It’s also understandable that they’d rather worry about right-wing Hungary and Austria than liberal Germany and Sweden.
But if they actually want to combat anti-Semitism, removing these ideological blinders is essential. Anti-Semitism is hard enough to fight under the best of circumstances. It’s impossible when you ignore the facts.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.