Pro-Israel groups in the US and Europe have campaigned to suggest the European Union is aflame with a “new anti-Semitism,” and to thereby stifle criticism of Israel. But recently they’ve suffered several setbacks.
A new 344-page study from the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) found that there has been “a noticeable rise in reported anti-Semitic incidents” in recent years. But contrary to the findings in a EUMC report produced in late 2003, the new report concluded there was no evidence that the increase could be attributed mainly to Muslims and pro-Palestinian groups. Rather, the largest group of perpetrators was made up of young, white Europeans incited by traditional right-wing extremist groups.
The earlier EUMC report was never officially published because the EU concluded that its methodology was flawed. Norman Finkelstein, a history professor at DePaul University and author of The Holocaust Industry, examined the earlier EUMC report and pointed out that it defined almost any criticism of Israel as “anti-Semitic.” Examples of anti-Semitism cited in the earlier report included complaints that someone wore a keffiyeh at a meeting of the Italian Communist Party, where books by Palestinians were being distributed. Greta Duisenberg, the wife of the president of the European Central Bank, famously unfurled a Palestinian flag from the balcony of her Amsterdam apartment. This too was cited in the original report as an example of anti-Semitism.
In a Los Angeles Times commentary last December that reflected the general mood, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), claimed there had been “hundreds of attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions over the last three years” in Europe. He condemned the “hesitation of European governments to apprehend and prosecute the perpetrators, most of whom are Muslims.”
Other leading pro-Israel Jewish organizations have also sought to use the flawed EU report to advance the thesis that Muslims and pro-Palestinian groups in Europe were in the vanguard of a vicious new anti-Semitism. Last January, Edgar Bronfman and Cobi Benatoff, presidents respectively of the World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress, published a commentary in the Financial Times accusing the EU leadership of “intellectual dishonesty and moral treachery” for refusing to publish the report. They accused the EU of supposedly covering up for Muslims and Arabs for “politically motivated” reasons. The vitriolic tone of the article prompted EU Commission President Romano Prodi to cancel (and later reinstate) a seminar he had planned on anti-Semitism.
The new EUMC report, which Finkelstein says uses sounder definitions of anti-Semitism, has left these groups in a quandary. ADL, in a press release, gave the report a cautious welcome. However, it also complained that it did not emphasize enough the finding that young Muslims allegedly perpetrated some of the incidents. It also pointed out that “the resulting headlines in newspapers across the world were that anti-Semitism had increased, and that disaffected white Europeans were responsible.” In other words, the ADL was upset that the findings of the study were reported accurately.
Finkelstein notes that the ADL is not disagreeing with what the new report said “because they are no longer claiming that the majority of incidents were committed by Muslim youth.” As he sees it, “all they are saying now is that not enough emphasis was given to the role of Muslim youth, which is a far cry from months ago when they were claiming this earth-shattering news that Muslims were most responsible. They don’t claim that any more because there is no evidence for it … there are millions more Muslims in Europe than there were in the past. It would be a shock if they weren’t involved” in some incidents.
Other evidence undermines the claim that Europe is awash in a new anti-Semitism. The respected Washington-based Pew Research Center’s survey of global attitudes one year into the Iraq war reported: “Despite concerns about rising anti-Semitism in Europe, there are no indications that anti-Jewish sentiment has increased over the past decade. Favorable ratings of Jews are actually higher now in France, Germany and Russia than they were in 1991.”
Putting this in perspective, Pew observed: “As is the case with Americans, Europeans hold much more negative views of Muslims than of Jews.”
This hardly supports the thesis - frequently advanced by pro-Israel Jewish groups - that what drives growing criticism of Israel is an inherent, underlying and increasing hatred of Jews as Jews. Yet efforts by Israel’s apologists to use accusations of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israel have reached ever more chilling and absurd heights.
In June 2002, noted sociologist Edgar Morin, and co-authors Sami Nair and Daniel Sallenave, published an article in Le Monde questioning how Israeli Jews, descendants of the victims of ghettoization and persecution, could inflict so much suffering on the Palestinians. In March this year, the France-Israel Association and Lawyers Without Borders took the three authors and the editor of Le Monde to court charging them with “racial defamation and justifying terrorism.” More than 100 European intellectuals issued a statement defending the accused, recalling that Morin himself has affirmed he is Jewish, and calling the legal action a grave threat to freedom of thought in France.
Among those who submitted statements in defense of Morin and his colleagues was Theo Klein, the former president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France. A verdict in the case is expected in May.
In Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, Foxman has published what he says are “litmus tests to assess when criticism of Israel crosses the line” into anti-Semitism. In a remarkably intolerant passage, he wrote: “First, let me say anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. There should be no debate about that.” Foxman would like nothing more than to see all discussion of Israel and Zionism come to an end, except within the narrowest of bounds, which he would define. What he and like-minded people refuse to acknowledge is that as long as Israel claims presumptuously that it represents and acts in the name of Jews all over the world, some people will believe it and direct their anger at the community in general. This is wrong and must be fought, but it is to a large extent a result of Israeli actions and propaganda.
Efforts in Europe to put an end to debate about Israel’s growing repression of the Palestinians mirror those in the United States, where criticism of Israel is already far less tolerated than even in Israel itself. Similar efforts in Europe are unlikely to succeed as effectively, however, since Europeans are generally better informed than Americans about what is taking place on the ground in Palestinian areas. Nevertheless, Europeans, while acknowledging and fighting real racism, regardless of its victims, should be vigilant that they do not allow cynical campaigns to shape their approach to the century-old Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article was first published in The Daily Star on 16 April 2004.