Europe, Antisemitism, and Multiculturalism

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November 1, 2002
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by Antony Lerman

Many American commentators and Jewish leaders feel that they were right all along: Europe is irredeemably antisemitic; it may have suppressed its instincts for a few decades, shamed by the Holocaust, but is now reverting to type. In the past two years or so, Europe looks as if it is once again preparing to devour its Jews. The World Jewish Congress claims antisemitism in Europe is worse now than at any time since World War II. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer believes it’s not safe for Jews to walk the streets there.

Some Jewish voices in Europe echo these views. French Jewish leaders compared the wave of attacks on synagogues there to Kristallnacht. The chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, called today’s antisemitism “the real, ultimately murderous thing.”

To the 2 – 2.5 million Jews living in Europe, this is not just ephemeral comment. Given the past, they are naturally highly sensitized to the problem of antisemitism. Dire warnings about the apocalyptic consequences of antisemitism hang in the air creating fear and uncertainty, and seemingly throw into doubt the permanence of the remarkable European Jewish revival of the past decade and more.

Antisemitism never went away, but the evidence for the extreme claims now being made is flimsy and the threat posed is being grossly exaggerated. Is anything that happened in the past two years really worse than what Jews experienced in communist Europe until 1989? How easily we forget that a thinly disguised antisemitic campaign in Poland in 1968 resulted in the mass expulsion of approximately 15,000 Polish citizens of Jewish nationality or Jewish ancestry between 1968 and 1972, the largest anti-Jewish action in Europe in the postwar period. Even the attacks on Jewish targets, shocking as they are, do not appear to be worse than other anti-Jewish incidents linked to periods of increased tension in the Middle East. And when other groups such as Asians, blacks, Muslims, refugees, and asylum seekers suffer severe racial harassment on a daily basis, way beyond anything experienced by Jews anywhere in Europe, the fuss we make over our own “suffering” is shameful.

The picture of Europe gripped by growing Jew hatred is largely driven by the claim that severe criticism of Israel in the media is just disguised antisemitism. But Jews who love Israel are bound to blanch at extreme censure, and it is easier to brand it as “antisemitism” than to confront the consequences of realizing that some of this criticism is justified.

All this has sharpened the debate about the European Jewish future. For those who see the threat as highly potent, it proves that Jews are a people who always dwell alone. For them, communal priorities must therefore be determined by two principal duties of committed Jews: the expression of solidarity with Israel, to the point of adopting an attitude of “my country right or wrong”; and support for the community’s defense and security. The claim that these are paramount means that public criticism of Israel is not to be allowed because disloyalty is intolerable.

In this defensive and mistrustful climate, the renaissance of Jewish society in the past fifteen years – expressed in the renewed interest in Jewish culture and heritage, in Jewish history and genealogy, in higher Jewish studies and alternative forms of Jewish education, in greater engagement as Jews with European societies – is regarded as at best a luxury, at worst a dangerous diversion.

If the “Israel-firsters” are right, multiculturalism as a solution to the “new” antisemitism looks like pretty weak medicine. Indeed they might even see it as part of the problem because it allows those who are ideologically and theologically opposed to Western liberalism and democracy – and are ready to advocate the most extreme methods of achieving the West’s destruction – the freedom to propagate their views. This is the “clash of civilizations” scenario in which Jewish support for multiculturalism would only strengthen our “enemies.”

But if the “Israel-firsters” are wrong, as I argue, then multiculturalism – as a way of preserving and promoting cultural diversity, respecting difference, and at the same time working for social cohesion and not cultural relativism – has much to offer. It would help stress that a country is both a community of citizens and a community of communities, both a liberal and a plural society; it would emphasize the value of the contribution each community can make to society as a whole; it would create a climate in which maintaining Jewish distinctiveness is an expression of society’s common agenda and not an aberration. It’s the positive way of fighting racism and antisemitism, and for Jews it demands deeper engagement with the societies in which they live, not increased separation and defensiveness. Regrettably, few European countries seriously embrace multiculturalism at present, and even in some of those there is a backlash against policies respecting difference. Too many European states see themselves as ethnically homogenous – mostly a false perception but, as we have seen in the Balkans, also an explosive one.

Sadly, Jewish leadership in Europe is incapable of driving support for multiculturalism from the Jewish perspective; they, and the pan-European institutions which should play a leading role in this, are weak, ineffectual, and lacking in vision. Instead of dubiously lashing out at Europe’s politicians and media for not doing enough to highlight and combat antisemitism, and for being biased against Israel, Jewish leaders should organize more effectively across Europe – a critical mass of 2-2.5 million Jews will be listened to – and work with and through national governments and European institutions to promote multiculturalism. The tendency to raise the specter of the Holocaust at every opportunity must also stop. Not because Europeans might resent being constantly reminded, but because it distorts our understanding and our presentation to the world of the multifaceted nature of who we are today. The Holocaust is central to Jewish and European history – and now recognized as such – but it is not the only thing we bring to the multicultural table.

Jewish leaders should take their cue from what is happening at the grassroots where there is interest and involvement in avenues that provide the bedrock for engagement in a multicultural society – the exploration and expression of the great variety of forms of Jewish identity through culture, arts, education, dialogue, and religious practice. These endeavors grow despite the scaremongers. It’s this that offers the greatest hope for a route to the future for Europe and its Jews.

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