Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, riding a wave of nationalism
18.11.2019, Xenophobia and anti-Semitism
One of Europe’s beauties is the historic Polish city of Krakow. The main square, Rynek Glowny, is one of the largest and most impressive in the continent. But the most interesting and culturally vibrant area is south of the old town, in a neighbourhood named Kazimierz.
In this district Judaism and Christianity lived together for centuries, until 1941 when the Nazis moved local Jews to the Krakow ghetto or to concentration camps. After 1945, years of communist rule led to further Jewish emigration and urban degradation. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the area became a hub for Jewish activities again. Today Kazimierz is experiencing a growth in Jewish population and a cultural revival.
The Jewish Community Centre has played an important role in its regeneration. The words “tolerance” and “culture” are written in many different languages on its entrance gate and visitors are welcomed by a banner saying to stop and “say hi”. The centre aims to not only change the world’s perception of Poland, but also the nation’s view of Jews. The front desk volunteer, a student reading politics at the University of Krakow, says she is one of many young Poles who are only recently discovering their (previously hidden) Jewish family’s histories.
This tells you something about the current climate in Poland. The majority of the country’s Jewish population was exterminated during the Nazi occupation. Yet the right-wing ultra-Catholic government of the Law and Justice party, which won a second term in office in October, tried to legally challenge the role of Poland in German antisemitism during the Second World War. The outcome of this approach is naturally the further stigmatisation, marginalisation, and discrimination of (almost) anyone considered to be “other”.
Earlier this month, Dominik Tarczynski, an MP who celebrated the fact that Poland did not take any single Muslim immigrant, claimed that such governmental policies were not racist. He said: “We don’t want Poland being taken over by Muslims, Buddhists, or someone else…”
“For me, multicultural society, it’s not a value,” he added. “Christian culture, Roman law, Greek philosophers, these are the virtues for us.”
Under this narrow definition, “targets” of this policy extend beyond Islam – they include the EU, the LGBT+ community and, once more, the Jews. Poland’s Independence Day, on 11 November, turned into a symbol of widespread scapegoating and hatred. It became a massive whites-only rally of European far-right and neo-fascist activists. Among the demonstration organisers was an antisemitic fascist group called All-Polish Youth. But a Polish foreign minister considered this ultra-nationalist gathering as “a great celebration of Poles”.
Although Poland is surely not the worst example of antisemitic acts, this right-wing nationalism merged with ultra-Catholicism does not promote any welcoming environment. For example, Jewish social scientist Michal Bilewicz, the head of the Centre for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, and a vocal opponent of xenophobia in Polish society, has not yet been named professor because Polish president Andrzej Duda has withheld the authorisation needed for his appointment to the role.
This is unsurprising if one considers that recently posters were displayed all over Warsaw before the September election labelling Jews as “parasites” and demanding to “Stop the Jewish occupation” of the country. Effigies of Judas were beaten and burnt in a small Polish town, while a newspaper was sold in the parliament quarter headlined “How to recognise a Jew” (also featuring a picture of famous Princeton scholar, Jan Gross).
But it would be wrong to believe that the rest of the continent is immune to suspicious attitudes towards Jews. In 2018, one out of five Europeans thought the Jewish community had an excessive influence in both media and politics. Others seemed unaware of their historic persecution.
The latest 2019 report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights suggests how more than the 80 per cent of the young Jews surveyed believe that antisemitic discrimination is “a problem in their countries”, and that it has “increased over the past five years”.
These young people also believe in a general rise of racism and are worried about the “intolerance towards Muslims”. Another similar survey from the same EU agency shows that more than three in four in the whole Jewish population decided not to report antisemitic acts.
Hate, prejudice and xenophobia has seen huge growth in EU members such as France and Germany. The rise of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) plays a role as it clearly waters down some of the darker aspects of the country’s past – and is unashamed in regenerating a long-standing taboo, German nationalism. In other words, the centuries-old suspicion towards Jews is truly back in Europe.
In late October, the Italian parliament established a special commission on antisemitism and racial hatred, named after Jewish senator Liliana Segre – a survivor of persecution during the Second World War and now sadly under police protection due to the daily number of racist threats. The mainstream “centre right”, led by the hard-right populist leader Matteo Salvini, abstained because this commission would (apparently) lead to “censorship”.
Europe is at a very difficult historical junction and there is work to do on a collective memory of the European past. Far-right nationalism is reshaping public debates and political rhetoric – where the once unacceptable has become acceptable. Xenophobia is, moreover, often disguised as anti-refugee rhetoric.
The European Union made some effort to fight intolerance. On 12 November, a conference in Brussels celebrated 10 years since the EU’s Fundamental Rights Charter became binding. In December 2015, the European Commission appointed the first coordinator on combating antisemitism. The European parliament similarly set up a working group on antisemitism. But individual countries need to do much more on the most problematic pages of their history.
A xenophobic, authoritarian and anti-liberal wind is blowing across the continent and has an appeal among some voters and mainstream parties.
Far-right nationalist leaders are demanding more power to protect their own national fellow citizens, while scapegoating the perceived enemies of the nation. Yet the usual contemporary foes – Muslims, refugees, the elites and the EU – seem not to be enough. It is worrying that, after 70 years since the disastrous events of the Second World War, the Jews are back in the frame.
By Andrea Mammone