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How Bad Is Antisemitism In Europe? Surveys Suggest It’s Rampant

antisemitism parade

The Belgian city of Aalst celebrated this year’s Carnival with grotesque displays of overt antisemitism. Revelers mocked the Wailing Wall, with some dressed as ants in Hasidic hats and others as Nazis. That theme continued in Campo de Criptana, Spain, where Carnival participants dressed up as Nazis and concentration camp prisoners, flanked by chimneys.

The blatant bigotry on parade underscored that open antisemitism has come roaring back. What’s less certain is how many people are fueling that resurgence. Pew Research and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) surveys have approached that question, but it’s easier to ask than to answer.

Calculating that number requires not only a good definition of antisemitism (like International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition) but also a clear understanding of why we’re even asking. Do we want to know where Jews can most comfortably live as visible Jews, most easily assimilate, or simply live in safety, free of physical attacks?

European Attitudes About Jews Are Changing For Worse

Pew Research nodded toward this issue last year, while studying European attitudes 30 years after the Berlin Wall’s fall. Jews were not the poll’s focus, but it’s striking that Jews were rated favorably by their fellow countrymen in “the Netherlands (92%), Sweden (92%), the UK (90%) and France (89%).”

Seventy-four years after the Holocaust’s end, Pew also learned that only 12 percent of Germans in former East Germany and 5 percent in former West Germany viewed Jews unfavorably. Eighty-six percent of Germans told Pew they had favorable opinions of Jews in 2019, compared to 53 percent in 1991.

Unfortunately, other surveys don’t echo these upbeat numbers. Asked about this, a Pew Research spokesman, who pointed to some questions posed by Pew’s “international religion survey team” in 2017, emailed, “Neither survey set out to measure antisemitism. In fact, we are very careful NOT to make any claims that our questions are actually measuring antisemitism.”

So, stipulating that Pew’s surveys do not expressly study antisemitism, lack the qualitative data Pew’s spokesman considers necessary, and include few questions, let’s look at the 2017 data, because Pew remains a reputable source. That year, surveyors asked Europeans in 15 countries whether they would accept a Jew as family or a neighbor, whether Jews “pursue their own interests” rather than their home country’s, and whether Jews “overstate how much they have suffered.”

I’d submit that the number of Europeans opposed to Jewish relatives is irrelevant here. While it reflects a form of prejudice and is upsetting to any people involved, it doesn’t threaten Jews’ ability to live freely or safely.

By contrast, not wanting Jewish neighbors is housing discrimination and affects every Jewish citizen. So when 12 percent of Italians, along with 10 percent of Irish and Portuguese respondents say they wouldn’t “be willing to accept Jews as” neighbors, that matters.

When 36 percent of Portuguese respondents, along with 32 percent of Spaniards, 31 percent of Italians, and 28 percent of Belgians agree that “Jews always pursue their own interests and not the interest of the country they live in,” that’s concerning.

And when 36 percent of Italians, 33 percent of Portuguese, 30 percent of Spanish, and 28 percent of Belgian respondents tell Pew pollsters they agree that “Jews always overstate how much they have suffered,” that’s a red flag. Neighbors who believe you’re exaggerating about historical suffering are unlikely to empathize over your contemporary concerns.

Understanding the Sentiments Leading to Antisemitism

For a more explicit deep-dive into this subject, consult the ADL Global 100 index of antisemitism, which added an 18-nation update in 2019. ADL’s top-line conclusion is that 24 percent of Western Europeans and 34 percent of Eastern Europeans hold antisemitic views. Those numbers are followed by extensive, substantiating details.

Hesitating to dub strangers antisemites is wise, especially based on limited information.It’s worth reading the country reports in full, if only to understand the particular form antisemitism takes in each society. However, I’d like to focus on the survey’s first question as an important sign post for this inquiry.

Respondents were asked whether “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to [this country/to the countries they live in].” Anyone answering “probably true” views Jews as “the other.” Whether through ignorance or malice, this group is primed to believe antisemitic conspiracy theories, including myths about Jews controlling financial markets, the media, and world governments, or blaming Jews for the world’s wars.

The fact that 33 percent of British respondents deemed that statement “probably true” helps explain Corbynism’s growth and the “record high total of 1,805 antisemitic incidents in the UK last year.” Also, the fact that 64 percent of Poles, 62 percent of Spaniards, 50 percent of Belgians, 49 percent of Germans, 49 percent of Austrians, and 39 percent of Russians think this statement is “probably true” speaks volumes.

It’s easier to understand Jews being widely dehumanized at public celebrations when we understand how widespread the antisemitic virus is in Europe. That knowledge necessarily informs European Jews’ decisions about how openly Jewish to be in their daily lives — for those who aren’t visibly Jewish — and whether they consider it safe to remain in their home countries.

For those who would combat antisemitism, it also offers a window into the immense challenge ahead. Antisemitism’s European roots are centuries deep, so any curricular component would have to start long before the Holocaust.

Also worth pondering is the microscopic percentage of respondents truly familiar with Jews. That only 2 percent of Polish respondents reported interacting with Jews “very often,” while the same was true of 4 percent of respondents in Belgium and 1 percent in Spain, is instructive. Demonizing people you know only as ugly caricatures is easy. So it’s theoretically possible that person-to-person diplomacy, especially starting at early ages, could help reverse some of these conspiratorial beliefs.

But fundamentally, this is not European Jewry’s problem to fix. If things change, it will be because Europe’s non-Jewish majority decides it’s time to make their nations’ collective future brighter than their past.