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Answering European antisemitism

Europe must rediscover its Jewish roots

A visitor walks inside the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. Associated Press/Photo by Markus Schreiber

Answering European antisemitism
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A new European task force is going hard against antisemitism in a last-ditch effort to save the continent from its oldest and most self-destructive sin. It’s good news for Jews, but even better news for non-Jews seeking to solve Europe’s post-Christian identity crisis.

Once upon a time, Europe was home to most of the world’s Jews. Today, only 10 percent of the world’s Jewish population lives in Europe, the rest were either killed or forced to flee after seventeen centuries of persecution. Lately, a new batch of conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 has given life to old obsessions with Jews and the State of Israel, which, aggravated by a growing Muslim population, have turned much of Europe into a pressure cooker. Of the 1.5 million Jews still living there, 85 percent feel that antisemitism is a serious problem, and 90 percent think it’s getting worse. Nearly half have experienced anti-Jewish hatred firsthand.

But the European Union’s new strategy, released on Oct. 5, intends to change all that. Remarkable in its scope and aggressiveness, the document takes on right-wing, left-wing, and Islamic antisemitism by name, condemning acts of violence as well as subtle “conspiracy myths and disinformation” that poison public culture. Historically, the EU has lumped antisemitism and racism together, but European leaders see that the time has come for a direct response to antisemitism. Their plan calls for new legal and political measures backed by sizeable funding and urges EU member states to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism and to apply it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the plan is its focus on “fostering Jewish life” by preserving heritage sites and educating Gentiles about Jews and Judaism. “To dismantle prejudices and to achieve full recognition of Jewish life as part of Europe’s society,” the document notes, “awareness and knowledge of Jewish history and culture need to be increased among the general public.” It cites a recent poll that finds only 3 percent of Europeans feeling “very well informed” about Jews and 68 percent “not informed” at all, revealing a mental gap that anti-Jewish fantasies can easily fill.

But even more interesting is that the EU, known for its hostility to Israel, comes off as surprisingly warm. It praises Arab-Israeli cooperation under the Abraham Accords, calls for more fact-finding trips to the Jewish state, and describes Israel itself as a key partner. It also notes that today the greatest source of antisemitism is anti-Zionism, a principled objection to Israel’s existence that often masquerades as simple criticism of Israeli policies. That’s big news in itself—and welcome news.

Eight out of ten European Jews feel unjustly targeted by anti-Zionists who project their hatred of the Jewish state onto Jews everywhere, especially online, and it doesn’t take much for these rants to turn physically violent as we saw right here in America back in May.

So why is Europe suddenly concerned with antisemitism? Two excellent essays from Benjamin Haddad and Damir Marusic recently explored this question, noting a shift in global politics that has driven a shift inside Europe itself. But where the two essayists rightly mention Jerusalem as symbolic of a more nation-based view of history that looks increasingly attractive to Europeans grappling with the disappointments of globalism, the deeper story is about Jerusalem as the touchstone of European identity.

What is Europe anyway? Defined as Christendom for more than a thousand years, Europe rolled back the church’s power in the modern age (sadly, for good reasons) and put a rational-liberal order in its place. But the failure of that order to address the continent’s psychological needs, much less to confront the Islamic culture welling up inside its borders, has thrown Europeans back on themselves, forcing them to redefine the essence of the civilization they still hope to save.

Right-wing and left-wing Europeans define the culture differently, of course—one side cites the Judeo-Christian heritage, the other side cites the human rights discourse—but both sense that the Jews are “an inextricable part of Europe's identity,” and they are right. There is no Christianity, no modernity, no liberalism, no progressivism—indeed, no Europe—without the sons and daughters of Jacob. For as the historian Thomas Cahill once wrote, “The Jews started it all.”

The Jews don’t need Europe as much as Europe needs the Jews. In this late hour, defending the Jewish people is a moral mandate. Europe must come to see the Jewish people as members of an ancient nation and as the living reminder of Europe’s moral and biblical heritage. This recognition is as an act of civilizational reclamation.

The West is in protracted decline as it distances itself from the foundations of our moral order. In that, the EU’s new strategy is a promising and praiseworthy step in the right direction.

Now, do Americans possess enough courage to do the same?

Robert Nicholson

Robert Nicholson is president and executive director of The Philos Project.

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