Anti-Semitism has been on America’s radar a lot lately — particularly since the horrifying attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. It also has been of great concern in Europe, where several recent surveys highlight the depressing prevalence of anti-Jewish bigotry, but also yield contradictory results about its sources. In our polarized time, anti-Semitism, like all else, has become a subject of political jockeying.
To liberals, the Pittsburgh attack was just the latest reminder that Jew-hatred is a right-wing phenomenon: The suspect, Robert Bower, is a white supremacist. Many also blame Donald Trump’s nativist rhetoric and ties to far-right groups for the increasing visibility of anti-Semitism — and see a grave peril in the resurgence of far-right populism in Europe. Right-wing, Trump-friendly governments in Poland and Hungary have been accused of lacing their propaganda with anti-Semitic tropes, particularly in attacks on Jewish philanthropist George Soros.
Many conservatives who share these concerns see the real danger elsewhere: in far-left activism that sees Israeli Jews as oppressors of Palestinians and diaspora Jews as supporters of the oppressive Zionist state, and in Islamist radicalism espoused by a non-negligible share of Muslim immigrants.
Who’s right? Evelyn Gordon in Commentary, the right-of-center Jewish publication, points to a survey of Jewish leaders and professionals in Europe to support the conservative view. Respondents from Eastern Europe, including Poland and Hungary, were considerably more likely to say they felt safe.
She attributes these results both to “the politically incorrect fact that violence against Jews in Europe comes mainly from Muslim anti-Semites” and to anti-Jewish harassment based on animus toward Israel. She suggests that Western Europe’s liberal immigration policies and widespread anti-Israel bias are ultimately worse for Jews than Eastern Europe’s xenophobia-tinged immigration restrictionism.
But other surveys show a more complicated picture. A new CNN/ComRes poll, “A Shadow Over Europe,” conducted in Austria, France, Germany, Britain, Hungary, Poland and Sweden, found that people in Poland were most likely to say Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state — but also to agree that Israel uses the Holocaust to justify its actions. Fifteen percent in Poland and 19 percent in Hungary voiced an unfavorable opinion of Jews, compared with 10 percent across the seven countries.
Meanwhile, a survey of European Jews by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights found that while a staggering 29 percent of German Jews report in-person anti-Semitic harassment or threats in the past year, so do 21 percent of Polish Jews. The perpetrators in Germany are usually described as Muslim extremists; the harassment in Poland comes mainly from right-wing or Christian extremists.
What conclusion to draw? Clearly, anti-Semitism comes in many forms. In the United States, the primary perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence have been white supremacists; but some attacks have come from Islamist or anti-Israel extremists.
Liberals such as New York Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg balk at the conservative tendency to conflate hostility to Israel with anti-Semitism. But they ignore the fact that Israel-bashers often employ classic anti-Semitic tropes, be it former CNN pundit Marc Lamont Hill’s apparent recent claim that Israel was poisoning Palestinians’ water or Rep.-elect Ilhan Omar’s statement in a 2012 tweet that Israel has “hypnotized the world.”
I am writing this from Europe after a few days in Germany and Austria — a poignant reminder of anti-Semitism’s horrific legacy in the last century. In 2018, the best we can do is be vigilant against anti-Semitism from all political quarters.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.