British Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles recently made an important point about the surge in antisemitic attacks which has been documented in Britain over the past two years: “These pernicious crimes have been accompanied by a creeping cultural acceptance of antisemitic attitudes and behaviour.” Noting a series of antisemitic incidents which were ostensibly claimed to be related to Israel, he added, “These acts of antisemitism were almost casual.”
He is right. There is absolutely a growing trend, especially but not exclusively in Europe, toward treating antisemitic incidents as either understandable, or at least normal and inevitable – especially when the perpetrators invoked protest against Israel as a justification in some way. It is something few European leaders have really shown signs of understanding in the past – although French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also shown a similar comprehension in recent remarks.
A classic example was the case of the BBC journalist Tim Willcox who thought it was appropriate to confront a French Jew protesting the deliberate murder of other French Jews at the Hyper Cacher supermarket with the claim that “Many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.”
Then there was the reaction to the blatant antisemitism that often emerged during last year’s Gaza war. People chanted “death to the Jews” or similar in various cities. In Paris, there was what can only be described as a siege of a synagogue full of worshippers and attempts were made to set fire to, invade or damage at least 8 other synagogues. There was also what looked like a pogrom against a row of Jewish-owned shops in Sarcelles. Hashtags praising Hitler were common on Twitter.
Many commentators shrugged all this off as justifiably angry people getting a little out of hand, if not outright Jewish paranoia.
Meanwhile, there has been similarly little reaction as it has become increasingly unsafe to be visibly Jewish in public in large swathes of Europe – as evidenced by the experience of journalists who dressed up as religious Jews and walked through Paris, Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden.
Malmö, is of course, infamous for the 2009 reaction of its then mayor Ilmar Reepalu, who essentially justified a dramatic upswing in antisemitic attacks against his city’s Jews as understandable opposition to Israel’s policies.
Moreover, European courts are now getting in on the act. A German court in the city of Wuppertal recently ruled that three men who torched a synagogue in the city last July had not committed a hate crime or been guilty of antisemitism because they were seeking to “bring attention to the Gaza conflict.”
Finally, on a related note, there was the interview by US President Barack Obama in which he described the recent Paris Hyper Cacher attack as just a case where terrorists “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” While this may have been a simple slip of the tongue, what is less understandable was the subsequent insistence of two Administration spokespeople that there was no evidence that that attack was motivated by antisemitism – even though the gunman responsible, Ahmedy Coulibaly, told a radio station of his victims, “I targeted them because they were Jewish.” The White House did later admit the attack was antisemitic.
The implications of the targeting of a synagogue full of people during the shooting spree in Copenhagen on Feb. 14 was also downplayed in some media reporting and political responses.
The moral logic that needs to be applied to these anti-Jewish attacks is really not difficult. Ask yourself the following: is it understandable if people who are angry about atrocities committed by ISIS in the ostensible name of Islam – such as enslaving Yazidi women, or beheading hostages, or immolating POWS, or mass shootings – react by going out and beating up any old Muslim they find on the street, or torching a mosque?
Of course it is not. It is completely immoral to harm someone merely because they belong to the same ethnicity or religion as someone else who has committed an alleged crime or done something else that angers you. It is also racist.
In fact, most Western politicians, intellectuals and media are, quite properly, very careful about what they say when talking about terrorism specifically to reduce any risk of racist targeting of innocent Muslims.
But this is what is actually happening to Jews and Jewish houses of worship around the world – in much greater numbers than is being done to Muslims – and many commentators and activists, if they don’t exactly approve, seem to think it is just what happens – in Pickles’ words, it is “culturally acceptable.” Many will even quickly try to steer the conversation about such anti-Jewish violence toward Israel’s alleged misdeeds or even allege that attempts to draw attention to even blatant antisemitism are some sort of Jewish ploy to turn aside criticism of Israel.
It appears that morality for many has become nothing more than cheerleading – picking a side in a conflict and backing it at all costs while trying to minimise any sympathy for their enemies, even when they are subjected to blatant racism completely unrelated to the conflict.
It’s not only a failure of basic morality, it’s downright ugly and dangerous.