“Gas the Jews,” chanted a group of protesters last month in Germany. “Death to the Jews,” cried another in Paris.
Israel’s recent military incursion into Gaza has unleashed a wave of anti-Semitism across Europe. In the past month, eight synagogues in France alone were attacked, several stones were hurled through a window of the home of Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, and several stores in Italy were defaced with such slogans as “Jews, your end is near.”
Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, put the matter bluntly in comments to The Guardian last week: “These are the worst times since the Nazi era.”
For perspective on some of the anti-Semitism raging through Europe, as well as other Israel-related matters, The Jewish Press recently spoke with popular JNS.org columnist Ben Cohen. Cohen’s first book, Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism, was published in May.
The Jewish Press: How do you explain the anti-Semitic incidents we’ve seen in modern, enlightened Europe these past few weeks?
Cohen: Let me answer by commenting on what I think is an assumption behind the question – which is that people who demonstrate on behalf of the Palestinians or Gaza are somehow motivated by a concern for human rights. I think the first thing to understand is that the Palestine solidarity movement is not at all motivated by a concern for human rights because if it was, they would be demonstrating about the genocide of the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq.
So what’s behind the anti-Israel animus?
The demographics of this movement are actually quite broad. You have the kind of enlightened western liberal crowd marching, but you also have a number of second-, third-, and fourth-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe. These Muslims engage in what I call a kind of delinquent anti-Semitism. They’re very thuggish.
If you remember, in 2006, a Jewish kid in Paris, Ilan Halimi, was abducted, beaten, and held hostage for three weeks. The mainly Muslim gang that kidnapped him thought, “Well, all Jews are rich so his family can afford to pay a ransom,” and they brutalized him and then dumped his body by a railroad track where he died shortly afterward. These are the kinds of people attending these Gaza solidarity rallies.
In a recent article you suggested that Jews should perhaps organize themselves in defense against anti-Semites in Europe. Have things gotten that bad?
Look, I’m not calling for vigilantism. Everything should be done, if possible, in cooperation with the authorities, but I think in cases where the authorities cannot cope or are late to respond, Jews have every right to defend themselves, and should defend themselves and not worry about the damage they cause to the other side.
What I’m saying is that 70 years after the Holocaust, if somebody in Europe wants to burn down a synagogue, Jews should not sit back and allow that to happen. And if it means using violence, then violence needs to be used. Obviously, though, the first response should be to call the local authorities and get them to enforce the law.
How do you explain the “genteel” anti-Semitism you sometimes find among circles on the Left?
I draw a distinction between what I call “bistro anti-Semitism,” which is the anti-Semitism you’re describing and “bierkeller anti-Semitism.” The bierkellers were basically pubs in Germany which were famous in the 1920s because the Nazis used to go there, drink a lot of beer, make anti-Semitic speeches, and work themselves up into an anti-Jewish frenzy. Everything was distinguished by the lack of ambiguity. In other words, people were talking about “dirty Jews” and the need to get rid of them.