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  • August L. Liljenberg

Tackling anti-semitism requires combating the forces giving rise to populism

Anti-Semitism – the opposition to, or hatred of Jews – has been steadily making its resurgence in Europe for the second time in the past century. France has reported a 74% increase in violent anti-semitic attacks, whilst Germany has similarly reported a surge of more than 60%. Here in Britain anti-semitism is making headlines too, where prominent Labour MPs have left the party citing the institutionalised antisemitism of Labour as one of their causes for leaving. Why is it that this virulent and hateful ideology continuously appears, despite the lessons of the 20th century?

One of the reasons for anti-semitism’s increase are the combination of conflicts in the Middle East with large-scale Muslim immigration to Europe. A 2017 study by Johannes Due Enstad from the University of Oslo, analysing anti-semitic violence in France, the UK, Germany, Sweden, and Russia, found that victims described perpetrators most often as having a Muslim extremist view, where incidents were highest in Sweden per capita at 34.4 attacks per 1000 Jews. Percentage wise, the study also found that the perpetrators’ background in the United Kingdom was disproportionately represented by those of South Asian origin. The study by University of Oslo also remarked that incidents increased in the wake of ‘trigger events’ in the Middle East. Yet, media outlets rarely report on this being the main factor, instead citing the rise of the far right as possible reasons for the increase in anti-semitism. A stroll down Krystalgade in Copenhagen, will take one to the Synagogue, now guarded by officers armed with M16s, after a Palestinian immigrant shot and killed the Synagogue’s bodyguard, with the intention of greater harm. Instances such as these will remind one of the very real, and violent threat of antisemitism in Europe. Also invoking a similar shudder is the tragic death of Mirielle Knoll, an 85-year-old Parisian Holocaust survivor, who was barbarically murdered in her apartment last year. According to the New York Times, Ms. Knoll was murdered ‘by men animated by the same hatred that drove Hitler’s’ – yet was that really the case? One of two suspects told investigators that the other had shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ while murdering Ms. Knoll, similar to the murder of a 65-year-old Jewish woman in the same neighbourhood, where the phrase was shouted as well.

One could name countless of other incidents – Molotov cocktail attacks on Synagogues, assaults, verbal abuse – but most European incidents are statistically perpetrated by Muslim immigrants. It should be noted, however, that the Norwegian study shows that Russia is one of the only countries that is exempt from an increase in anti-semitic incidents. The study argues therefore, that countries with large Muslim populations are not more likely to have higher levels of anti-semitic attacks – but this is a misrepresentation. Instead, one should bear in mind Russia’s historical ties to its Muslim Tartar and Chechnyan citizens, as well as the vast size of the nation, where Jewish and Muslim populations don’t cross one another far as often as they do in Europe. Furthermore, since anti-semitic violence by Muslim immigrants is often fuelled by events in the Middle East, it would make more sense for anti-semitic incidents to occur in Europe where immigrants are drawn from those conflict areas, rather than in Russia, where Muslims have historical ties to the Caucasus and the regions near Kazakhstan. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu even blamed mass immigration as a reason for ‘Jews to leave Europe’ and move to Israel after spikes of violence in continent.

This is not to say that the rise of antisemitism can be solely attributed to mass immigration from the Middle East. A far murkier form of the ideology is on the rise and is materialised through the rise of far-left and far-right populism not only in Europe, but also the United States. Populism naturally needs to create an enemy for it to exist – its entire basis rests on the exploitation or negligence of ‘the people’ by ‘the elites’. Naturally, identity politics will emerge within populism; because Jewish people are disproportionately represented within governmental positions and in the media, their identity becomes an easy scapegoat for those that seek to criticize the ‘elites’ in society. The rhetoric of these populists is the same as the identity politics of the mainstream left, where politics are blamed of being distorted due to being disproportionately represented by ‘white men’.

Sadly, populism seems to be a cyclical phenomenon in liberal democracies: a by-product of disenfranchisement by free-market fundamentalism, consumerism, and the loss of a sense of belonging. Despite the major efforts of averting these populist cycles we see them reappear again and again, and until we find a system that controls populist tides, we won’t see an end to anti-semitism (or any form of discrimination, for that matter). Forms of discrimination such as anti-semitism do not disappear by teaching more people about the Holocaust, or dismantling conspiracy theories about Jews; no, instead we need to rethink the structure of our economy and shift it to one that doesn’t create wide inequalities, structural unemployment, and alienation; we need to have serious discussions regarding our immigration policies and which areas we open our borders to – only then will we start to see antisemitism fading away.

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