The Old Ghost is Haunting the New Media

Article published on Jan. 27, 2004
community published
Article published on Jan. 27, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

After the dispute between the World Jewish Congress and the EU Commission, one might well ask: Just how anti-Semitic is Europe?

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of anti-Semitism. Since the outbreak of the al-Aksa intifada in October 2000, the World Trade Centre attacks and the escalation of the Middle East conflict, we’re seeing a rise not only of anti-Semitic acts of violence but also of public arguments between Jewish organisations and politicians. The President of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar M Bronfman, and the President of the European Jewish Congress,Cobi Benatoff, accused the EU Commission on the 5th January of both passive and active support of anti-Semitism. What has happened? The results of a survey reached notoriety in November 2003 after 59% of EU citizens agreed with the view that Israel poses a threat to world peace. No other state, not even Libya or North Korea, reached such a high percentage. The Palestinian National Authority was not even the subject of a question. It was then alleged at the beginning of this year that the EU Commission had “censored” a study in which Europe was diagnosed as suffering from a “new anti-Semitism”.

So what’s going on in Europe? Is it perhaps not only the visible anti-Semitism of an extremist minority at play here, but also the secret anti-Semitism of a silent majority?

A new sort of anti-Semitism?

In the face of such a furore, it’s worth taking a sober look at the facts. The first question, whether the EU Commission is anti-Semitic, is easy to answer. It was not the Commission that carried out the study, but the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). However, the collaboration with the Berlin Anti-Semitism Research Centre, the institute appointed to carry out the study, was a shambles. The EUMC gave the Berlin researchers access to their materials for much too brief a period of time, from 15th May to 15th June 2000, so that the researchers were forced to collate information from before and after this period by themselves. It was obvious that they weren’t going to produce a sound study about anti-Semitism in Europe that way. Whether or not the decision to censor the study was a political one remains unclear. The EUMC is in fact independent of the Commission, although it is financed by it. It is, nevertheless, absurd to accuse the Commission of “censorship”, or even anti-Semitism, on this basis, particularly as the EUMC has recognised its mistake and has since decided to commission a comprehensive new study.

A more detailed look at the study also only partly confirms the assertion that a “new anti-Semitism” has emerged in Europe. The report is in fact extremely cautious in this respect. It certainly gives no cause for hysteria. As far as visible anti-Semitism, including arson attacks against Jewish establishments as well as verbal and physical attacks on Jews, is concerned, the report notes that the second intifada saw the beginning of a clear increase in such acts which peaked in Spring 2002 when the Middle East conflict intensified. On 17th April, a Jewish bookshop in Brussels was set on fire anonymously and only 3 days later, 18 shots were fired at a synagogue in Charleroi. An increase in similar violent attacks has been reported in other EU countries. In the study it is, however, expressly stated that attacks died down soon after and that there had also been similar waves of anti-Semitic violence previously, always concurrent with escalations in the Arab Israeli conflict, i.e. in 1963, 1972 and, above all, in 1982. No “new” anti-Semitism in Europe, then?

But it isn’t quite as simple as that. The EUMC report also shows that more and more young Muslims in Europe are falling foul of the anti-Semitic way of thinking and that it is leading more and more often to violent expression. In France, home to 600, 000 Jews and 5m Muslims, fights are becoming increasingly common in Parisian suburbs. The political activity of the Muslim minority, themselves the victims of racism and social discrimination, focuses more and more on the theory that there is an American-Jewish global conspiracy against the Arab world. A dangerous firebrand has indeed emerged in Europe.

The role of the media

What is new about this anti-Semitism is its proliferation. The Internet is now the first path that rightwing radicals and Islamic Fundamentalists pursue in disseminating anti-Semitic thought. But neither is the established media free of it. The Italian La Stampa published a cartoon on its front page on 3 April 2002 of Jesus lying in the manger, thinking in fear, “Are they going to kill me all over again?”

It’s surely an isolated case. Or is it? Often, even reputable newspapers present things simplistically. A good example is a caricature, published in El Pais on 24 May 2001, of a long-nosed Jew brandishing an Israeli flag who announces, “We are the chosen people, chosen to produce weapons.” A great subtlety is lost when the Israeli people, with their historical roots and traditions, are equated with their government’s policies, and this gives nourishment to anti-Semitism. Jews are not the same as Israel and Sharon is not the same as the Israeli state. Israel has spawned not only a Sharon but also a Rabin. The historical dimension of the conflict is also swept under the carpet in the breathlessness of today’s reporting and with it we lose sight of the fact that, in the course of its history, Israel has had to arm itself to the teeth in order to survive. Sharon is stylised as an enemy because it is such a simplified, primitive image of him that is conveyed. Our media is not anti-Semitic but under the time pressure journalists are faced with, reporting can often be superficial. It is hardly surprising that Israel should be perceived as a threat to world peace.

It seems to be contrary to the rules of the contemporary media to research things thoroughly and present them in detail. But sound journalism is not a luxury we can do without and, especially in tense times, is the best antidote to the ghost of anti-Semitism.