Editor’s Note: This article was written in 2010, yet the subject is still relevant today. In fact, anti-Semitism has increased since its writing, particularly in France.
The heritage of the Jewish community in Europe is one that extends for well over two millennia and arguably has its roots in the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great. Throughout that time, Jews in Europe have had, at best, an uneven ride. The situation is no better today, even in the dark shadow of the Holocaust. This essay will focus on the three European countries where the bulk of European Jews live: Britain, France, and Germany.
The Jewish community in England is over 350 years old, dating from the days of Oliver Cromwell, whose larger-than-life-sized statue still stands outside the Houses of Parliament. Since the “readmission” of Jews in 1656, the United Kingdom has been a safe and hospitable home in which Jewish life has prospered.
Centered in London, it is a community that has had a long-term exposure to Jewish missions. This is where missions to the Jews arguably began, and certainly the country from which the largest and most dynamic missions to the Jews were based. In both England and Scotland, great societies aimed at reaching the Jewish people were founded shortly after the French Revolution. (1)
It is from the United Kingdom that the great evangelical impetus towards the founding of a homeland for the Jewish people found fertile soil. This signicantly contributed to the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the awarding of the Palestine Mandate to Britain following the fall of the Turkish Empire. (2)
In 2005, Britain’s Community Support Trust (CST) recorded 455 anti-Semitic incidents in Britain, a fall of 14% from the previous year. It was still the second highest annual total since the CST started recording incidents in 1984, and double that of 1997.(3) It is thus no surprise that on March 6, 2009, Britain’s leading Jewish newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, reporting on the CST’s annual dinner, noted that both speeches focused on “the abuse, intimidation, and sometimes violence which is now part and parcel of life as a Jew in Britain.” (4)
Against this background, current statistics are shocking. In the first half of 2009 alone, the CST recorded 609 anti-Semitic incidents (5), of which 77 were violent and 2 extreme, meaning that they involved a threat to life or grievous bodily harm. (6) Granted, the Gaza operation was a “trigger” event. However, such events have occurred before without such a backlash.
Where Did This Backlash Come From?
From what soil did this backlash sprout? As catalogued by the Pew Research Center project in 2008, 9% of the British, 20% of the French, and 25% of Germans said they had unfavorable attitudes about Jews. Spain is off the charts at 46%. (7) It seems inappropriate then to lay this violence at the feet of the generally increasing xenophobia in Europe. As far as the statistics go, France and Spain have not been notably more dangerous for their Jewish populations.
In general, Jews feel safe in Britain, sometimes even honored. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, knighted in 2005, was given a seat in the House of Lords as “Baron Sacks of Aldgate” in the autumn of 2009. Nevertheless there is a keen awareness of the latent anti-Semitism in society as a whole.
An Old Problem
A century ago, there was much talk of the “Jewish problem.” More and more today, the “problem” is Israel, and old stereotypes of the Jew are sometimes brought in to buttress the argument. Undeniably, as Israel grows in strength, affluence, and influence in the modern world, it will increasingly be a target. Without a doubt, the Jew in the Diaspora is more tied to Israel than ever before, and this perception will only strengthen as time goes on.
This identification is evidenced by the spikes in violence against European Jews during times of conflict between Israel and her neighbors, as pointed out above. Maybe this is the reason (looking at the statistics over time) that anti-Semitism in Europe has not been increasing at a predictable rate. “Trigger” events, such as the start of the second intifada and the Gaza war, have caused tangible danger to Jews, particularly those who are visible targets.
Anti-Semitism, as judged both by the statistics and by surveys of people’s attitudes, is clearly on the rise. It is not critical yet. Jews still feel safe, by-and-large, yet, as in France, there is a growing unease.
1) Daniel Nessim, The History of Jewish Believers in the Canadian Protestant Church, 1759– 1995 (Vancouver: Regent College, 1996), 1.
2) Barbara Tuchman, Bible and Sword: How the British Came to Palestine (New York: MacMillan, 1956), 80, 344–45.
3) Antisemitic Incidents Report 2005 (London: The Community Security Trust, 2006), 2.
4) “Community Safety,” Jewish Chronicle, March 6, 2009.
5) Antisemitic Incidents Report January–June 2009 (London: The Community Security Trust, 2009), 2.
6) Ibid., 3.
7) Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe (Washington, DC: Pew Research Center, 2008), 1.
This is an excerpt from an article that originally appeared in the journal Mishkan, issue 62, 2010. Click here to read the full article and others in the Mishkan archive.