Who could really be surprised by the story that grabbed the attention of the Jewish world this past weekend? When Felix Klein, Germany’s first Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism (yes, that’s his full title) warned Jews about the danger of wearing a kippah in public, it was hardly a shock that this would be the case in the country responsible for the Holocaust. Yet the alarming frankness of his admission has made it impossible to ignore the truth about the threat to Jews in Europe any longer.
Some of the anger that Klein’s comment generated was directed at both him and the German government. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was offended by the recommendation, viewing it as a form of “surrender” to the forces of hate. It’s easy to applaud Rivlin’s defiant response, which sums up the spirit of Zionism: “We will never submit, will never lower our gaze and will never react to anti-Semitism with defeatism – and expect and demand our allies act in the same way.”
But perhaps Klein deserves some credit for telling the truth. Germany is far from the only European nation where Jews face routine violence in the streets.
In the United States, we know that anti-Semitism comes from both the far right and the intersectional left. But many partisans prefer only to focus on the hate that can be blamed, whether fairly or not, on their political opponents and to turn a blind eye to that which can be linked to their allies.
In Europe, threats to the Jewish population come from both haters on the far right, as well as from the growing population of immigrants from Muslim nations. But too much of the commentary about this situation seems to be influenced by worries about the rise of right-wing nationalist parties, coupled with a refusal to confront the truth about Muslim hatred of Jews and Israel.
Anti-Semitism from some of its traditional sources on the right is fueling hostility to Jews. In Germany, that takes the form of resentment against its “culture of remembrance” of the Holocaust. Unfortunately, not only has that culture failed to eradicate the lingering impact of 2,000 years of anti-Semitic incitement; it has also resulted in widespread resentment toward the Jews. All too many Germans don’t seem able to forgive the Jews for reminding them of their grandparents’ guilt.
But that isn’t the only factor contributing to anti-Semitism.
As it has in many other European countries, the recent massive influx of immigrants from Muslim and Arab countries has created a vast new constituency. There is a long tradition of contempt for Jews in Islamic culture that has only been exacerbated by their resentment about the creation of modern-day Israel. Muslim expressions of hatred for Israel and Jews are now indistinguishable from traditional European anti-Semitic invective. This has created a bizarre alliance between Muslims and leftist academics, in addition to other elites who engage in similar delegitimization of Israel, Zionism and Jews.
However, much is being made of an official German government statistic that shows that most violent attacks on Jews come from right-wingers, rather than Muslims. However, as a New York Times Magazine report about German anti-Semitism published the week before Klein’s controversial comments, that statistic has been disputed by German Jewish leaders and is now largely discredited. German authorities routinely ascribe any attack for which they can’t or won’t assign a direct motive as the work of right-wing anti-Semites, whether there is any proof of their involvement or not. Polls of German Jews also show that a plurality of those who have experienced anti-Semitism say the person(s) responsible were Muslim extremists.
Nevertheless, most Jews think that making alliances with right-wing Europeans who believe that the impact of Muslim immigration is eroding the national characters of their countries is inherently dangerous. Many of those involved in these parties have, at best, problematic histories when it comes to anti-Semitism. It’s hard for Jews to trust populist movements, whether in Germany, France or anywhere else in Europe, even when they now proclaim their support for Israel or a wish to defend Jewish communities. Those who are willing to engage in hate speech about Muslims are probably also likely to do so about Jews.
It is axiomatic that Jewish security in any country is tied to the way all minorities are treated. But those who want to minimize one source of anti-Semitism – whether from the traditional right, the left or from Muslims – in order to focus on another threat that they feel more comfortable denouncing are doing Jews who are at risk no favor.
At this juncture, the question of who the Jews should call their allies isn’t that significant. What is important is to realize that the sickness that once destroyed European Jewry has not only been revived, but that this virus has morphed into a new variant in which Israel has become the stand-in for traditional Jewish stereotypes and the excuse for a new wave of hate against all Jews.
We must defend the right of Jews to live anywhere they want and to express their identity in the public squares of European nations. But if after 74 years since the fall of the Nazi regime the growing Jewish community in Germany is no longer safe to walk the streets, then it’s no use pretending that attitudes that are the product of age-old hatreds exacerbated by contemporary political incitement can be ameliorated by standard community-relations tactics.
We should applaud those Germans who will now symbolically don kipot for a day or two in order to express their solidarity with the Jews. But the problem isn’t merely a matter of head coverings or educational programs focused on hate that have already clearly failed. It’s foolish to think that it’s possible to separate the routine delegitimization of Israel from the way Jews are treated. What’s happening in Europe is proving again that wherever anti-Zionism is legitimized, anti-Semitism grows and anti-Jewish violence follows.
Jonathan S. Tobin is the editor of JNS.org.