Europe’s Anti-Semitism Comes Out of the Shadows


Sergey Ponomarev/ The New York Times

SARCELLES, France — From the immigrant enclaves of the Parisian suburbs to the drizzly bureaucratic city of Brussels to the industrial heartland of Germany, Europe’s old demon returned this summer. “Death to the Jews!” shouted protesters at pro-Palestinian rallies in Belgium and France. “Gas the Jews!” yelled marchers at a similar protest in Germany.

The ugly threats were surpassed by uglier violence. Four people were fatally shot in May at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Jewish-owned pharmacy in this Paris suburb was destroyed in July by youths protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, was attacked with firebombs. A Swedish Jew was beaten with iron pipes. The list goes on.

The scattered attacks have raised alarm about how Europe is changing and whether it remains a safe place for Jews. An increasing number of Jews, if still relatively modest in total, are now migrating to Israel. Others describe “no go” zones in Muslim districts of many European cities where Jews dare not travel.

But there is also concern about what some see as an insidious “softer” anti-Jewish bias, which they fear is creeping into the European mainstream and undermining the postwar consensus to root out anti-Semitism. Now the question is whether a subtle societal shift is occurring that has made anti-Jewish remarks or behavior more acceptable.

“The fear is that now things are blatantly being said openly, and no one is batting an eyelid,” said Jessica Frommer, 36, a secular Jew who works for a nonprofit organization in Brussels. “Modern Europe is based on stopping what happened in the Second World War. And now 70 years later, people standing near the European Parliament are shouting, ‘Death to Jews!’ ”

This is not the Europe of 1938. French leaders have strongly condemned the violence. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany this month led a rally against anti-Semitism in Berlin at which she told Germans, “It is our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism.”

Europe has seen protests and outbursts of anti-Semitism whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has erupted, and some analysts say this summer’s anger is a cyclical episode that like others will fade away. Some note that the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents this year in France, for instance, is well below some years in the 2000s.

Yet as European support for the Palestinian cause and criticism of Israel have hardened, many Jews describe a blurring of distinctions between being anti-Israel and being anti-Jew.

With Europe still shaking from a populist backlash against fiscal austerity, some Jews speak of feeling politically isolated, without an ideological home. Many left-wing political parties are anti-Israel. Many right-wing parties, some with anti-Semitic origins, are extremist and virulently anti-immigrant. And many Jews who have voted with the Socialist Party in France and Belgium worry that those parties are weak and becoming more dependent on fast-growing Muslim voting blocs.

Even among those inclined to condemn racism in any form, fighting anti-Semitism is no longer seen as a priority, with Jews often perceived as privileged compared with Muslims and other minorities confronted with discrimination.

Many younger Muslims often seem alienated in Europe. Struggling to find work and frustrated by their lack of acceptance, a small but vocal group of them has become inflamed by the politics of the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

European officials are deeply concerned that radical Islam, nurtured in the Middle East, could take root in Europe. Mehdi Nemmouche, a French Muslim arrested in connection with the killings at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, fought as a jihadist in Syria. A French journalist who was held captive in Syria until April said Mr. Nemmouche had been one of his torturers.

“We are a microcosm of the Middle East,” said Philip Carmel, European policy director for the European Jewish Congress. “The Middle East is being imported into Europe.”

Visits to some of the flash points of the summer violence revealed a picture of what Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France has called a “new anti-Semitism.” In Sarcelles, the Paris suburb where pro-Palestinian protests spiraled into riots, the alienation of France’s immigrants and minorities lies just below the surface. In Brussels, the headquarters of the European Union, some secular Jews described a changing atmosphere and questioned whether it was time to leave.

And in Wuppertal, Germany, a city proud of its commitment to religious and ethnic diversity, the attempted firebombing of a synagogue exposed underlying tensions that became even clearer this month when, unexpectedly, a group of Muslim men patrolled a neighborhood wearing makeshift uniforms that said “Shariah Police.”

The French Melting Pot

On the afternoon of July 20, a siege mentality gripped Little Jerusalem, the Jewish commercial district in Sarcelles. A crowd of young Jewish men had gathered at the synagogue as a pro-Palestinian protest was held a few blocks away. France’s Interior Ministry had tried to ban the protest, which spun into a riot. Cars were burning. Young men were throwing rocks as the police fired tear gas. A Jewish-owned pharmacy was set on fire.

“We were all concentrated here to defend the synagogue,” said Levi Cohen Solal, 21, who joined the human cordon outside the synagogue. “Everybody was scared.”

Blocked by the police, the rioters never reached the synagogue, but Sarcelles became a televised symbol of France’s new anti-Semitism — a depiction many local residents did not recognize. A working-class suburb where generations of immigrants are packed into government housing, Sarcelles is a melting pot of religions and ethnicities, where many people speak of a largely peaceful coexistence.

To many residents, the demonstration, which was organized by outsiders on social media, was an indictment not of Sarcelles, but of France. Youth unemployment is soaring, especially in immigrant havens like Sarcelles, and many French-born children and grandchildren of immigrants have become alienated from French society.

“They have a real hatred against the state,” said Bassi Konaté, a city social worker, who added that many of the protesters came from poorer districts nearby. “A big proportion of these people feel neglected. A lot of these people don’t know anything about Gaza. But they want to confront the police.”

An early sign that these broader resentments were morphing into more open expressions of anti-Semitism came with the emergence several years ago of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a French comedian who lashed out at Jews and played down the Holocaust. He has since allied himself with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the 86-year-old founder of the far-right National Front, who this summer used an apparently anti-Semitic pun, which alluded to Nazi crematories, as a riposte to a Jewish critic. Many of the comedian’s shows have since been banned in France, but his popularity has continued to rise, unnerving many Jews.

“For the past four or five years, we have felt a growing insecurity,” said David Harroch, who runs a Jewish bookstore in Little Jerusalem. “My customers tell me how worried they are about the climate here, the situation. A lot of people have left.”

Israeli officials predict that as many as 6,000 Jews will migrate from France this year, a stark reversal from the 1950s, when Sephardic Jews, Arabs and others began arriving in Sarcelles from North Africa. A booming economy made work plentiful.

But during France’s recession in the late 1970s, the city’s ethnic groups became pitted against one another for limited public resources. Rahsaan Maxwell, a political scientist who has studied Sarcelles’s ethnic groups, said the Sephardic Jews had incurred resentment because they were better organized and able to mobilize politically to win certain perks from the elected local council: a special Jewish section in the local cemetery, widening of a road in front of the main synagogue, kosher offerings at an annual city dinner for the elderly, and segregated swimming hours for men and women at a city pool.

In his 2012 book, “Ethnic Minority Migrants in Britain and France,” Mr. Maxwell wrote that Sephardic Jews became so influential that “when Israel was at war with Lebanon in the early 1980s, Sephardic Jewish activists in Sarcelles were aggressive about using it as a litmus test for local politicians to see whether they supported Israel and the Jewish people.”

Yet many Jews and Muslims born in that era grew up together without rancor in government housing. Not far from one of the city’s storefront mosques is a small Superette grocery owned by a Muslim family. One of the owners, Abdel Badaz, recently stood behind the counter with a childhood friend, Mickaël Berdah, 36, a Jew whose family emigrated decades ago from Tunisia. They both criticized the riot as the work of young troublemakers.

“When you’ve grown up in the neighborhood, and you know everybody, there isn’t that kind of hate,” Mr. Berdah said. “When there is that kind of hate, it is at the roots, something about the way parents have educated their children.”

Later, near the grocery, a tall teenager pedaled his bicycle toward two journalists and shouted at them to leave, saying the media had lied about Sarcelles. The youth, Diakité Ismael, 19, the French-born son of Senegalese immigrants, soon calmed down and, like others, argued that there was no animosity in Sarcelles between local Muslims and Jews.

“Look,” he said, as a bearded Jewish man in a dark suit and skullcap walked by, “there’s one.”

But when asked about Gaza, Mr. Ismael became agitated, rambling and warning that the world was hurtling toward a catastrophe. He said he had seen video of an Israeli bomb hitting a funeral in Gaza. “Somehow, some Jews control politics, information, business and finance,” he said. “I’m not talking about the Jews here. I’m talking about Jews in general.”

“Jews, in general,” he added, “only let you see what they want you to see.”

In Brussels, Heightened Alert

Music rose from the center of Brussels on Sunday, with joggers and bicyclists moving freely down city streets as the seat of the European Union held its annual no-car day. It had the giddy air of a street fair, if less so for the city’s Jewish organizations, which the police had placed under heightened security since two recent incidents.