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Dark Continent

STOCKHOLM – Rabbi Shneur Kesselman estimates that he has been the victim of 100 or so anti-Semitic confrontations since he arrived in the southern Swedish city of Malmö in 2004. The latest was just a few days ago, when some young immigrants in a car spotted him on his way home after the evening service at the synagogue. The driver accelerated up onto the sidewalk as if trying to run him over.

Kesselman leads the Jewish congregation in Malmö, a town where many Jews are now afraid to wear a yarmulke or a Star of David in public. With his big beard and black hat, he stands out as an orthodox Jew, and is constantly spat upon, cursed at, and threatened. About a dozen families in his congregation have decided to leave the city for Israel or the United States, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, named after the famous Nazi-hunter, has issued a warning for Jews visiting the town.

But Malmö’s problems are not unique to Sweden. Anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise in many parts of Europe. In Germany and Austria, most such crimes are still committed by right-wing extremists, but, elsewhere in Western Europe, the increase reflects attitudes among young immigrant males – a finding documented by an exhaustive report released by the US State Department in 2005.

The recent murders of four Jews – a rabbi and three schoolchildren – in Toulouse constitute one of the worst anti-Semitic crimes of the last decade in Europe. We still know too little about Mohammed Merah, who killed seven people in total during his rampage, to ascertain whether he was affiliated with al-Qaeda, as he claimed, and we should be careful to draw conclusions about the cause and nature of his crime before the investigation has run its course. But, in the reactions to his killing spree, we see values and ideas that are all too familiar.

A few days after the murders, roughly 30 people, mostly women dressed in niqab, gathered in Toulouse to honor Merah’s memory. A schoolteacher in northern France asked her class for a moment of silence in his memory. Jewish graves were vandalized in Nice. In Sartrouville, walls were covered with graffiti saying, “Long live Merah,” “Vengeance,” and “Fuck the kippa.” Merah was described as a martyr on the pages of newly established Facebook groups.

We may not know much about Merah, but we are, unfortunately, increasingly well acquainted with this imported anti-Semitism, which is proving to be extremely difficult for European societies to confront. No one wants to blame or stigmatize another minority for anti-Semitic hate crimes, but Europe’s Jews are finding themselves in an increasingly difficult situation.

Europeans often choose to avoid the problem by viewing it as a conflict between two groups, with responsibility falling equally on both sides. When I asked Malmö’s mayor, Ilmar Reepalu, about the threats against Malmö’s Jews, he claimed that the city’s Jewish community was being “infiltrated” by the Sweden Democrats – an anti-immigration party with roots in the Swedish neo-Nazi movement – with the implication that Malmö’s Jews were on an equal footing with the anti-Semites persecuting them.

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Reepalu had to retract his claim as soon as the interview was published. Yet he acted on the popular notion that anti-Semitic attacks by Arab youths in Europe are part of a cycle of reciprocal violence that yields a kind of moral equivalence.

Hate-crime statistics reveal a different picture. European countries – among them France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – experienced a sharp increase in anti-Semitic hate crime during the Gaza war three years ago. In Britain, 317 attacks were reported in 2009, compared to 112 in 2008. In France, the number of violent attacks rose to 195 in 2009, compared to 50 the year before. There have been no reports of a corresponding increase in Jewish violent crime against Muslims. Indeed, such crime appears not to exist at all.

Two plausible scenarios follow. First, Jewish families, frightened of the future, will increasingly leave Europe for Israel or the US, underscoring yet another disgraceful chapter in the history of European anti-Semitism, albeit this time imported from the Middle East. There are already indications of this emigration. According to the Jewish Agency for Israel, French Jews constitute one of the largest groups of immigrants currently moving to Israel, which the Agency links to growing anti-Semitism in France. In 2003, for example, roughly 1,800 French Jews moved to Israel, and 20% indicated that they might consider moving.

In the second scenario, the conflict in the Middle East is fully imported to Europe, and young Jewish men meet the threat to their communities with equal force. This would result in escalating violence between Jews and Muslims within European communities.

Perhaps, as a third alternative, European welfare states should check their priorities. France, Sweden, the UK, and other European nations guarantee a long list of positive rights and entitlements for their citizens. But they are failing to fulfill one of the core functions of any state: to protect citizens from physical harm, even when those citizens display their Jewishness in public.

Paulina Neuding, a lawyer, is Editor-in-Chief of the Swedish center-right journal Neo and an editorial page contributor to the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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