Sunday, August 21, 2005

Anti-Semitism in Europe

This interesting anecdote left me with mixed feelings, both because of the events it describes and because of the way they are recounted and contextualized. As an observant Jew, and a classical-liberal minded person, I feel strong solidarity towards a Jew who wants to wear his yarmulka in public and expects not to be attacked for it. Additionally I have no doubt that France (and the rest of Europe) has a problem with Islamist extremisim and knee-jerk, uninformed anti-Americanism. Anti-Semitism in Europe has undoubtedly been on the rise, both in terms of outright attacks, and in terms of political opinions related to Israel and its policies (and I am not referring to criticism, but to outright hostility, which other countries - that objectively do much worse things than Israel has ever been accused of - are spared).
To underline this, I can confirm that I do not feel comfortable walking down the street with my yarmulka on (and I don't), and I think twice before telling someone I am Jewish. This was never a problem during the five years I lived in the United States.
On the other hand I must say that I found the author's attitude unwise: independently of the Jewish aspect of the incident, I think it is not a good idea to react forcefully when one is attacked, because it is dangerous. If I was mugged I would probably submit without putting up a fight at all. In this case, where the issue is not some belonging, I can understand the impulse of being more intransigent, nonetheless I feel the situation is less dire, and the French deserve less contempt, than the author makes out.
For one thing, anecdotal evidence is always very shaky. I remember that while I lived in the States there was a shooting incident in Chicago, in which Jews were targeted (I think it is the shooting referred to in this story). Nonetheless, nobody would use this as evidence that there was widespread anti-Semitism in Chicago. On the other hand I have lived in Europe most of my life and I have never been the subject of outright anti-Semitism, but nobody would deny the problem persists here. The one detail of the anecdote that I found really touching was this:
Batya and I caught our breath and sat down to wait for the next train. She was not sure what had transpired, but she was very afraid for me. After I comforted her, two French high school boys approached us. They had been on the train with us and had disembarked with us. After huddling for a few moments, one of them in broken English shyly apologized for the incident. Speaking for his friend and himself (and all of France, he believed), the boy tried to assure me the attacker was not representative of all Frenchmen. Seeing that they were more embarrassed and shaken than I was, it did not seem the time to challenge his “not representative” assertion by citing the general French population’s enthusiastic participation in such hijinks as the Dreyfus Affair, French Nazi collaboration, and the current French politicians' drive to appease their Arabs with unceasing pro-Palestinian claptrap and policies. Instead, I graciously nodded and told them I appreciated their sentiments.
No doubt, it is easy to scoff at this as the author does, but I feel incredible respect for this teenager, who apologises, in a language he does not speak well, for an attack he was in no way involved in. I honestly do not know if I would have had the character to do such a thing if I was in his shoes. Additionally it should be noted that I do think the boy was (at least mostly) right in saying that the attacker was not representative of French people in general.
I am really not sure exactly what to think, and I have no idea of where European public opinion will go in the next few decades. However I do feel that, while the situation is serious, it is not as desperate as the author makes out.
Here is an interesting discussion of the subject. Ironically, I agree with a former member of Joerg Haider's party:
It is not that Europe has become more anti-Semitic, it is simply that, over the past few years, people have felt much more at ease in expressing their prejudices.
For the moment I am still optimistic that there will be a gradual improvement, particularly with the slow development of this process. I could be wrong, but my everyday interactions still don't bear out the attitude of the author of the above-mentioned anecdote. At the same time it is essential to keep one's eyes wide open.

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