Europe is witnessing a worrying rise in anti-Semitic attacks and hate-speech. What can we Europeans do to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past?
politics | blog series | far-right | extremism
Coined in 1879, the term antisemitism refers to hostility or discrimination against Jews as a religious or racial group. It has a long history, particularly in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust. It's on the rise again, in both western and eastern Europe, with the number of attacks recorded in the last few years highlighting a worrying trend, particularly among the far-right movements. In this blog post I will look at the causes behind the increase in antisemitism and what we can do to combat it.
All over Europe, Jews have reported feeling at greater risk of attack and 30% of those asked say they have experienced more aggression and harassment in day-to-day life. Far-right identity politics plays a huge role in anti-Jewish sentiment, and within the emerging and long-established far-right movements, we see the old racist tropes being repeated. Conspiracy theories about the Jews running the World and having too much influence in financial and international affairs are still commonly espoused within these fringe groups.
19% of Hungarians and 15% of Poles hold unfavourable opinions of Jews, with the Hungarian-Jewish philanthropist, George Soros, being a popular target for antisemitic attacks in these countries. The number of antisemitic assaults in France saw a 74% increase in 2018, and in Germany attacks hit a ten-year high in the same year, with an increase of 20%. Just like with violence against women, antisemitic attacks often go unreported, with the real figures likely to be much higher.
Katharina Von Schnurbein, the European Commission's Coordinator for Combating Antisemitism, believes that the rise in antisemitic attacks in Europe signals bigger violence ahead as it is generally seen as an indicator of rising tensions. During the past two decades, surges in antisemitism have followed increased tensions in the Middle East, but since early 2018, the more traditional forms of antisemitism have re-emerged.
"We are witnessing the resurgence of a virulent, far-right identity politics
that does not heistate to put its beliefs into action".
Frédéric Potier | Dilcrah
Conspiracy theories fill the feeds of many social media users, and the idea of a global Zionist plot and a broad increase in violent and incendiary political language being used is only helping fuel the fires of antisemitism across Europe and beyond. Many political issues, such as the Jaunes Gilet protests in France and the European migration crisis, which have nothing to do with Jews, have ignited people's fears and have led some to twist the narrative and lay the blame at the Jewish community's feet. For many on the extreme left and right of the political spectrum, the Jews are considered as "other" who have no place in Europe.
Surveys carried out by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that many European Jews worry for the safety and security of themselves and their family members as antisemitism has become so common it has almost been normalised. The number of Jews emigrating, especially from France, was highlighted in a report by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research. The general Jewish population in the EU, with the exception of the UK, is in decline. This, as Katharina Von Schnurbein explained in an interview for Vocal Europe, is a terrible sign for Europe and is something that needs to be understood by all member states.
Jews have historically been the scapegoats during eras of political and economic trauma. During such times, people look for someone to blame and quite often the Jews are perceived as the instigators of societies troubles. When individuals don't or can't understand the world around them, it is often just one small step to conspiracy theories which often have antisemitic roots.
Although most antisemitic attacks are carried out by individuals or groups with right-wing and nationalistic political leanings, we cannot avoid the rising prevalence of antisemitism in the far-left. The most high profile example of this is within the UK Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn became leader of the UK Labour party in 2015, elected by members of the party who wanted to move away from the centre and further to the left. A 2016 report by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee into Antisemitism in the UK, found that the Labour party is not overrun with antisemites, islamophobes or racists, but reflects the wider society; with evidence of "minority hateful and ignorant attitudes and behaviours festering within a sometimes bitter incivility of discourse". What is worrying is that a mainstream political party, founded on principles of equality, should find itself caught up in charges of antisemitism.
The committee who produced this same report went on to criticize Social Media, explicitly Twitter, for failing to take any meaningful action against those who post offensive tweets. 68% of respondents to a survey by the Institute of Jewish Policy Research had seen, heard, or been the subject of antisemitic comments or harassment online.
The prominent case of Luciana Berger MP emphasizes the scale of the problem. The police informed Berger that she had received over 2,500 abusive tweets in just 3 days, all using the hashtag #filthyjewbitch. This was later discovered to be linked to a US-based neo-Nazi website and a large number of tweets were discovered using the same hashtag.
Twitter has vowed to put more effort into countering abusive tweets and behaviour, but the problem remains.
The prevalence of antisemitic content on the various social media sites makes the people who read them and hold those views feel like they're not alone. The more they read, the more they want to "Like" a post and then it progresses into actually writing something themselves.
"... on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, you can
see the incitement online does not stop for a second."
Yarden Ben-Josef | Head of ACT-IL
Ben-Josef said that Instagram is the most likely to have offensive material removed, with Twitter being the most difficult to convince. He thinks Social Media platforms are not doing enough to fight the rise of antisemitism.
“I’m not talking about political views,” he said. “I’m talking
about videos calling to kill Jews, or about
Instagram posts explaining where to put a knife to kill more effectively.”
Interview in The Jerusalem Post
It seems that the internet has made it easier to be an antisemite, with social media helping those with antisemitic beliefs reach a wider audience than ever before. Holocaust deniers and their pseudo-intellectual ideas are prevalent, finding a captive audience on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. The relative anonymity with which people can use social media as a vessel to disseminate antisemitic views, free of any real accountability, is a very unsettling direction to be moving in.
It doesn't necessarily mean that there are more people with antisemitic views than before, just that now they can disperse and propagate their ideology in public. Hate speech all too often leads to hate crime, and the tech giants who allow these groups and individuals to operate on their sites should have to take more responsibility than they currently do. This doesn't simply apply to antisemitism, but all forms of prejudice that are expressed in a violent or abusive way.
Examples need to be set at the top, and currently, they're doing an outstandingly bad job. The social media titans prefer to tolerate instead of tackle the online trolls who tweet and post abusive and highly offensive material, raking in obscene profits at our expense. Governments seem to be taking a back-seat too, because upsetting the social media gods could affect their chances of re-election, and so the onus of tracking down the abuser repeatedly falls to the abused.
The cries of "You can't say anything anymore", will ring out across the European continent if social media posts are subjected to increased scrutiny, but what the individuals who use this argument in every discussion fail to realize is, in Europe our Freedom of Expression laws are based on an unwritten contract that comes with certain "duties and responsibilities".
Since World War Two, countries across Europe have introduced and are constantly amending national laws intended to protect minorites from harm. Things deemed to be purposefully hateful and directed towards a group or individual based on race, religion or sex, are not, or at least, should not be tolerated.
It's a minefield of confusion, and with the internet being the central tool in the dissemination of hate speech and conspiracy theories, the laws surrounding freedom of speech, and those charged with implementing them, are having trouble keeping up.
The Europe we inhabit now is a direct result of those events that took place 75 years ago and was established to prevent those same or similar events from ever happening again. The laws that surround our freedom of speech were fought for and are there to protect everyone from being subject to prejudice and abuse.
Some argue that controlling this only encourages the radicals and extremists even more in their pursuits to eradicate Jews, Muslims, women and the LGBT communities; I would argue that as long as the possibility to have a free discussion with others who think differently exists, then this should not be a concern. The way to combat intolerance is with compassion, education and more tolerance, no matter how difficult and pointless it may seem at times.
We shouldn't forget the past, we definitely shouldn't rewrite the past and we should do everything in our power to not repeat the past.