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Anti-Semitism on the rise in the EU

Bernd Riegert Brussels
October 14, 2019

Research clearly shows that anti-Semitic abuse and violence is increasing in the EU. Following last week's anti-Semitic attack in Halle, Germany, the EU has urged decisive action. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.

Kids' hands drawing a Hanukkah menorah
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Soeder

For years, anti-Semitic prejudice and violence have been on the rise in the European Union. Wednesday's attack on a synagogue and two passers-by in the area by a self-confessed far-right extremist in the east German city of Halle is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to research by the Vienna-based European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), anti-Semitism is growing in the bloc. "We have observed an increase in acts of violence against Jews in certain countries," Ioannis Dimitrakopoulos, a scientific adviser to the FRA, says, adding that "the kind of anti-Semitism that permeates these societies makes Jews feel they cannot live like others and that they cannot live as Jews in their home countries."

He says "aside from the horrific crimes perpetrated in Halle, the harassment, verbal abuse and belittling of Jews has become 'normal' in some European societies today — that is a deeply worrying trend."

Anti-Semitism plagues all of Europe

A 2018 FRA survey found that 65% of French citizens and 43% of Germans consider anti-Semitic incidents a "very serious problem." In Italy, however, only 21% shared the view, while merely 14% of Danes said they thought this was problematic.

Most cases of anti-Semitic harassment were registered in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, according to the FRA. The EU agency registered the fewest such incidents in the UK, France and Italy. Even so, Dimitrakopoulos does not believe any parts of the EU are immune to anti-Semitism: "I think this problem affects all member states, though countries like Germany and France are impacted more because they have a larger number of Jewish communities which makes Jewish life more visible there."

Demonstrators of the far-right Identitarian Movement in Halle (Saale)
Far-right groups like the Identitarian Movement are gaining momentum across EuropeImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com/S. Babbar

Read more: German groups combating far-right extremism face uncertain future

Dimitrakopoulos says growing European anti-Semitism is the result of European societies becoming increasingly intolerant, adding that "there of course exists a link between growing right-wing populism in Europe and anti-Semitism." In his view, any political ideology that preaches intolerance contributes to anti-Semitic attitudes. But it does not end there. According to Dimitrakopoulos, when people feel they can treat someone differently, put them at a disadvantage or ostracize them because of their religion or skin color, this also gives rise to racism and Islamophobia. And, he says, "we're seeing this all across Europe."

Jews have been repeatedly targeted

In recent years, there have been a number of deadly attacks on Jewish schools, institutions, supermarkets and places of worship: In 2012, an Islamist murdered three schoolchildren and a teacher in a Jewish school in France. Two years later, in 2014, a French man shot four individuals in Brussels' Jewish museum. In 2015, a radical Islamist stormed a Jewish supermarket in Paris, killing four people and taking others hostage. That same year, a supporter of the so-called Islamic State (IS) terror group shot two individuals in Copenhagen — one of them in front of a synagogue.

Anti-Semitism graphic

But the US, Tunisia and Turkey have also seen a range of bloody anti-Semitic attacks in recent times. Last year, for example, a far-right extremist stormed into a US synagogue and killed 11 worshipers.

No decisive EU action

At a 2018 EU summit, member states reiterated once more that they want to take a tougher stance on anti-Semitism and intolerance in general, pledging to better protect Jews in Europe.

Read more: German Jews plead for state security after Halle attack

Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission coordinator for combating antisemitism, says a number of member states need to do much more to protect Jews. Back in September, at an anti-Semitism summit in Brussels, von Schnurbein criticized that "merely reiterating one's intentions to do more is not enough."

The bloc's Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Vera Jourova, meanwhile called on all member states to pay for the protection of synagogues and Jewish community centers across the EU. Although Dimitrakopoulos stresses that there is only such much that the EU and individual nation states can do to tackle anti-Semitism, saying that intolerance and ideological radicalism must be addressed on the local level — in communities, in schools and in sports clubs. Dimitrakopoulos says that apart from prosecuting hate crimes, there is little scope to combat prejudice at the national level.

Anti-Semitism threatens 'soul of Europe'

The Brussels-based "European Coalition for Israel" lobby group says anti-Semitism has taken on "epidemic proportions" and now threatens the very soul of Europe. FRA research confirms that many Jews living in Europe today no longer feel safe. And Dimitrakopoulos warns that "when people, whose families have lived here for generations, no longer feel welcome in their home country we have a serious problem on our hands," which is why he now wants to see EU institutions take decisive action to address anti-Semitism. 

Muslims afraid after synagogue attack

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union