Denis MacShane on European Anti-Semitism

As Europe faces up to its old demons of financial breakdown and job losses, a wind from the past is blowing through the continent. The politics of moderate center-right and left-liberal democracy that took power after 1945 are giving way to a new old populism. The extravagant rhetoric of the demagogic left and right is gaining ground, and the most obvious manifestation is the return of anti-Semitism as an organizing ideology.

Consider the numbers: according to a recent Pew survey, the percentage of Germans who hold unfavorable views of Jews has climbed from 20 percent in 2004 to 25 percent today. In France, which has the largest number of Jews of any European nation, 20 percent of people view Jews unfavorably—up from 11 percent four years ago. In Spain, the figures are even more striking: negative views of Jews climbed from 21 percent in 2005 to nearly one in two this year. In Britain, where the numbers have remained around 9 percent for some time, anecdotal evidence of increased animosity abounds: youngsters returning from the Jewish Free School in middle-class North London are now frightened to go home on public buses on account of anti-Jewish attacks. Their parents hire private buses, as the London police seem unable to staunch anti-Semitic assaults on their children. In Manchester, a Jewish cemetery had to have a Nazi swastika hurriedly cleaned off its walls before a VIP party arrived.

Anti-Semitism also lies at the heart of the ideology of the British National Party, the fastest-growing political party in Britain. Already, the extreme rightist party has won a seat on the London Assembly, and in local elections this year the BNP doubled its number of local councilors. The party now avoids public statements about Jews and even tries to keep its Islamophobia under control. Yet the only serious publications by BNP leader Nick Griffin are in the mainstream of traditional anti-Semitic tropes. In his short book "Who are the Mindbenders?" Griffin listed British Jews who he said were the secret controllers of the British media, accused Jewish immigrants of changing their names to disguise their origins and called the facts of the Holocaust gas chambers "unscientific nonsense."

Alongside the Jew-hating BNP are Britain's anti-Semitic Islamist ideologues. Gordon Brown—Europe's strongest supporter of Israel—and his Labour government have done more than any other to promote British Muslims as government ministers, as M.P.s and peers, and Downing Street celebrates Muslim festivals and achievements in a manner that would amaze previous occupants of the building. Meantime, Britain, as much under Labour as under Conservative governments, has tolerated the growth of fundamentalist Islamism rooted in classic texts denouncing Jews. It took the London tube bombings of July 2005 to lift the veil off the eyes of a political establishment that had turned away from the growth of ideological extremism with its anti-Semitic focus.

The Pew survey on public opinion shows a particularly troubling trend in Spain—a country where all Jews were expelled in 1492 and synagogues are historic monuments. The massive influx of immigrant workers from North Africa, combined with the anti-Israel language of Spain's liberal-left intellectual and media elites, may explain the puzzle of anti-Semitism in a nation with few Jews. Poland under communist rule sanctioned anti-Semitic politics even after most Polish Jews had been exterminated. Spain's indulgence of Islamism may be creating the same phenomenon of anti-Jewish feelings in a country without Jews.

Looking east, it was staggering—but perhaps should not have been surprising—to see the faces of this new populism earlier this year, when thousands of Austrians turned out for the funeral of Jörg Haider, the right-wing extremist who presented himself as an Austrian patriot but hardly bothered to hide his anti-Jewish views. "There is no greater insult to a Germanic politician than to be accused of having Jewish blood," Haider proclaimed. Similarly, anti-Jewish politics resonate in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. All three countries sent politicians to the European Parliament to set up a far-right grouping alongside anti-Jewish rightists from France and Italy. In Poland, the percentage of those with unfavorable opinions about Jews is up from 27 percent in 2004 to 36 percent today, and throughout this part of Europe the target is now Israel and its support in America, and the preferred vocabulary is of "Zionists" and the "lobby" rather than "Jews" or "conspiracy." It blends with a wider xenophobia.

As jobs are lost and welfare becomes meaner and leaner, the politics of blaming the outsider can only grow. The hard-won European politics of breaking down frontiers and trying to legislate for tolerance will get harder to defend, still less to promote. European populism and the anti-EU nationalism of both the right and the left is now the politics to watch. As America celebrates its first nonwhite president and the hope of a new politics, Europe may be beginning to revisit its past.

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