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New Anti-Semitism Stirs Old Anxieties

Mideast strife combines with ingrained attitudes to heighten hostility and danger in Europe.

March 27, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — The crimes seem lifted from a Nazi-era scrapbook: a rabbi beaten with a beer bottle, swastikas painted over Stars of David, a gasoline bomb hurled at a synagogue. But they appear in police blotters across Europe today, disturbing omens of new strains of anti-Semitism.

Intolerance toward Jews is changing. Traditional anti-Semitism is coinciding with leftist opposition to Israel's response to the Palestinian intifada. And attacks on Jewish institutions in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere suggest that a burgeoning population of frustrated Muslim men is transplanting Middle East animosities into Europe.

This comes as a uniting continent -- seeking to assert itself as a global power -- wants to transcend the grainy, horrifying images of the Holocaust. Though the continent is an eloquent testament to constitutions and human rights, as Europe reinvents itself, so does the way it hates.

This is a "warning cry, a warning to Europe," said Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress. "Anti-Semitism and prejudice have returned. The monster is with us again.

"What is of most concern to us, however, is the indifference of our fellow European citizens."

Government leaders acknowledge that problems exist for Europe's 1.7 million Jews, although they are concerned that some Jewish groups may be creating unjustified panic. Officials do not want European anti-Semitism confused with the more systematic and politically motivated campaigns waged by groups such as Hamas and Al Qaeda.

"We do see attacks against synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and physical assaults on Jews," Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, said recently at an anti-Semitism conference in Brussels. "But let us be honest and keep things in perspective.... I do not believe that any organized form of anti-Semitism comparable to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s is rampant in Europe today."

The failure to find a Middle East peace and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have sparked two phenomena in Europe: a rise in anti-Jewish fervor and the mistrust of a Muslim community that has nearly doubled over the last decade to as many as 15 million. In cities such as Hamburg, where several Sept. 11 hijackers lived, the suspicions that Germans harbor toward Islam have created essentially parallel societies, embittering thousands of Muslim men and limiting their opportunities.

One of France's Islamic leaders, Dalil Boubakeur, urged Muslims and Jews to "pull in their horns" and cooperate because they both face prejudice from ultraright political groups such as the National Front in France and Germany's National Democratic Party. The National Front, whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, once described the Holocaust as a "detail of history," has the allegiance of 16% to 20% of the electorate.

Echoes of the Mideast

Statistics on anti-Semitism can be misleading and limited in scope. There are, however, definable trends. Anti-Semitic incidents -- including physical assaults, vandalism, hate mail and threats -- increased in Europe after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in 2000, according to government and independent data. Although they have since tapered in Europe's largest countries, authorities say, their threat has created a disturbing atmosphere.

In France, where anti-Semitic incidents surged in the late 1990s, the number of reported incidents declined from 1,669 in 2002 to 1,051 in 2003.

In Germany, they fell slightly from 1,629 in 2001 to 1,594 in 2002.

Britain documented its highest number in 2000 with 405 reports; the total for 2003 approached the record, with 375 incidents, which included 54 assaults.

"There is a very clear and distinctive pattern," said Michael Whine, security spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which supports the country's Jewish population. He pointed to "substantial increases following tension in the Middle East" in recent years. That trend continued this week when a Jewish center in southern France was set ablaze a day after Israel killed Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas.

The backlash against Jews over the Palestinian struggle to gain statehood is more pronounced in countries with large Muslim populations such as France, where about 700,000 Jews live amid more than 5 million Muslims. Germany has about 100,000 Jews and 3.5 million Muslims, and Britain has 300,000 Jews and about 2 million Muslims.

"There are those from the Middle East who are carrying the wounds and resentments of a clash in the Middle East that has not ended," said Tullia Zevi, a former leader of the Italian Jewish community in Rome. "It would be tragic if a Jewish community that survived the Shoah [Holocaust] and is integrated with Europe were to find itself faced with hostilities with roots in another part of the world."

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