(CN) – Europe's political atmosphere, already toxic with violent protests and a resurgence of nationalism, has an old and dangerous element to contend with again: anti-Semitism.
Across Europe, officials have been warning for months about a rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish symbols in Germany, France and Britain, among other European nations. At the same time, Europe is worried about rising hatred of Muslims, blacks, gypsies, gays and other minorities.
Anti-Semitic attacks reached a new crisis point in the past few days and spurred tens of thousands of French on Tuesday evening to rally and condemn anti-Semitism. Many held signs that read: “Enough!”
With about a half million Jews, France has Western Europe's largest Jewish population. Its history, like that of much of Europe, is also deeply marred by anti-Semitism.
The demonstrations were a reaction to a series of recent anti-Semitic attacks in France.
On Tuesday morning, 100 Jewish graves were found spray-painted with swastikas in a village in Alsace near the border with Germany. One tombstone was vandalized with the words “Elsässischen Schwarzen Wolfe” – German for “Black Alsatian Wolves – the name of a neo-Nazi group active in the 1970s and 80s. In December, Jewish graves in Strasbourg were defaced with swastikas too.
But it's not just far-right sympathizers behind the attacks. Attacks on Jews are also being perpetrated by French Muslims, Muslim immigrants and far-left militants with anti-Israeli views, analysts say.
On Saturday, protesters with the “yellow vest” movement in Paris were accused of shouting anti-Semitic slurs at celebrity conservative French-Jewish intellectual Alain Finkielkraut outside his home.
Finkielkraut told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that one man who shouted slurs at him was identified by authorities as being close to radical Muslim groups.
The philosopher said Jews were becoming a target for both anti-Zionist far-left radicals and French Muslim youths who identify with Islamic fundamentalism.
Finkielkraut is known for his conservative views. He also questions the push to make European societies more multicultural and has argued that Islam is incompatible with French society.
The incident involving Finkelkraut followed other attacks.
A week prior, the word “Juden” – German for Jew – was spray-painted on the window of a Paris bagel bakery. Also, a tree planted to memorialize a Jewish man tortured to death in 2006 by kidnappers was cut down recently. Shots were fired at a synagogue in a Paris suburb too. Swastikas were scrawled on postal boxes emblazoned with portraits of Simone Veil, a former government minister and Holocaust survivor.
These incidents are a bitter reminder of deadly attacks on a Jewish school in 2012 and a kosher supermarket in 2015. In January, another kosher supermarket was set on fire on the anniversary of the deadly 2015 attack.
The incidents of anti-Semitism have political consequences too.
Many are blaming the heated rhetoric of Europe's nationalist parties on the resurgence in anti-Semitism. In France, that criticism is leveled largely at Marine Le Pen, the popular far-right leader of the National Rally party.
Rubin Sfadj, a lawyer and commentator for France 24, a news broadcaster, linked the rise in anti-Semitism to the rise of Le Pen.
“We are seeing the high point of a process that started 15 years ago” with Le Pen's first electoral successes, he said during a debate on France 24.
The incident involving Finkielkraut is also lending support to accusations that France's yellow vest protest movement is driven by anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism, homophobia and other forms of hatred. The protest movement was sparked by a range of issues, from tax hikes to dislike of President Emmanuel Macron's aloof personality, and it has rocked the French government.
During a demonstration against anti-Semitism on Tuesday, Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the far-left party La France Insoumise, warned against discrediting the protest movement by castigating it as a platform for racism. He supports the protests.
“We must not use those incidents for political gain,” he said, according to a report by Deutsche Welle, a German news service. “If we do all this just to insult the yellow vests, I disagree.”
But criticism of the yellow vest movement is bolstered by recent polls revealing many protesters believe in conspiracy theories about Jews holding sway over world affairs.
“We're living in a time when there's been a crisis of trust in sources of authority, sources of information, sources of knowledge, and so people seek alternative truths,” Ben Gidley, a senior lecturer in psychosocial studies at Birkbeck, University of London, said during the France 24 debate. “Once you stop believing in truth, almost anything can be true.”
Juan Branco, a lawyer for the yellow vest protesters, acknowledged during the France 24 debate that some protesters were guilty of anti-Semitism. But he blamed those incidents on people connected to the far right and said the movement's leaders rejected anti-Semitism. He added that there was an intense effort to purge racist views from the protest movement.
Gidley said the rise of anti-Semitism was a troubling sign for Europe and does not bode well for the state of democracy.
“Jews are often one of the canaries in the coal mine,” he said. “It's not just Jews, other minorities as well. You can take racist attacks as a kind of good indicator on the health of a democracy. Jews and other minorities are the first victims of a sickness in democracy.”
The turmoil over anti-Semitism isn't limited to France.
In Great Britain, the Labour Party, the main opposition party, is embroiled in a bitter internal debate over allegations of anti-Semitism. On Monday, seven members left the party, including a prominent Jewish member. On Wednesday, another Labour member defected.
Labour's far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is at the center of the row. He has long supported Palestinian causes. After he became Labour's leader in 2015, he was criticized for past incidents in which he was seen as supporting anti-Semitic views. He has repeatedly denied holding such views, but he has acknowledged Labour had a problem.
On Jan. 30, in a speech to the European Parliament, the former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, blasted Corbyn.
“The Labour Party, under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has become one of Europe's most flagrant problems in terms of institutionalized political anti-Semitism over the past few years,” she said, according to Deutsche Welle.
She also said anti-Semitism was being practiced by extremists on the political left and right and by Islamic fundamentalists.
A week before her speech to the European Parliament, Knobloch went before the Bavarian state parliament in Germany and reprimanded the far-right Alternative for Germany party for making light of the crimes of the Nazi regime. Members of that party walked out in protest.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)
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