Gaza war shows up EU's race tensions

Gaza war shows up EU's race tensions
Members of the Red Crescent push a stretcher carrying a wounded Palestinian man following an Israeli air strike on a market place in the Shejaiya neighbourhood near Gaza City, on July 30, 2014.

LONDON - "Death to the Jews," shouted the demonstrators, waving the black flags of ISIS, the extremist organisation that wants to create an Islamic "caliphate" in Iraq and Syria. Some corner of the violence-torn Middle East? Not exactly: These demonstrators were in the Dutch city of The Hague earlier this week.

Throughout Europe, protests against Israel's Gaza war are spilling over into more pointed, anti-Jewish attacks. And although the number of such anti-Semitic incidents remains small, the trend is worrying European governments, for it highlights their continent's persistent failure to either fully integrate disaffected minorities or to police race relations more aggressively.

Like any assessment of racial tension levels, evidence of the recent spike in European anti-Semitism remains hotly disputed. Mr Jozias van Aartsen, The Hague's mayor, has claimed that demonstrators who drew unwelcome attention to his city "did not cross the red line" between protests against Israel, which are legal, and anti-Semitism, which is a criminal offence in European countries.

However, video clips circulating on the Internet suggest otherwise, and the episode prompted a letter of "concern" to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a US-based organisation dedicated to combating anti-Jewish hatred.

A similar dispute over facts is unfolding in Germany, where a handful of Jewish men wearing skullcaps claim to have been attacked.

Mr Yaakov Hadas-Handelsman, the Israeli ambassador to Germany, has complained this week that Jews in the country face an "unholy alliance" of Islamists, neo-Nazis and extreme-left fringe parties.

Nobody is suggesting that either the Netherlands or Germany is negligent in protecting harmonious race relations. The Dutch have a long and honourable history of tolerance, while Germany is famous for its rigorous application of anti-racist legislation.

A local politician was thrown out of Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling party last week for reacting to the recent revenge killing of a Palestinian boy in Jerusalem by posting online an obscenity against Jews. Anti-Semitism invariably means the end of a political career in Germany, and often also lands the culprit in court.

Still, the number of openly anti-Semitic Facebook groups has increased. One of the groups taken down by administrators of the social website recently attracted more than 2,000 followers in Europe and more than 1,500 "likes".

Racial tensions are particularly explosive in France, home to Europe's largest Jewish community. There, chants of "Hitler was right" or "Jews, France does not belong to you" are often heard at demonstrations, and some Jewish-owned shops and cafes have been damaged.

In an episode which shook France earlier this month because it was so reminiscent of the ghoulish images of Europe during the 1930s, scores of hooligans besieged a synagogue full of worshippers in Paris for almost an hour before riot police arrived to disperse them.

The number of people engaged in such activities remains very small. Less than 1 per cent of the more than 100,000 people who demonstrated throughout Europe last weekend against Israeli actions in Gaza are estimated to have shouted racist slogans.

Nevertheless, governments are worried because the overwhelming majority of the offenders are young men, children of Muslim immigrants to Europe, and because the attacks against Jews radicalise all communities.

"The young thugs who have attacked synagogues come mostly from the ranks of the unemployed and frustrated. They vent their rage at a system that does not integrate them," argues Professor Dominique Moisi from Sciences Po, France's top social sciences university. He does not doubt that many of the "anti-Zionist" slogans chanted by demonstrators in his country are just "an updated version of anti-Semitism".

There is no consensus among European governments on what can be done to tackle the trend. Some countries try to pick up racists one by one. German police are out in force at every demonstration against Israel, poised to arrest anyone shouting anti-Semitic slogans.

Others, like France, have banned such protests altogether, although this has only resulted in violent anti-government riots in economically deprived areas where Muslim immigrants predominate such as the Barbes neighbourhood in the heart of Paris.

And while all governments have criticised Israel for the bloodshed in Gaza, European politicians have been careful to avoid any implication that this somehow makes anti-Jewish hatred understandable.

But the biggest hope among European governments is that the Gaza war will stop soon. It won't fix Europe's frayed race relations but will at least allow the authorities to sweep them under the carpet.

This article was first published on July 30, 2014.
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