3 May 2004
Anti-Semitism and Europe
USA – ‘Leadership Conference’ ADL
1. The Old Anti-Semitism
The report published by the Anti-Defamation League in April 2004 shows that anti-Semitism in Europe is still terribly widespread. Although there are encouraging signs, which the recent “Berlin Declaration” of the OSCE has highlighted, the overall data is still a source of deep concern.
Here, I am going to raise two questions: Why is anti-Semitism persistent in Europe? What should we do to counter it?
To address the first question a preliminary distinction is needed. There is an “old” or “traditional” anti-Semitism and a “modern” or “new” one. Though they share the same purpose and produce the same effects, their roots are not the same.
Traditional anti-Semitism depends on prejudice. It has its premise in religion, particularly Christianity. It is based on the idea that the Jews – precisely God’s chosen people – did not recognize the son of the Almighty. Such a notion – formally condemned by the Catholic Church at the Vatican II Council in 1965 – has spanned Western history and, together with others, has brought about intolerance and persecutions. Consciously or unconsciously, this prejudice still finds its way into commonplace observations, jokes, gags, and everyday language.
Let’s take an example. When we say “an Italian Jew” instead of “an Italian of Jewish faith” we are running the risk of sliding into anti-Semitism, because “Italian Jew” emphasizes that the person in question is first a Jew and only in second place an Italian. In other words, only half a citizen; whereas an “Italian of Jewish faith” properly means a full Italian citizen whose religion is Judaism, which of course has no relevance to his or her citizenship.
From everyday talk, anti-Semitic prejudice spreads to the press, the media, books, schools and from there it overflows into society. Once there, it produces its vicious effects: discrimination, conflicts, on to violence against synagogues and even graveyard desecration.
2. Memory, Tolerance and Respect
How can we remedy this phenomenon? The typical reply is: by cultivating memory.
Here is what we do. We teach students in schools. We establish university courses. We produce television programs. We show documentaries and films in movie theatres. We promote rallies and we participate in marches. In Italy, the Parliament declared January 27 – the day the gates of Auschwitz were opened in 1945 – “The Day of the Shoah”. This year the Senate organized a special event in Rome in association with the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which took place with an audience of many young people, the president of Italy, and members of the government.
Cultivating memory is important: however it is not enough. It cannot be enough. Because memory can be lost for several reasons.
You lose memory by disbelief: those who don’t know that the Holocaust was an immense disgrace that happened when Europe’s civilization was just at its peak, often find it hard to believe.
You lose memory by feeling guilty: those who experience remorse prefer not to remember.
You lose memory by suffering: those who have passed through the pains of hell cannot stand having them once again before their eyes or in their minds.
You lose memory because it may be convenient: those who have other interests or goals prefer to manipulate the past.
This is why memory is not enough; not only because it is transitory but because the memory of an event depends on the specific sense one wants to give that event. That’s why we must look deeper than that.
Education is the next step. It is certainly more effective than memory, because as memory looks back at the past, education looks to the future, and because as memory is mostly personal, education affects social conscience and stresses virtuous thinking, which in turn generates more virtuous thinking.
Here we must pay attention to a possible paradox. To correct the evils caused by the Holocaust, to avoid repeating the tragic errors perpetrated by Soviet Communism, German Nazism, Italian Fascism, French Collaborationism, European countries have adopted democratic constitutions. They all contain great values and great principles, above all tolerance. But tolerance may give rise to the paradoxical risk of tolerating many intolerants whom we have allowed (in our societies) as visitors precisely in the name of tolerance.
To avoid this risk, we must stick to our grand principles. If we begin to lose faith in them, to think that the cost of defending them is too high, to give in to blackmail or fear, then we have no more means of countering the anti-Jewish racism that has poisoned European culture and than we have to counter the fundamentalist and terrorist racism that threatens Western civilisation and coexistence amongst peoples.
Today’s Europe – I am afraid – runs just such risk. It is affected by relativism, nihilism, multiculturalism, pacifism, anti-globalism, and, perhaps, a sense of moral weariness. Then, one should not be surprised if it has not taken a stand against the anti-Semitic comments made by the former prime minister of Malaysia. Or, if it has allowed Israel to be officially condemned at the Durban conference. Or if it has included in a questionnaire on anti-Semitism both Israel and the United States along with Iraq and North Korea among the countries which pose a threat to world peace. Or if it has not been capable of making direct reference to its Judeo-Christian roots in the draft of the European Constitution. Or if it does not care much that its own assistance funds end up in the hands of terrorist organizations.
My opinion is that Europe’s main problem is first cultural then political. I believe that Europe should practice respect more than mere tolerance, starting with the respect of its own principles and values. If Europe is clear about its own mission, then it raises its flag, if it doubts its role then it raises its hands.
3. Modern Anti-Semitism
As I have just said, traditional anti-Semitism fed on a prejudice. Modern anti-Semitism has different roots. Its name is Israel. At its best, it feeds on such distinctions as between Israel and the Jewish state, Israel and prime minister Sharon, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, between what is due to individuals and not owed to nations, between a struggle of resistance and terrorism.
Though this appears to be good doctrine, it hides a bad conscience. Those who condemn the latter elements of these distinctions in order to justify the former are often using the former to disguise the latter. In either case, it remains a form of anti-Semitism even if more concealed.
I want to be clear and explicit on this point.
Israel is a democratic state whose government changes occur in free elections. It is the only Western democracy – virtually a part of Europe – within the Arab world.
The state of Israel has a right to its own existence and security.
Israel’s existence and security are questioned by many Arab or Islamic countries and are currently threatened by terrorism.
Anti-Semitism is terrorism’s main sustenance.
My conclusion is simple: if we want to fight terrorism, we must fight anti-Semitism. And here’s where my analysis leads me back to Europe again.
Faced with a new threat after communism, Europe is once again divided. Europe has yet to understand what sort of war was declared against the West on September 11th. Not all of Europe agrees that it is itself among the targets of this war. A part of Europe seems to lean towards a position of appeasement with those who threaten it, or towards neutrality, and believes the United States is wrong and would be best left on its own. Not even the Madrid massacre of March 11th has managed to raise awareness decisively. All this leads Europe to postpone its decisions to tomorrow.
But tomorrow is today. It is here and now. Condemning anti-Semitism, as well as cultivating memory, preaching tolerance, practicing respect, are important measures to take. However, they are worth nothing if we – we as Europeans, Americans, Westerners, Christians, Muslims, men and women of good will of every creed – do not take responsibility now. Let’s be clear. We are committed to peace, coexistence, collaboration, confrontation, dialogue. This can be done and it should be done, but it cannot be done if we do not keep our eyes open. If, on the contrary, we pretend not to see, if we do not understand clearly what we see, if we do not act properly against what we do see, then we might make a terrible mistake and we might live our past atrocities over again. We won’t allow it.