FREE Subscription to our
just enter your email address
View Previous Issues




These spurious charges of anti-Semitism reveal a growing cultural divide


The Independent (UK)
16 May 2002


If the editorial and comment columns of America's major newspapers are to be believed, Europe is caught up in a new and distressing wave of anti-Semitism. According to this view, far-right political parties are in the ascendant; the desecration of Jewish cemeteries is an everyday occurrence, and latter-day Nazi thugs lurk around every corner. The misguided Europeans, the argument continues, hold Israel 100 per cent to blame for the latest violence in the Middle East, and the only time Europeans come out on to the streets to demonstrate is to support hard-done-by Palestinians.

The latest expression of this worldview was a risible advertisement, sponsored by the biggest Jewish-American organisation, the American Jewish Congress, which called on US film stars and producers to boycott the Cannes film festival in protest against French anti-Semitism. The advert claimed that there were striking similarities between the condition of Jews in France today, and their plight in Vichy France 60 years ago.

Woody Allen, to his credit, who is as much of a cinematic icon in France as he is in New York and Hollywood, not only declined to join what now appears to be a non-existent boycott, but took public issue with the thesis of French anti-Semitism. He pointed out that some of France's most prominent directors are Jewish, as are many of the directors nominated for awards at Cannes. And he paid tribute to French voters for the unambiguous rebuff they had delivered to the far-right National Front in the second round of their presidential election. Mr Allen's new film opened the Cannes festival, as planned, last night.

The torrent of accusations from across the Atlantic is none the less deeply troubling. It is troubling first because the allegations contain a grain, if only a grain, of truth. Far-right political parties have sprung up or gained a new lease of life in several unexpected places, including Austria, Denmark, France and the Netherlands.

It is also true that in many European countries, Britain and France included, there remain undercurrents of anti-Semitism, both in the upper ranks of the establishment and at the grassroots. They are probably less than in the past, but no less reprehensible for that. Regrettably, synagogues and cemeteries have been desecrated, including in London and Hull. Figures from France suggest that such despicable incidents increased after Israel's latest West Bank incursions – which were the impetus also for mass demonstrations in France and elsewhere in support of Palestinians.

To weave all these strands together as evidence of a climate of anti-Semitism in Europe, however, is so distorting as to be wrong. The rise of far-right parties reflects less anti-Semitism than hostility to immigration – much of it from Muslim countries. The pro-Palestinian demonstrations were a response to what Europe saw as the excesses of Israel's military action. There were also significant pro-Israel demonstrations in Paris and London, as there were in Washington.

The US depiction of today's Europe as dangerous for Jews is troubling, not just because it is misleading. It is troubling, too, because an influential segment of American opinion subscribes to it. And it is troubling because it implies that, in American eyes, anyone who criticises Israel, for whatever reason, is guilty of anti-Semitism. This widens still further the cultural gap that has opened up between the new world and the old – ranging Britain ever more firmly on the side of Europe.