Can Europe Make It?

Attacks on Jews and the authoritarian tide in Europe

As the war on Gaza continues, we should analyze the attacks on Jews and their property in Europe differently from how we view the masses of people taking to the streets in protest against that war.

John Weeks
14 August 2014

The attacks in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), with the atrocious number of civilian casualties, has provoked protests throughout the world, even in the United States.  In Britain the ambiguous-at-best position of the Coalition government on Gaza prompted the resignation of Sayeeda Hussain Warsi ("Baroness" Warsi), Foreign Office Minister and former Co-chair of the Conservative party.

The Guardian reported that IDF strikes coincided with a rise in anti-Jewish incidents in western Europe, not least in Germany.  This timing leads to the obvious inference that the attacks on Jews and Jewish shops and synagogues result from the policies of the Israeli government in Gaza.  For its part, the Israeli government's response is to equate protests against its actions in Gaza with attacks on Jews anywhere: i.e. criticism of the Israeli government is de facto anti-Semitism (this is not a term to my liking, because "all Semites" are not Jews, but there is little hope of changing popular usage of it).  The Guardian tells us:

Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, and very ugly, demons. This is not unusual; police and Jewish civil rights organisations have long observed a noticeable spike in antisemitic incidents each time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares. 

While not factually wrong, these two sentences render simplistic a complex phenomenon, and in doing so by-pass real understanding.  The recent attacks in western Europe targeting European Jews and Jewish property require an analysis broader than a mechanistic link between those attacks and the Israeli government.

The "Gaza-causes-antisemitic-crimes" lumps together European neo(and paleo)-fascists, Islamic extremists and the masses of people outraged by events in Gaza. This approach  has the implicit or explicit effect of fulfilling the accusation of the Israeli government, which is that criticism of it is anti-Semitism (for the thinking person's version of that equation, see Roger Cohen's August 2 article in the New York Times). Placed in historical context, the recent anti-Jewish attacks in Europe have much in common with the contemporaneous threats and violence against European Muslims (for example, in France and in Britain)

Interpreting the rising presence of fascist-based anti-Judaism and anti-Islamism requires delving into the dark history of discrimination and persecution in Europe. Nazi racist ideology represented the twentieth century manifestation of a strong current in European society going back hundreds of years (see the book on anti-Judaism by David Nirenburg, reviewed here). This long tradition of intolerance was brought home to me on a recent trip to Catalonia when I drove from the Greek and Roman ruins of Sant Marti de Empuries to the medieval town of Girona. 

While still down in the coastal lowlands, I passed through a village with the name "Matajudaica" (see photograph below). The prefix "mata" means "to kill" or "killer", as in "matador". The suffix "judaica" means Jews, so the two combine to tell the visitor that the village name is "kill the Jews" (or, perhaps, "Jew Killers"). 

Yielding to pressure from the Catalonian government, itself perhaps motivated by public relations concerns, the several hundred residents will hold a referendum in the autumn on whether to change the village name (outcome in doubt).  By contrast, to my knowledge there is no pressure from the regional government in Extremadura for residents to change the name of their village called Valle de Matamoros -- "Valley of the Moor (Muslim) Killers". 

Nor have I received reports of any plans to alter the moniker of a restaurant with the same name in my home town (see 1957 photograph below, and the restaurant's facebook page).  "Mata-Muslims" appears considerably more often as names of locations and enterprises than "Mata-Jews".  For example, we find a festival in Peru (Santiago Matamoros en San Lucas de Colán) and no less than 7 cities in Mexico (the largest is across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville, Texas).

"Kill the Jews", a village in Catalonia, source here.

"Valley of the Moor (Muslim) Killers ", a village in Extremadura, tourist promotion sign. Wikicommons.

Restaurant where I ate many times while growing up in Austin, Texas, ignorant of the meaning of its name.  Photograph from the Austin History Center.

These appalling but rarely recognized hate names reflect the legacy of European monarchs who sought successfully to enforce a Christian ideology from the Atlantic to the Volga River, and beyond in some cases. The return of Nazi anti-Semitism, and anti-Islamism, results not from the actions of the Israeli government, though that government has provided ammunition for both. The purveyors of intolerance wax and wane in Europe - they never disappear.

The far right throughout Europe is the current manifestation of the long tradition of European intolerance and persecution of Muslims and Jews, plus many other groups - the Romani spring to mind. The total defeat of Germany in World War II and the exposure of the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime rendered overt racism unrespectable, even criminal in a few countries. During the Cold War the leadership of both the capitalist and socialist camps expressed opposition to the hate ideology of the far right, each for it own reasons.

In a great irony that will not be missed by historians in the future, the collapse of the authoritarian socialist regimes throughout Europe cleared the way for the resurgence of authoritarian capitalism. The liberation of neo-fascist ideology comes via the rise of "free market" capitalism, yet another irony that will not pass unnoticed. As I discuss in more detail in my new book (see Chapter 4), the deregulation of markets liberates capital to impose its rule in brutal form. The rise of the fascist right in Europe represents one political manifestation of market brutality. In a subsequent article I explore in detail the path that leads from "free markets" to fascism.  

As the war on Gaza continues, we should analyze the attacks on Jews and their property in Europe differently from how we view the masses of people taking to the streets in protest against that war. The second springs largely from humanitarian outrage. The first seeks to recreate the regimes of inhumanity that we sought to defeat in WWII.  

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