Europeans insist that since World War II, their society has largely overcome any remaining anti-Semitic biases, and has successfully transformed into a progressive, tolerant culture. This widespread belief can be attributed to European leaders who have publicly attacked anti-Semitism and promoted meaningful discussions about the Holocaust, as well as the existence of numerous laws against Holocaust denial. However, twenty-first century European society actually remains entrenched in systemic anti-Semitism, as shown by the harsh backlash against European Jews following Israeli military action in Gaza this past summer.
It is no surprise that the persistent conflict between Israel and Hamas has polarized public opinion. A United Nations study indicates that over 2,100 Palestinians, of whom 70% were civilians, were killed as a result of Operation Protective Edge, compared to 71 Israelis, mainly soldiers. In light of these events, a profound anti-Israel movement has emerged in Western Europe, with protestors from the United Kingdom to Germany condemning Israel’s bombing of Gaza and the Palestinian civilian death toll. However, significant evidence shows that Hamas has used schools, mosques, hospitals, and other civilian facilities to store weapons and fire rockets, with most of the rockets being intercepted by Israel’s effective Iron Dome defense system. Palestinian activists have raised legitimate human rights concerns in the region, but their humanitarian message contains strong anti-Semitic undertones. The pro-Palestine movement, while utilizing the rhetoric of human rights, has blurred the line between humanitarianism and blatant racism.
It is possible to protest Israel’s foreign policy without exhibiting anti-Semitic bias, but the recent waves of protests in Western Europe have not done this. Claiming to support the pro-Palestine movement, activists throughout Europe have organized under the anti-Israel banner and have perpetrated hate crimes towards Jews of many nations. For instance, a pro-Palestinian rally in Berlin last July featured numerous protestors draped in Palestinian flags chanting “Hamas Hamas Juden ins gas,” or “Hamas Hamas, gas the Jews!”. Widespread rallies in the city of Wuppertal, Germany also resulted in a synagogue being barraged by Molotov cocktails in July 2014 and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. Additionally, the Jewish commercial district in Sarcelles, France, also known as “Little Jerusalem,” was occupied by pro-Palestinian protesters, prompting residents to form a cordon around the local synagogue. The protest quickly turned into a riot, and while local Jews were not subject to any violence, the mere presence of a pro-Palestinian rally within a largely Jewish neighborhood communicated the anti-Semitic undertones of the protest. Though many protestors across Europe have genuinely expressed their pro-Palestinian beliefs without directly attacking the Jewish population, others carry signs that employ anti-Semitic sentiments. Some posters equate the Israeli bombing of Gaza to the Holocaust, or compare Israel under Netanyahu to Nazi Germany under Hitler. The slogan “Hitler was right” has been featured on banners, and on Twitter, the hashtag #HitlerWasRight was used to express hatred towards Israelis specifically, but by extension, the Jewish people as a whole.
Despite these flagrant instances of anti-Semitism, the perpetrators of these hate crimes have embedded themselves among genuine pro-Palestinian activists who have, for the most part, earned credibility by expressing real concerns about the status of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Although the anti-Semitism within the pro-Palestinian movement seems counterproductive to a humanitarian movement, the protest of Israeli military efforts has received widespread encouragement. An international response that fails to distinguish between humanitarian sympathy and blatant racism, however, dangerously supports the growing tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. By operating within the realm of a pro-Palestinian movement, anti-Semitic Europeans have thus been able to express their views freely in a legitimate setting, allowing them to operate under the veil of humanitarian protest in order to instill fear into Jewish communities without consequence.