Jews feel safer in Europe’s conservative East than its liberal West
A pervasive false impression.
by Evelyn Gordon
The narrative adopted by many American Jews these days is that rightist governments enable antisemitism, while liberal governments allow Jewish communities to flourish. A corollary of this thesis is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open friendship with rightist governments in Eastern Europe has enabled antisemitism. Thanks to a poll of European Jews published last week, we now have some facts by which to judge this thesis. And the facts appear to belie it.
The Joint Distribution Committee’s International Center for Community Development surveyed 893 Jewish leaders and professionals from throughout Europe and found that in general, Jews felt safe everywhere. Nevertheless, there was a stark difference between Eastern and Western Europe.
In the east, a whopping 96 percent of respondents felt safe, while only four percent felt unsafe. In the West, 76 percent felt safe, and 24 percent felt unsafe. Respondents from places like Poland, Hungary, and Romania—countries routinely accused of having antisemitic, borderline fascist governments—felt safer than Jews in liberal countries like France and Germany by a 20-point margin.
Moreover, “Western European respondents were more likely to consider antisemitism as a threat than were Eastern Europeans, and to report deterioration in the situation from earlier surveys,” the JDC’s report said. Nor is this mere subjective perception: Other studies have found that Jews are much more likely to experience physical violence in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe. In 2017, for instance, Hungary’s 100,000 Jews didn’t report a single physical attack, while Britain’s 250,000 Jews reported 145.
Jews in both regions expected antisemitism to worsen over the next five to 10 years, with the result that combatting antisemitism “ranked among the top three communal priorities” for the first time since the survey began in 2008. Nevertheless, the East fared better than the West on this score, too. “A significant regional difference emerged on expectations of increasing antisemitism with those in Western Europe considerably more pessimistic (75 percent) than those in the East (56 percent),” the report read.
There are two reasons for all these seemingly counterintuitive results, which, as the report noted, are a “reversal of the situation … over the past two centuries.” The first is the politically incorrect fact that violence against Jews in Europe comes mainly from Muslim antisemites rather than either the right-wing or the left-wing variety (see, for instance, the shootings at a Jewish museum in Brussels, a Jewish school in Toulouse, and a kosher supermarket in Paris). And in Western Europe, liberal governments spent decades implementing liberal immigration policies that have produced large Muslim populations. Eastern Europe has very few Muslims, initially because decades of Communist rule made these countries economically uninviting and more recently because rightist governments have imposed restrictive immigration policies.
The second reason is more speculative since correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causality. Nevertheless, as the report noted, the findings are suggestive: “Hostility towards Israel in the general society is perceived to be fiercer in Western Europe; 88 percent of leaders from Western Europe considered that the media in my country regularly portrays Israel in a bad light, as opposed to only 36 percent from Eastern Europe [italics in original].” Here, too, objective data seems to support this hypothesis: Whenever Israel launches a major counterterrorism operation, anti-Israel sentiment spikes along with antisemitic attacks.
Everyone except antisemites understands that Israeli actions don’t justify attacks on Jewish citizens of other countries, but rampant anti-Israel sentiment often makes antisemites believe that society will tolerate such attacks as long as they can be portrayed as “anti-Israel.” And this belief is hardly unfounded. To take just one example, consider the notorious case of a German synagogue firebombed in 2014. Both the trial court and the appeals court ruled that this wasn’t an antisemitic crime, but merely an overly zealous form of political opposition to Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. Consequently, the perpetrators received mere suspended sentences.
In short, hostility toward Israel in the surrounding society encourages antisemitic acts among people who already hold antisemitic beliefs. And since hostility toward Israel emanates primarily from the left these days, it’s no surprise that such hostility is higher in liberal Western Europe than conservative Eastern Europe. Thus, both of the main contributors to antisemitism in Europe today—Islamic antisemitism and left-wing hostility toward Israel, are more prevalent in the liberal West than in the allegedly “fascist, antisemitic” countries of Eastern Europe.
None of the above implies that right-wing antisemitism isn’t a real problem; it obviously is. Nor does it imply that Eastern Europe’s right-wing governments have a clean bill of health on antisemitism; they have been responsible for some undeniably problematic acts and statements. It certainly doesn’t guarantee that nationalist parties won’t turn against the Jews tomorrow, as a prominent European rabbi warned last week. The British Labour Party’s swift transformation into an antisemitic cesspool shows just how quickly Jew-friendly attitudes can disappear. And it doesn’t mean America’s situation is necessarily analogous; the U.S. is too different from Europe for easy parallels to be drawn.
Yet to pretend, as many American Jews do, that right-wing antisemitism is the only kind we need to worry about flies in the face of reality, at least as it has played out in Europe. The European reality similarly belies the claim that rightist governments are, by definition, bad for the Jews. And given that reality, Netanyahu’s close relations with conservative European governments could actually help combat antisemitism in those countries by bolstering their positive attitudes toward Israel.
The world is a great deal more complex than the simple “left-wing good, right-wing bad” equation so prevalent among American Jews today. And recognizing that complexity might help liberal Jews be more understanding of their conservative brethren, both at home and in Israel.
Evelyn Gordon, who writes for Commentary’s blog, is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.