Antisemitism is a “deeply ingrained racism in European society” that poses an existential threat to the continent’s Jewish community and the fundamental aims of the European Union, an EU official has warned.
Michael O’Flaherty, the director of the bloc’s agency for fundamental rights, said it was worrying that only a third of the general population considered antisemitism a big problem, when there was no doubt “dramatic moments in our societies trigger antisemitic responses”.
He told the Guardian: “It happened with Covid, it’s happening now with the Russian aggression [in Ukraine] – and now it’s happening again. Media and civil society organisations warn of a rise of antisemitism as the crisis in the Middle East unfolds.
“I honestly think that with any big negative issue in our society, you’re going to find antisemitic tropes finding their way in there. It’s indicative of the extent … antisemitism is a deeply ingrained racism in European society.”
O’Flaherty added that it was “also important at this time to be vigilant and condemn all forms of hatred that manifest themselves in Europe, including hatred against Muslims”.
The war that has followed the terrorist attacks by Hamas in Israel on 7 October has led to an unprecedented increase in antisemitic incidents. High numbers of civilian casualties caused by Israel’s response have raised tensions further.
Recent figures compiled by the US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) revealed a 300% rise in Austria. In the UK, London police said 218 antisemitic hate crimes had been reported from 1-18 October,more than 13 times more than the same period last year.
In Germany, the antisemitism monitoring organisation RIAS reported a 240% increase in antisemitic incidents since 7 October, a total the country’s antisemitism commissioner warned risked transporting the country back to its “most horrific times”.
Many experts in hate crimes point to deeply rooted negative ideas about Jews that, though always present, surface at times of societal stress.
Candles next to a sign that reads: ‘Against antisemitism’ during a vigil outside an Orthodox Jewish community centre in Berlin, Germany. Assailants threw molotov cocktails at the building in the early hours of 15 October. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
One recent study by the ADL found that anti-Jewish tropes remained entrenched in 10 European countries, with roughly one in four people harbouring historically familiar antisemitic beliefs, particularly false beliefs about Jews and money, and Jews controlling governments.
Polling carried out among Europe’s Jewish communities found that 90% of respondents felt antisemitism was getting worse, said O’Flaherty. “So that is the strong view of the Jewish community itself. What’s more, they predominantly said … that the single biggest problem in their lives is antisemitism. That is quite startling. It was not about a job, healthcare, education, putting food on the table … It was antisemitism.”
Experts estimate the “core” Jewish population of the EU to be 781,200, though many more have at least one parent who identifies as Jewish. The population immediately after the second world war and the Holocaust, which killed at least 6 million European Jews, was about 3.8 million.
Now that very few survivors were still alive, Europe must find a new way of communicating the tragedy of the Holocaust, O’Flaherty said, calling for greater efforts in education.
“Another aspect that is very relevant right now … is the extent to which we are forgetting about the Holocaust,” he said. “Almost all the survivors have gone now … and we are yet to find a new way of effectively transmitting the story to our children, to people in our societies.”
The ADL found that, among the six countries polled in western Europe, Spain remained the country with the highest level of antisemitic attitudes, with 26% of the population harbouring extensive antisemitic beliefs, followed by Belgium (24%), France (17%), Germany (12%) and the UK (10%). In the Netherlands, only 6% of those polled held antisemitic views.
In eastern Europe, antisemitic attitudes were more widely held, though becoming rarer. The ADL found high levels of antisemitic beliefs in Hungary (37%) and Poland (35%).
Studies have confirmed a sharp rise in online antisemitism in Europe during the Covid pandemic and after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.
The Dohány Street synagogue in Budapest. Antisemitic attitudes are more widely held in eastern Europe, though becoming rarer, according to the ADL. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
AFR research has revealed a growing number of Jews who say they would consider leaving Europe as a consequence of prejudice and discrimination.
“It is an existential issue in the sense that when we asked Jews whether they would consider leaving Europe, a significant number said they would … And more worrying still, when you look at who are those Jews, they are mainly young,” said O’ Flaherty, previously a professor of human rights law at the National University of Ireland.
“We built the modern Europe on the basis of the repudiation of the horrors of the second world war, and uppermost of those horrors is and was the Holocaust – the genocide perpetrated against Jews … That’s why the persistent assault on this relatively small community of people is of such fundamental importance for Europe and for the values that we claim to uphold.”
Experts say the issue of emigration and the decline of Jewish populations in much of Europe is complicated. In some countries, including the UK and Austria, Jewish communities are growing, albeit incrementally as immigration offsets deaths among an often elderly population. In others, such as Germany, Jewish population levels are stable. However, many small communities never recovered from the Holocaust, and a further decline in numbers of Jewish communities in Europe appears inevitable.
Most emigration by European Jews is driven by the same factors that prompt the movement of members of any other community: a search for stability, security and prosperity, research by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) has shown.
Violent attacks that target Jews or are motivated by ideologies that have strong antisemitic elements can be linked to increases in emigration by Jews, such as from France between 2015 and 2016 when the country was rocked by a series of terrorist attacks, including several against Jewish targets.
Jonathan Boyd, the executive director of the JPR in London, told the Guardian in September: “Many European countries where there were once really big vibrant Jewish communities now have tiny Jewish populations – often just a few thousand – which are ageing and really struggling to maintain themselves … When you have antisemitism on top of that, it obviously doesn’t help.
“When people are very worried by that – particularly when it becomes murderous – the fears become acute enough to push some at least to leave.”