As the gnashing of teeth about the fate of American Jewry in the wake of the Pew Research Center survey continues, a newer and far more troublesome study of European Jewry ought to keep the supposed problem of defining Jewishness by the food you eat and the jokes you tell in some sort of perspective.
Conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, known as the FRA, “Discrimination and hate crime against Jews in E.U. Member States: experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism” surveyed 5,847 individuals 16 years old and over who considered themselves Jewish, residing in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
The headline figures were frightening enough. Across Europe, 66% of Jewish people see anti-Semitism as a problem in their respective countries today — as high as 90% in Hungary and 85% in France. The perception, moreover, is that over the past five years, the level of anti-Semitism has increased, with 76% of respondents saying it had gone up a lot or a little.
Where this increase has taken place might be surprising. But first, some more numbers.
Thirty-eight percent of Jews now avoid, all the time or frequently, wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jews in public; 60% of Swedish Jews and 51% of French Jews act this way. Forty-eight percent of Jews in Hungary and 46% in France have considered emigrating because they do not feel safe living in those countries as Jews, with 90% of French Jews stating that the Arab-Israeli conflict affects their feelings of safety.
Immediately discernible from the statistics, though, is that the number of people who fear becoming a victim of anti-Semitism is greater than those who have experienced it as verbal insults, harassment or a physical attack. While 21% have been the actual victim of an anti-Semitic incident in the past 12 months, 46% worry about the possibility of such an assault.
There is also tremendous regional variation between fear and experience. In France, for example, an astonishing 70% fear becoming the victim of a hate crime. In the United Kingdom, however, the fear is not as heightened, with 28% of respondents worrying about becoming a victim of verbal assault, and 17% the victim of a physical assault — still high numbers, to be sure.
The reason for this disparity between perception and experience, however, is not groundless panic or hysteria; it comes because of new manifestations of anti-Semitism, principally dissemination via the Internet and new media.
When asked where anti-Semitism against Jewish communities occurs, 75% of European Jews pointed toward anti-Semitism on the Internet above all else, followed by 59% for anti-Semitism in the media. Internet anti-Semitism today is considered a greater problem than the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the vandalism of Jewish buildings or institutions, and expressions of hostility toward Jews on the street and in other public places.
The perception is that the level of anti-Semitism on the Internet over the past five years has increased, as discussion forums and social networking sites are now the main places where European Jews are most likely to have seen or heard anti-Semitic comments. While 75% reported seeing or hearing anti-Semitic comments on the Internet in the past 12 months, 51% saw or heard them in a social situation, 47% among the general public and 42% at a political event.
And what exactly are they hearing? Forty-eight percent of respondents have seen or heard someone make the statement that Israelis behave “like Nazis” toward the Palestinians; 38% that Jews have too much power in the economy, politics and the media; 37% that Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own purposes, and on and on. Small wonder, then, that European Jews fear that they, their friends or their families might become victims of an anti-Semitic attack, if all this is a regular part of European discourse.
That the threat has gone online, as well, rather complicates the question of what is to be done. The FRA suggests that E.U. member states consider enhancing “the legal basis for the investigation and prosecution of hate crime and crime committed with anti-Semitic motives on the Internet.” In so doing, states should establish “specialized police units that monitor and investigate hate crime on the Internet and put in place measures to encourage users to report any anti-Semitic content they detect to the police.”
One problem, however, is that the FRA’s own survey also showed an entrenched disbelief in the ability of national police forces to deal with anti-Semitism. When it came to reporting anti-Semitic incidents, only 8% of respondents reported harassment to the police: 17% reported physical violence, and 22% cases of vandalism. When asked why they did not report the offense, 47% said that nothing would happen or change by reporting the incident.
Thus, if anti-Semitism on the Internet is to be considered a hate crime equal to verbal or physical confrontation, there must be other avenues to reporting it. To that end, it would be a decent idea for E.U. member states to foster closer cooperation between police forces and Jewish community organizations.
The other issue, however, is the question of whether one can — or should — police the Internet at all. A case of anti-Semitic harassment or intimidation online is one thing, but to monitor the discourse is quite another.
By way of example, 21% of European Jews report hearing or seeing the statement that the Holocaust is a myth or has been exaggerated in the past 12 months. In Belgium, France, Germany and Hungary, it is a crime to deny or minimize the Holocaust, but it is inherently impractical to police the Web for signs of it, never mind the question of one’s right to make a statement as abhorrent as that the Holocaust never even happened.
The struggle against anti-Semitism in Europe is unwinnable to the extent that it is ineradicable. It is a virus for which there is no cure — it can only be contained. What makes the FRA survey disheartening in particular is the knowledge that the Internet has become for European Jews the main context for encountering anti-Semitism. It only makes the struggle that much harder.
Liam Hoare is a regular contributor to the Forward.