Last week a firestorm erupted in France when Rony Brauman, a former president of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, speculated that the wearing of a yarmulke (skull cap) by Jews was seen "as an affirmation of loyalty to Israel" in addition to being a statement of faith.
The context for the statement made in an interview given to the Europe1 radio station was the stabbing attack on a religious Jew by an ISIS sympathizer in Marseille. The implication was clear. In the eyes of a prominent member of Europe's elite, a Jewish religious head covering was a red flag to those who hate Israel.
Brauman was widely condemned for seeming to rationalize religious prejudice, and he walked his statement back but still blamed the CRIF the umbrella organization of the French Jewish community for causing the problem by saying that the Jewish community stands in solidarity with Israel.
Were the issue solely one radical doctor, this minor controversy might not amount to much. But since Doctors Without Borders has a history of sympathy for Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, it is hard to argue that Brauman's views are unrepresentative of the organization. But the issue here is much broader than one man or one group.
Though Brauman was uncomfortable being caught in an indiscrete comment that made any religious Jew an understandable, if regrettable target for enraged Islamists, there was a degree of honesty in what he said.
More importantly, the kerfuffle over the anti-Israel doctor illustrates a basic truth about both the enemies of Israel and the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. In the eyes of those that hate Israel, there is no real difference between their war on the Jewish state and the Jewish people. The distinction between the effort to eradicate Israel and prejudice against Jews is entirely artificial and disappears on even the most cursory inspection of their position.
As far as Bauman was concerned, anyone that could be openly identified as Jewish was, in principle, vulnerable to being seen as a friend of the Jewish state, in addition to any other meaning a yarmulke might have. And since, in the view of European elites who have bought into anti-Zionist propaganda, Israel is the one country in the world that not only has policies that might be criticized but which has no right to exist; its supporters are, in a sense, criminal conspirators. That a prominent member of the human rights community would articulate such views is not surprising since European elites have increasingly adopted the language of delegitimization with regard to Israel.
There is a legitimate right to criticize Israeli policies. Israelis do it everyday in their lively democratic system. But in the view of Bauman and his friends, allegations against Israel are not really a function of differing views about the moribund peace process, West Bank settlements or even the right to self-defense against terrorism, such as the current "stabling intifada" in which daily random acts of bloody violence are treated as heroic acts by Palestinians.
It is Israel's existence that is the crime in their view. No matter how egregious the human rights abuses of other states which dwarf the charges against Israel even if we were, as we should not, to take those allegations at face value these activists believe Israel is the only nation in the world that deserves to be dismantled. Just as those who discriminate against Jews as individuals are rightly labeled as anti-Semites, the same applies to those biased against the one Jewish state on the planet.
The decision of some Jews to consider taking off their yarmulkes and hiding their Jewish identity is understandable if a lamentable concession to violence. But this problem speaks as much to a broader European problem as it does to specific concerns in France.
The implicit demand in the stand articulated by Bauman, which echoes past attacks on Israel by European artists and intellectuals, is that Jews may only render themselves safe from anti-Semitism if they disassociate themselves from Israelis seeking to defend their state and their lives. But as this latest incident shows, merely joining the lynch mob against Israel may not be enough for Jews. They must also strip themselves of any identifying characteristics that are openly Jewish lest they be confused with criminal Zionists. It's not enough to oppose Israel; now Jews are to be asked to stop practicing their religion. One doesn't need to be a student of 20th Century European history to see where this path ultimately leads.
This raises an important point about the current cultural crisis in Europe. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks that included an assault on a kosher market and many other violent incidents, the focus for those worried about anti-Semitism has understandably shifted to Muslim immigrants to Europe and those who sympathize with international terror groups like ISIS. But as serious as that threat may be, the problem isn't limited to Muslims or immigrants from North Africa.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted this week in advance of the international day of commemoration for the Holocaust that "anti-Semitism is more widespread than we imagined." She's right but the need for "intensive action" to combat the spread of the virus of hate can't be limited to those that come from countries, as Merkel noted, with cultures "in which hostility toward Israel and anti-Semitism are a common practice." The increase in anti-Semitism across Europe cannot be measured solely by counting the attacks on Jews by Muslim immigrants. The frightening spread of anti-Jewish terror from the Middle East to the streets of European cities is shocking.
But the traction gained by those seeking to marginalize and single out Jews and supporters of Israel for opprobrium is as much a function of the prejudice articulated by academics, artists and those, like Brauman, who label themselves human rights activists, as it is the actions of Muslim immigrants.
So long as such persons are allowed to pretend to be the more civilized face of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish actions, the spread of the virus of prejudice will not be halted.