Angela Merkel is the stand-up lady of Europe. The German chancellor is forthright in calling anti-Semites to account. She spoke this week to a rally of 6,000 Germans at the Brandenburg Gate, denouncing the documented increase of anti-Semitism in their country. The evil of the Nazi regime, which killed 6 million Jews in Europe 80 years ago, is marked everywhere, with bronze plaques on sidewalks where Jews were taken from their homes and dispatched to death camps, to the five acres dedicated to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in the very center of Berlin.
And yet, as the chancellor observes, there's currently a sharp increase in anti-Semitic attacks and incidents in Europe, so that "not a single Jewish institution in the country can go without police protection today." She says it's every German's duty to make his and her voice heard. She spurned the usual platitudes about tolerance and went to the point that the rest of the world avoids acknowledging: Much of the current criticism of Israel is camouflaged anti-Semitism, and not very well camouflaged at that.
"The legitimate criticism of the political actions of a government — be it ours or of the state of Israel — is fine," she said. "But if it is only used as a cloak for one's hatred against other people — hatred for Jewish people — then it is a misuse of our basic rights of freedom of opinion and assembly."
In Washington, academics and activists met at Georgetown University the other day to discuss "European Judaism Under Siege," or ways that criticism of Israel is worn as that cloak to disguise Jew hatred. Sarah Fainberg, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University, recalled the observation of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher, that Jews were demonized not because they were bad, but because they were hated. In 1978, Vladimir Jankelevitch, a French philosopher, observed that Zionism "democratized" anti-Semitism, enabling it to spread among critics who would never admit they were anti-Semitic.
Israel offers anti-Semites a cloak of many colors from many countries. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators throughout Western Europe over the past few months have chanted slogans and carried banners crying out "Death to Jews!" and "Gas the Jews!" It's tempting to say this is a reaction to Israeli acts in Gaza, but Prof. Fainberg asks why no one has stormed the streets when the Syrian government has massacred 160,000 civilians, including 1,800 Palestinians, or when Russian soldiers have killed more than a 150,000 Muslim Chechens between 1994 and 2003?
She believes the widespread Israelization of Jew hatred has converted the 19th-century "Jewish question" into the 21st-century "Israeli question." This hatred, with its patina of moral "righteousness," links intellectuals of the left in bond with misfits and soreheads who channel anti-establishment, anti-government, anti-business hatred into a catch-all contempt of Jews in the name of whatever bad is happening in the Middle East.
A fascinating poll of more than 58,000 men and women throughout the world, commissioned by the New York Anti-Defamation League, found that more than a third of them vastly exaggerate the number of Jews in the world. Of the 25 percent who professed anti-Semitic attitudes, 70 percent had never met a Jew. The most widely accepted anti-Semitic stereotype is that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the country they live in.
Anecdotal incidents of anti-Semitism in Eastern and Western Europe are cause for concern, if not alarm. An Israeli flag is ripped from the hands of a Jewish man on a street corner in Berlin. Jews are trapped in a synagogue in Paris by pro-Palestinian rioters. The Jobbik Party, "tinged" with anti-Semitism, is on the rise in Hungary. Jewish children in France tell of "Jew" taunts from other children.
The hopeful news is there's a difference between anti-Semitism of the 1930s and that in the new century. For every anti-Semitic act today there's a loud, clear positive rebuke. Germany is determined not to forget the Holocaust. The half-million Jews who lived in Germany when Hitler came to power in 1933 were reduced to 30,000 by 1945. Germany lost a rich cultural life of scientists, writers, artists and musicians.
"That far more than 100,000 Jews are now living in Germany is something of a miracle," Angela Merkel says. "It's a gift, and it fills me with a deepest gratitude. Jewish life is part of our identity and culture. It hurts me when I hear that young Jewish parents are asking if it's safe to raise their children here, or when the elderly ask if it was right to stay here."
With my own daughter and granddaughters living in Berlin, I share Frau Merkel's hurt and join her concern. I'm reassured by her confidence in the new Germany.