Over the past decade, as anti-Semitism has risen to unexpected strength in Europe, there has been a debate on how exactly to frame and define this development. Is it just a resurgence of the old anti-Semitism that plagued Europe through its history, and culminated in the Holocaust? Or, since this newer version seems to be targeting Israel and Zionism specifically and rejecting the traditional Christian-based “teachings of contempt” along with the pseudo-scientific racial theories of the Nazis, is it something different, an anti-Semitism that breaks with traditional views of Jew hatred?
For a time, the consensus seemed to be that most overt forms of traditional anti-Semitism were finished in mainstream Europe: thoroughly discredited, as a result of the Holocaust; or transmuted into a new political form, as a result of the existence of the State of Israel. Anti-Semitism in the 21st century was now essentially a political phenomenon, with the cruder forms appearing only either in the sewers of the few neo-Nazis and their sympathizers left in the West, or in the Islamic worldm where they had taken root and flourished.
However, recent events in Europe are inevitably leading to the conclusion that traditional anti-Semitism is once again rearing its ugly head. For the first time since World War II, central aspects of Jewish religious life are under attack in Europe – and, not in Eastern or Central Europe, but in Western Europe itself. For example, brit milah, circumcision, which has been one of the most important markers of Jewish identity going back to the roots of Judaism, saw a court decision in Cologne, Germany last month that banned its practice. Even though the decision was local, the resulting fallout was national – Berlin’s Jewish Hospital, which had been performing circumcisions for 250 years, immediately announced that it would no longer allow circumcisions, an action that has just been copied by two Swiss hospitals.
Last month, in Norway, a political party that is part of the ruling coalition also proposed outlawing circumcision. According to Jenny Klinge, a spokesperson for Norway’s Centre Party, “circumcision on religious grounds should be a criminal offense.” These actions followed on the heels of a February declaration by the Swedish Pediatric Society calling for the banning of circumcision in Sweden and a proposal by a Finnish Parliamentarian (from Finland’s ruling Finn Party) to ban circumcision there as well. (A similar movement arose in California last year, and there the anti-Semitic imagery became overt.)
However, circumcision is not the only aspect of Jewish observance under attack. In the Netherlands, a bill banning schechita, the practice of ritual slaughter that makes meat kosher, was originally passed by the lower house of the Dutch Parliament last year. Ultimately an agreement was reached this spring, and ratified by the Dutch Senate, which allowed for practice to continue. Meanwhile, in England, Food and Farming Minister James Paice has publicly described schechita as “wholly unacceptable” and has called for including schechita in a public review of animal welfare laws.
In France, during this spring’s presidential election campaign, Francois Fillon, then-prime minister of Nicholas Sarkozy’s center-right government, urged Jews and Muslims to give up their traditional methods of slaughter. Further east, Poland’s attorney general joined the chorus, stating in late June that schechita was unconstitutional (this despite the 2011 pronouncement by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski that the proposed Dutch bill had led to “a crisis of tolerance” in Europe). These calls are in addition to the bans on schechita that already exist in Europe, some dating from the 1930s, such as in Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg and Switzerland.
Neither one of the observances under attack can be described as political. They are religious rituals that through centuries and generations have become basic markers of Jewish religious identity. In the words of Ervin Kohn, the President of the Norwegian Jewish community, they are existential, cutting through to the core elements of how Jews define themselves. Different or even no levels of observance may be practiced by the individual, but for Jews as a community these are fundamental forms of self-definition.
Nor are they limited to the Jewish community. These laws are also, overtly or covertly, aimed at the Muslim communities of Europe. The bans on both practices apply to Muslim circumcision and halal slaughter as well. Some of the proposals to ban, as in France, stem from anti-immigrant (read Muslim immigration) political parties, while others (such as the Dutch anti-schechita law or the Norwegian and Swedish calls against circumcision) rest on medical or animal welfare concerns – or at least that is what is said on the surface. In Norway last year one leading politician whispered to me confidentially that the circumcision ban was aimed at Muslims, and Jews were unfortunately caught up in it.
Indeed, most of the proponents of these proposed bans would vehemently reject charges of anti-Semitism and would simply say that what they are calling for is more humane and more modern. Nonetheless, attempts to restrict Jewish religious practice must be seen as what they are, no matter the professed motivation. Anti-Semitism, along with any other form of bigotry, cannot be justified by claims to idealistic motives – the 20th century should have provided enough examples of that. As Europe continues to become more secular, and moves further away from its traditional religious background, there is the increasing possibility that any distinctive religious observances will come under attack as extremist or fundamentalist. Together with the apparently still-strong heritage of European anti-Semitism that seems now to go beyond issues related to Israel, these new actions attack the fundamentals of Jewish religious identity. No matter how one attempt’s to justify them, such attacks are simply anti-Semitic; and indeed, they demonstrate that whether “new” or “old,” classical anti-Semitism in Europe is still alive and has entered the political mainstream.