Antisemitism in Europe: not only a phantom of the past

Last month, the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released a comprehensive study on the experiences of antisemitism among Jews in 8 European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom)-whose Jews comprise 90% of the EU’s total Jewish population.

The FRA study indicates that two-thirds of Jewish respondents consider antisemitism to be a problem today in their countries. Three-fourths believe the problem has gotten worse in the past five years, and 68% percent say they at least occasionally avoid wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jews in public.

A distinctive feature about this study is that it is centered on European Jews’ experiences and perceptions, rather than on “counting” antisemites -who nowadays often reject having an antisemitic standpoint or motivation- and antisemitic incidents, which often go unreported. Is there seepage of antisemitism into the European mainstream? Yes, according to Europe’s Jews.

The study offers what classic sociologist W.I. Thomas labeled the “definition of the situation” by social actors – in our case: Jews in Europe, who increasingly feel uncomfortable, pressured and even threatened as Jewish citizens in their respective countries. And, as Thomas wrote in his famous theorem, situations defined as real are real in their consequences. Almost half of those surveyed in Belgium, France, and Hungary indicate they have considered emigrating because of the situation.

These results, which confirm findings of earlier studies done by outside organizations, state agencies and local Jewish communities, are disturbing. They should serve as a wake up call for policy makers, educators and researchers.

While the issue of antisemitism is very often downplayed in academia, CHGS takes that call with the importance and the rigor it deserves. On December 5th we hosted, together with the Center for Austrian Studies, an interdisciplinary panel discussion on antisemitism: then and now. We brought together scholars from the United States and Europe and explored continuities and discontinuities in the history of antisemitism, its current intellectual sources and expressions in different contexts. This event -which will be soon available on our YouTube channel – laid the foundation for what we expect to be an ongoing and much needed scholarly discussion on this topic.

Best wishes for a happy, productive and healthy 2014.

Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology. 

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