Nationalism and racism in Europe is real, growing and dangerous. In some sense, history could repeat itself. But we’re being far too literal about it – and blind to what’s in front of us – if we’re mainly worried about the fate of European Jews.
The subtext of many alarmist articles about Europe and Jews in US and Israeli press (not least Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent, incredibly long and very sprawling piece for The Atlantic) seems to be that we’re on the brink of some anti-Semitic force rising again to attempt genocide on European Jews.
A few things are at work here. One is that when Ashkenazi Jews in the US and Israel look at Europe they imagine themselves to be looking at their past. I understand the psychology, but Europe in 2015 is less their past, than the future of those who live there now.
Also: Having grown up in Sweden in the 1980s and ’90s, it seems to me that the main lesson drawn in Europe from the rise of Nazism and the subsequent Holocaust of Jews and other undesirables was that one must not let that specific set of events happen again. A focus, a traumatized repetition of historic facts, in the service of “never again,” became a sort of talisman for European anti-racism. History became a roundabout way of talking about contemporary problems, a discourse that was often out of touch with the present reality.
It was as if racism didn’t look exactly the way it did in Germany 1932, or Mississippi in 1964, we couldn’t recognize it. We had anti-racist gatherings in school in response to ongoing racist incidents in Sweden at the time and it was “Auschwitz – never again,” and “We shall overcome.” Racism was always at geographical and chronological remove. Never mind the lived experience of students with roots in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere. Sweden, at that time, didn’t have words for the challenges it presented its others with.Immigration agent
There is a deep need in Europe to see the Holocaust an aberration, born out of the mind of a lone psychopath and the nation, temporarily psychotic, that fell under his spell, rather than a logical, horrific, consequence of thousands of years of national tribalism and religious zealotry
Of course there is much more continuity than one would like both before and after. Germany is no more inherently racist or nationalist than Sweden, France, or England. 1945 was not zero hour – it was just another year. Jews are unique only in that they fell victim in larger numbers and with a more industrialized effectiveness than any other group and that this genocide happened within Europe. The delusion of exceptionality may have been necessary in order for victims as well as perpetrators to get on with life in any meaningful manner in the postwar years. I can’t fault my grandparents’ generation for that. While the delusion itself hasn’t worn off, the postwar taboo against openly airing racist ideas, including anti-Semitism, seems to be gone.
Parties like Le Pen’s Front National or the Swedish “Sweden Democrats” are not primarily and overtly focused on anti-Semitism anymore. In part because they know that would set of a shit storm, in part because most pragmatic modern-day European nationalists, don’t see Jews as much of a problem. A Swedish newspaper recently asked Richard Jomshof from the Sweden Democrats about his party’s stance on Jews. He answered, “I don’t consider Jews in Sweden a problem, because there are so few of them.” That of course is the wrong answer, but it’s likely a very honest one. Which is not to say that these old parties in new guises are friends of the Jews.
It would not just be morally reprehensible, but a severe mistake to let their rhetoric slide because it is more Islamophobic than anti-Semitic. Or to cuddle up to Front National in response to Islamist anti-Semitism. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller: By the time they’ve come for the Muslims, there might not be anyone left to say anything when they come for you.