“Anti-Semitism was born in modern societies because the Jew did not assimilate himself,” wrote the French-Jewish thinker Bernard Lazare in 1894, a few months after the arrest of Captain Alfred Dreyfus on charges of treason. “But,” Lazare continued, “when anti-Semitism ascertained that the Jew was not assimilated,” it reacted in two conflicting directions, simultaneously “reproach[ing] him for it and . . . [taking] all necessary measures to prevent his assimilation in the future.”
This pattern, which Lazare presciently identified as the “fundamental and everlasting contradiction” of anti-Semitism, and which we would call a “Catch-22,” seems to me to lie at the root of the existential dilemma of contemporary French Jews. And not of them alone. At stake here, as Robert Wistrich observes in his masterly essay in Mosaic, is much more than the fate of a single minority community. In the “beginning of the end of French Jewry,” Wistrich writes, we may also be witnessing the “slow death” of the French republican ideal—the collapse, as he put it in his 2010 magnum opus A Lethal Obsession, “of any consensual national project or unifying social bond, let alone commonly shared ideals.”
And France is hardly the only nation affected. This past summer, raw hatred of Jews rose to dramatic heights in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany (where mobs urged “gassing the Jews”), and elsewhere. When it comes to anti-Semitism, a post-war, post-Holocaust consensus is breaking down all over Western Europe—right alongside the concurrent breakdown of the EU’s promised ideal of a transcontinental, inter-communal political identity. Such an identity might indeed have permitted European Jews to escape Lazare’s “everlasting contradiction”: rejected for being Jewish, lambasted for remaining Jewish. But it may be too late.
Still, however consistent with the past may be the motifs of modern anti-Semitism, it has not been easy to pinpoint the motive force behind its present resurgence. It is not enough to say, as many do, that the main culprit, in France or elsewhere, is “the left,” or “nationalist extremism,” or “the Muslims,” or “the Internet,” or some combination of these. That is to confuse the multiple, overlapping expressions of a problem with the problem itself. I would suggest a different point of departure, one that appreciates the radically new situation of Western Jews themselves at this moment in their history.To see this, it would help to take a preliminary step backward.
In the 19th century and well into the 20th, the Jewish experience of modern anti-Semitism in Europe was defined by three factors: first, discriminatory legislation; second, a marked tendency toward mass violence, either sanctioned or colluded in by the state and local authorities; and third, the fact that Jewish communities were dependent for their security on the states in which they lived.
The last time a set of grand Europeans ideals—the ideals encapsulated in Enlightenment rationalism and the emancipation of Europe’s Jews—broke down, all three of these factors came into play: anti-Semitic legislation, violence, the withdrawal of civic rights and protection. Worse, by the 20th century, anti-Semitism became intimately bound up with the ideological imperatives of totalitarian and revolutionary regimes. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the two states that did more to advance anti-Semitism than any of their European peers, converted mob vilification of the Jews into government policy, shaped on a grand scale and implemented from on high.
Things are very different today. To begin with, the vast majority of European Jews enjoy full civil and political rights and are not subject to anti-Semitic legislation. True, this status is not universal. There are smaller Jewish communities—in Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere—where anti-Semitic sentiments are stoked or encouraged by governments and political leaders. And there are regimes that manipulate the charge of anti-Semitism for their own political ends, the most pertinent example being Russia under Vladmir Putin. But these are exceptions.
As for mass violence, except for sporadic outbursts (like this past summer in France), it, too, is no longer a fixture of contemporary Jewish existence—which is precisely why it is so traumatizing when it occurs. It is certainly not condoned or encouraged by the authorities.
Most significantly of all, there is a Jewish state that not only is reassuringly capable of protecting the Jews who live there but also provides sanctuary to Jews elsewhere who face threats to their security.
As a result, European Jews today are more protected than perhaps at any time since the French Revolution. Though some of the symbols and slogans of the past have come back to haunt the contemporary scene—witness the revival of both the Nazi image of the Jew as alien predator and the Soviet image of the Jew as conniving tribalist—in no European society today does government initiate or engineer the persecution of its Jewish communities. Many governments, in fact, have designed and strengthened legislation with precisely the opposite goal, pursuing it with a zeal that Americans, accustomed to strong constitutional protections for free speech, might well find disquieting.