When northern France capitulated to Nazi occupation during the Second World War, numerous local acts of defiance dotted the territory. In the Alsace region, a huge Swastika was hoisted above the ruins of a castle in Saverne, only to be torn down and replaced with the French Tricolor flag. To ensure the Nazi symbol would not be hoisted there again, the flagswappers entwined the flagpole with barbed wire and removed the crampons that were used for climbing up. "The next day the population enjoyed the ridiculous scene of the Wehrmacht attempting to shoot the flag down with a machine gun!" one observer recalled in an archived letter to the BBC.
The need to resist anti-Semitism and its bearers in Alsace did not end with the Nazi occupation. Over 70 years later, Swastikas have not been exorcised from Saverne. Late last week over 250 Jewish graves were vandalized, headstones upturned and defaced with graffiti Swastikas and Nazi slogans, such as "juden raus" (Jews out). Five teens have been arrested for the vile act, which they laughably claim was not intended as anti-Semitism.
The cemetery attack does not come in isolation. It’s not the most extreme recent attack against Jews and Jewish institutions, either. This past weekend a Danish gunman opened fire in a Copenhagen synagogue, which was hosting a free speech event. Five police officers and a film director were killed, as well as a young Jewish security guard standing watch outside a Bar Mitzvah at the same temple. Dozens of Wisconsin homes were vandalized Friday with anti-Semitic graffiti; Nazi and KKK references were scrawled across garage doors. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo were coordinated with a siege at kosher grocery store, Hyper Cacher. Europe is lousy with such incidents. In Paris, for the first time since the Holocaust, the Grand Synagogue was closed for Sabbath services over security concerns.
These are not coordinated efforts of a global anti-Semite movement — the Copenhagen shooter was an Islamic State-supporting extremist, the graveyard vandalism reflected neo-Nazi sentiment. And, to be sure, Jews are by no means the only, or even the prime, targets of hate in the West. Attacks on Muslims have soared in Germany, and Islamophobia is rabid in France in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The murder of three young Muslims by a white gunman in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, reads as a hate crime. It is still tragically necessary to assert that black lives matter. But we're not judging a most-persecuted minority prize. The rise in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe cannot be passed over.
The age-old hate still needs extinguishing. Vigilance against anti-Semitism, however, must go hand in hand with vigilance of all kinds of discrimination. Growing fears of anti-Semitism could be rolled up in the fight against right wing nationalism gaining ground in Europe. But the same fear could also be co-opted to bolster anti-Muslim sentiment, or used as a pretext for uncritical support of Israel. The problems with the latter should not be understated.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a fatalistic call this week for a "massive migration" of European Jews to Israel. It's problematic from every angle. First, it carries the assumption that fighting anti-Semitism in Europe is a lost cause. "This wave of terror attacks can be expected to continue," Netanyahu said. But Netanyahu's call goes further; it suggests that Jewish people can never escape the subject position of victim, except in Israel.
The sort of unassailable victimhood that Netanyahu accords European Jews is dangerous, too. The inscription of victim onto Jewish identity, while deeply understandable, has again and again enabled Israel to reject even the possibility that it could be an aggressing force. Consider the summer 2014 Israeli military operation in Gaza, which killed as many as 2,130 Palestinians, including over 500 children, according the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (This AP investigation breaks down the numbers further.) Four Israeli citizens and one foreign national civilian died in the seven-week conflict. At every turn, Israeli leaders described the operation as entirely defensive; it was named "Protective Edge."
Now, and this can't be stressed enough, to crib from Twitter trends: #NotAllJews. Of course, not all Jews agree with the Israeli government's policies and treatment of Palestinians, not even all Israeli Jews (not even close). Not all Jews think of Israel as a homeland, or even support the maintenance of a Jewish state. I'm no Zionist. There's no consensus on what it means, or should mean, to bear the identity "Jewish."
For me (and speaking for no one else), British-born, New York-based, my relationship to my Jewish heritage is something like an heirloom that I might come across while cleaning out my room. Not a forgotten object, but something for which I have no obvious use. But I don't throw it out, I never do — it may not be cherished or especially important to me, but I hold on to it always, even if I'm not quite sure why. However small a part it is of my life, my heirloom Jewishness would be enough to earn the hate of an anti-Semite, although it's not something I've ever experienced. It would also entitle me to live in Israel. But when Netanyahu said this week, "Israel is your home and that of every Jew," he was wrong. Being able to live somewhere doesn't make it a home.
It is not a pre-condition for maintaining a Jewish identity to seek a life in a colonial ethnocracy. Netanyahu promises safety to people like me, but ensures precarity and pain for Palestinians and instability and threats for Bedouin communities. One wonders which communities might be displaced and razed were Netanyahu's grand call for "mass migration" from Europe answered. It's hard to argue against people seeking a place of greater safety in the face of violence and persecution. But there is also much to say in support of Jewish communities in Europe who see themselves as part of a struggle against fascism and racism that not only targets Jews, but Arabs, immigrants and LGBTQ individuals, too.
It does no harm to the history of Jewish suffering in Europe to suggest that anti-Semitism is best fought in concert with other anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles.