A new form of anti-Semitism in Europe


An old spectre is haunting Europe: anti-Semitism. This year’s terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen left five people dead just because they were Jewish.  Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Synagogues and Jewish schools now have to be under armed guard. Jewish people no longer dare to wear theirkippas in public. These events led Israel’s head of government, Benjamin Netanyahu, to call on all European Jews to emigrate.

Frans Timmermans, first Vice-President of the European Commission, stated in an interview which he gave at the beginning of the year that what kept him awake at night was the fact that Jews in Europe were once again fearful for their safety. He believed the very foundations of Europe were being tested: “The EU can come up with the best policies in the world, but it will fail anyway if a community no longer feels at home here. Then we will have betrayed the most important foundations of Europe.”

Martin Schulz, the President of the European Parliament, spoke in similarly striking tones at an event held on 11 April 2015 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp when he warned of the “return of demons that we thought were overcome”: anti-Semitism, racism, ultranationalism, intolerance. For him, the Holocaust had become part of the German, as well as European, consciousness. In his view, remembering this human catastrophe must lead to our taking responsibility for what happens today and what happens in the future.

At present, there are 1.4 million Jews living in Europe, forming approximately 10 per cent of all Jews worldwide. France’s Jewish population comprises the largest number (490,000), followed by the United Kingdom (291,000) and Germany (around 100,000). In 2014, 7231 Jews left France for Israel, double the number who had made the same journey in 2012. Forty per cent of Jews in Belgium have declared their intention to leave the country. Israel reckons that in 2014 it had welcomed around 25,000 immigrants.

This new wave of anti-Semitism also raises a challenge for Christian Churches. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the evangelical theologian who was murdered on Hitler’s personal orders on 9 April 1945 shortly before the end of the war, found the following words to describe it, in an observation he made in the very first years of the Nazi terror: “Only he who cries  out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.” In 1940, with regard to Europe he observed: “An expulsion of the Jews from the West must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ, for Jesus Christ was a Jew.”

The Catholic Church’s ‘Nostra Aetate’ declaration on its relationship with non-Christian religions, issued at the Second Vatican Council, marked a new chapter in her relationship with Judaism, coming as it did after many years of Christian anti-Judaism. The Council document, adopted 50 years ago, recognised the permanent vocation of Israel and thus abandoned ‘supercessionism’ (substitution theology), according to which God’s covenant with Israel had been transferred to the Church. All forms of anti-Semitism were deplored and rejected.

In 1975, Pope Paul VI spoke in even stronger terms when he said that all forms of anti-Semitism and discrimination against Jews ran counter to the spirit of Christianity. Pope John Paul II described the Jews as “our elder brothers in faith“. Pope Benedict XVI, who shook up Jewish-Christian relations following conversations with the Society of St Pius X and the reworded Good Friday prayer of intercession in the “extraordinary” form of the Mass, followed in the footsteps of his predecessor. Not long after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pope on 13 March 2013, news quickly got out that when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he had been on very good terms with the Jewish community of Argentina. For example, a nursing service for people with disabilities, led by a young rabbi, had been founded by Jews and Catholics working together. In his keynote document ‘Evangelii Gaudium’, the new Pope spoke very much in the spirit of ‘Nostra Aetate’: “We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for ‘the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable’ “ (Romans 11:29).

In the spirit of ecumenical solidarity, marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on 27 January 2015, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference and Bishop Dr. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, observed: “Working through what happened at Auschwitz remains relevant, and in 1948 brought forth the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Without respect for dignity and the rights of each person there is no truly human life together.” Both bishops view the process of European integration as a response to this experience, a response both innovative in the political domain and at the same time deeply rooted in European culture. That is why they are deeply troubled that these days the European project is being challenged, both internally and externally.  “In view of the countless victims of violence and inhumanity it is a matter of loyalty to them and ourselves to firmly oppose any strengthening of inhumane, xenophobic and nationalist movements in Europe, to stand by those in need and to ensure that human rights are respected. The Gospel of Jesus Christ commits us to this common, unconditional mission.”

Martin Maier SJ