Adam Milstein: European Antisemitism Threatens Liberalism

Europe has been the fertile soil for some of the most sustained and virulent antisemitism in history. Hitler’s “Final Solution” may be the most well-known example, but it was a recent tragedy that came after a nearly 2,000-year tradition of Jew-hatred.

Blamed for the death of Jesus Christ in the Gospels, Jews became the preeminent scapegoat for medieval Christian Europe’s societal ills. The blood libel that Jews use the blood of Christian children to bake Passover matzah was rampant in Christian communities across the continent. Jews were blamed for causing the Black Death in the 14th century. They were expelled from nearly every European kingdom, including England, France, Portugal, and Spain. The list goes on, until the bloody pogroms of Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, spurred by the fabricated conspiracy of Jewish world-domination propagated by The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And finally, the Holocaust.

The continent went through a reckoning after Hitler. Eastern Europe fell under the control of Soviet Russia, but Western Europe rose from the ashes of the war into a bastion of progress and liberalism. So why is antisemitism still so prevalent in Western European countries today?

In a 2023 article for The Jerusalem Post, prominent Jewish philanthropist Adam Milstein explores France as a frightening example. He reports that “74% of French Jews were victims of antisemitic acts during their lifetime and 61% of anti-religious acts in France have been directed at Jews. Although Jews represent less than 1 percent of the French population, 40 percent of all violent hate crimes in France are antisemitic.”

Aside from Germany, no Western European country’s relationship with its Jews was more complicated than France. The French Vichy government and many citizens collaborated with the Nazi regime to identify and send Jews to concentration camps. To this day, France still wrestles with the devastating role it played in Hitler’s plans. Even so, the statistics Milstein cites seem like they’re from another era. According to him, “Antisemitic violence has proliferated in French society, often going unpunished by the judicial system, unaddressed by the political establishment, and unabated by the public.” How could this have happened in a country that prides itself on liberalism?

Milstein is uniquely qualified to weigh in on the cultural threads informing this violence. Born in Israel, he moved to America in 1981and after a successful career in real estate, made a huge mark in the Jewish philanthropic world. The Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation supports myriad organizations that fight antisemitism in the U.S. and abroad. He’s had a front row seat to the growing illiberalism that feeds much of today’s anti-Zionist and antisemitic sentiments all over the world.

“France’s antisemitism is not confined to one political camp,” says Milstein. “It comes mostly from growing hostile Muslim population, but also from the far left and the far right.” Milstein characterizes France as limited by “political correctness,” and indeed, in a New York Times article he cites, journalist Adam Nossiter reports that “French leaders fear pitting one side against the other, or even acknowledging that a Muslim-versus-Jew dynamic exists. To do so would violate a central tenet of France — that people are not categorized by race or religion, only as fellow French citizens, equal before the law.”

The political extremes have never been friendly to Jews, but most concerning is the hostility from the rising Muslim population, which is only projected to increase. In the last several decades, Western European countries have seen a marked rise in Muslim immigrants, notably in the 2010s in the wake of the Syrian civil war. In his article, Nossiter cites University of Indiana historian Gunther Jikeli who claims that, according to several surveys conducted in Europe, “anti-Semitism is significantly higher among Muslims than among non-Muslims” and that “[t]here is a kind of norm of anti-Semitism, of viewing Jews negatively” among the Muslim population.

It’s not surprising, then, that Jewish emigration from France to Israel has risen considerably in the last several decades. According to Statista Research Department, “The number of Jews in France had declined by more than 15 percent between 1970 and 2020.” Emigration numbers have ballooned just in the last fifteen years. “Between 2010 and 2019 alone, more than 50 thousand Jews left France to reach Israel.”

The reasons for this are clear to Milstein. He argues that “[t]he appeasement of vicious antisemitism in France, as Jews have been killed in high-profile terror attacks and hate crimes, has allowed the seeds of social unrest to fester.” One such attack was the killing of Sarah Halimi in 2017, in which she was beaten and thrown from her balcony while the assailant shouted “Allahu Akbar.” Because he had cannabis in his system, he was deemed not criminally responsible for the murder. “This tolerance of hatred has resulted in French Jews emigrating in record numbers, ultimately leading to the situation today in France – rioting, lawlessness, and political violence.”

The flight or expulsion of Jews from any country never bodes well for that country’s society. Milstein cites the examples of Iraq and the Soviet Union. In 1941, Iraq’s Jews were persecuted in a pogrom known as the Farhud. This persecution lasted a decade until the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq to Israel in the early 1950s. “What followed was the cultural, societal, and economic downfall of Iraq.” They experienced “a decline in intellectual and cultural diversity, and a tarnished reputation on the international stage – leading to diminished foreign investment, trade, and diplomacy.”

A similar story played out under communism in the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union’s embrace of antisemitism contributed to an overall climate of fear, leading to the stifling of intellectual progress and a weakening of the social fabric of society. Following years of persecution, Jews left the Soviet Union in droves. … The Soviet Union was left with major brain drain of a productive chunk of their society – and ultimately collapsed within decades.”

How is France to avoid this same fate as attacks against Jews and corresponding Jewish emigration intensify? The answer: protect liberalism. Liberal democratic institutions are experiencing decay and losing people’s trust all over the world. But liberal democracies are where Jews are safest. Milstein explains that “liberal democracies grant Jewish communities the right to practice their faith without persecution or fear. When synagogues are targeted, or Jews are attacked for being Jews, liberal democracies use the rule of law to punish perpetrators.” But when these crimes go unpunished, “the public loses faith in the rule of law, and public confidence in the state erodes.”

That’s why it’s imperative the French people and their leaders not let history repeat itself. “From social divisions to economic setbacks and cultural losses, antisemitism plays a significant role leading to societal breakdown,” says Milstein. To prevent this, they must “acknowledge the historical, destructive power of antisemitism, and work to bolster [France’s] institutions and confront its internal strife.”

If Europe is to remain safe for Jews, and thus for all citizens, it must learn from its long ugly history. Liberal countries like France must resolutely uphold their liberal values and institutions amidst shifting demographics so that the freedoms they worked so hard to achieve survive into the future.