Condemnations poured in after Mohammed Merah, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, murdered a Jewish teacher and three children at a Toulouse school in March. Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited the school after the murders. He and his challenger, François Hollande – who was subsequently elected president – halted their campaigning for two days out of respect for the victims. The condemnations not only came from France, including from several Muslims, but from all over the world. The King of Morocco even sent a delegation to the school to offer condolences.
Yet there were also other reactions to the murders. The school received many hate emails and threats soon after. It has recently become known that in the aftermath of the Toulouse massacre, anti-Semitism in France increased greatly. The Jewish community’s protection service, SPCJ, documented more than 90 anti-Semitic incidents during the 10 days following the murders at the school.
The French Interior Ministry documented 148 anti-Semitic incidents in March and April, 43 of which were classified as violent. This was more than double the figure for the same months in 2011. The last violent incident in April happened in Marseille, where a Jewish man and his friend were assaulted by attackers who said they were Palestinians and wanted to exterminate the Jews.
The SPCJ published its report after another violent attack on June 2nd against three Jews in Villeurbanne near Lyon. It stated that these attacks reflected the empathy that some have shown toward Merah. After yet another anti-Semitic attack in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles, Interior Minister Manuel Valls attended a religious service there to show his sympathy for the Jewish community.
In the present century, major outbursts of anti-Semitic incidents in Western Europe have usually been linked to developments in the Middle East. This was the case during the second Intifada in 2000, the second Lebanon war in 2006, and Israel’s Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2008-2009.
These waves of anti-Semitic violence differed greatly from three earlier post-war ones. In the second half of the previous century, there were three upsurges of anti-Semitic violence: the "Swastika Epidemic" (1959-60), one in the late 1970s early 1980s, and one between 1987-early 1990s. These incidents were studied by anti-Semitism expert Simon Epstein. He concluded that these waves were governed by some autonomous laws. In other words, they were “bandwagon” types of anti-Semitism. Someone initiates the incidents and others unconnected to him carry out additional ones.
Frightening perspectiveThe aftermath of the Merah killings may thus indicate a frightening perspective. Not only can developments in the Middle East greatly increase anti-Semitic incidents abroad, but a major act of anti-Semitic violence can also ignite many other similar incidents. The perpetrator of such aggression may thus think that the impact of his crime is not only on those whom he aggresses against but also on others he indirectly causes to be attacked.
There are at least two lessons to be drawn from developments after the Merah murders. One is that sympathy with the Jewish community or with the victims – while very welcome – is overshadowed by the violence coming from an assortment of origins. The most clearly identifiable ones are elements in the Muslim community. This shows that the forces of evil, no matter how small, can often overcome the forces of good.
It is this reality that many are seemingly unable to understand. Much effort is undertaken in Europe to fight anti-Semitism, including through Holocaust education. However substantial the effort made to tell people that anti-Semitism is intolerable, its impact lags behind what evildoers can accomplish in contemporary European societies. Defamation and delegitimization are easy to carry out. Fighting them is extremely difficult.
Another lesson is less transparent. Once a certain narrative has permeated societies, various bandwagon effects increase. The Merah epigones were probably marginal in society. In the mainstream, however, other types of bandwagon effects appear in many other areas. For instance: If at dinner parties the dominant dialogue is anti-Israeli, those who want to curry favor with the host or show that they conform to the dominant mood chime in, while those who have pro-Israel opinions may remain silent. Once this type of bandwagon has enough participants, they are often self-sustaining and people get on board for social rather than ideological reasons.
In the academic world, if leading professors of a university department happen to be anti-Israel, junior staff can succeed in their career plans if they adopt their views. The same often goes for students who want to get good grades. Somewhat similar bandwagon effects occur with reporters who write for anti-Israeli TV stations, or with many European newspaper correspondents in Israel. The bandwagon effects against Israel in Europe have never been properly investigated, yet they are likely a major force in the huge bias against it.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld has published 20 books. Several of these address anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism