Thursday, July 31, 2014

It's not just Kansas City: anti-Semitic violence is on the rise globally

Mourners pray for the victims of the Kansas City shooting at St. Thomas The Apostle Episcopal Church in Overland Park. Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty Images

Frazier Glenn Miller, the man accused of shooting three people to death at a Kansas City Jewish community center and retirement home on Sunday, made no secret of his views about Jews. As the former Grand Dragon of the Carolina Ku Klux Klan, he'd written that "we've sat back and allowed the Jews to take over our government, our banks, and our media." He yelled "Heil Hitler!" in a squad car after his arrest, despite the fact that all three of his victims were Christians.

Sadly, Miller is hardly alone in his hate. Though anti-Semitic attacks are declining in the United States, anti-Semitic violence is on the rise globally. It's nothing like the 1930s, but the combination of a slow economy and the Arab-Israeli conflict have contributed to a surge in one of the world's oldest hatreds.

The most comprehensive data on worldwide anti-Semitism comes from Tel Aviv University. Its Kantor Center for the Study of Modern European Jewry annually tallies official reports of anti-Semitic violence, death threats, and vandalism, which it publishes in an annual report. From 1989 to 2012, when the last report was published, the data shows a clear and consistent rise in anti-Semitic violence:

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Most of the violence was, unsurprisingly, recorded in places with high Jewish populations. Thirty percent of the attacks Kantor recorded in 2012 took place in France, which houses the world's third-largest Jewish population after Israel and the United States. Europe also has large Muslim immigrant populations, many of whom are poor and socially isolated. This "globalization of populations," according to Ohio State sociologist William Brustein, explains the recent upsurge in European anti-Semitic violence.

According to Kantor, this is the reason behind the near-doubling in anti-Semitic activities spike in 2009. Israel's December 2008 incursion into Gaza infuriated Arab and Muslim populations, many of whom turned to anti-Semitic violence in anger. This led to "unprecedented anti-Jewish activity worldwide," in the Kantor researchers' words.

So it makes sense that the US, where Muslim and Jewish communities are on much better terms, is a clear exception to the general trend. The Anti-Defamation League, which maintains its own database of domestic anti-Semitic incidents, has found a clear decline in domestic anti-Semitism since a peak in 1994.

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Put together, these two databases tell us several important things about the Kansas City shootings.

Anti-Semitism is contagious

One important factor explaining the difference in trends between the US and Europe is that anti-Semitism appears to grow on itself. After one anti-Semitic attack, others become more likely. Those in turn inspire their own copycats, creating a vicious spiral.

In 2012, four Jews were murdered at a synagogue in Toulouse, France by an Islamist gunman who also killed three French soldiers. According to the Kantor Center, this triggered a 58 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France over 2011. "It was the most violent year in France since 2004," the Kantor researchers write, "and its impact was felt in other countries as well, notably the UK."

Anti-Semitism is still the 'socialism of fools'

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A man waves the flag of Golden Dawn, a Greek neo-Nazi party, on February 1st, 2014. Milos Bicanski/ Getty Images

People responsible for anti-Semitic often argue that Jews are secretly pulling the strings of the global economy, as Miller did before his attack. As a consequence, there's a longstanding theory that anti-Semitism rises when the economy plummets, leading more people to blame the Jews. The 19th century German Marxist August Bebel memorably called this "the socialism of fools." It fuels both anti-Semitic attacks and, perhaps more dangerously, anti-Semitic political movements.

Indeed, Europe's economic maladies appear to be coinciding with a rise of anti-Semitic political groups. Greece's Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi party, won 18 seats in Greece's parliament after its financial crisis and appears to be gaining support. Hungary's Jobbik, another anti-Semitic hard-right party, won 20 percent of the vote in an April election.

Anti-Semitism isn't going away, but it's nowhere near as powerful as it once was

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An American neo-Nazi does the Nazi salute at a rally in Los Angeles. David McNew/Getty Images

The clear increase in attacks against Jews worldwide suggests that anti-Semitism is not on the outs. While it's often assumed that anti-Semitic hate was discredited by the Holocaust, the evidence clearly suggests that's not the case. For reasons that aren't quite clear, anti-Semitism has made a comeback — particularly in the past decade. And the results, as we saw in Kansas City, can be horrifying.

That being said, there's no reason to believe Kansas City marks the beginning of a new era of anti-Jewish persecution. According to Ohio State's Brustein, "The underlying roots and motivators [of anti-Semitism] have been eliminated or declined." Mainstream Christian doctrine is no longer anti-Semitic, fewer people believe anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and Nazi-style racial hatred is no longer in power.

So, given the decline in the classical sources of anti-Semitism, Brustein doesn't "see what happened in the Overland Park area as the beginnings of something bigger."

"It's always important to be vigiliant," he says, "but let's keep the right perspective on all of this."

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