School textbooks in Syria make uncomfortable reading. Jews, pupils are told, reject Allah’s divine truth, their state is illegitimate, Israeli occupation of Arab lands is a crime. A 25-year-old Syrian, whatever his views of Bashar al-Assad, whatever his personal misery, will have been brought up with these unquestioned views and some will have drawn the conclusion: it is impossible, indeed wrong, to live side by side with Jews.
We are seeing the results of this in Europe today. Antisemitism is on the rise, especially in countries that took in large numbers of migrants from Arab countries. At the outset of this month’s Hannukah festival, two Syrians and a Palestinian firebombed a synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden. A few days later a Jewish cemetry in Malmö was attacked. In Germany, the Israeli flag has been burned and Jewish pupils bullied by Arab schoolmates. Jewish elders offer advice on which districts it is risky to wear the kippa, the Jewish skullcap.
The Jewish community was among the first to argue the moral case for taking in Syrian refugees because of the historical memory of the flight from the Holocaust. Yet those who have opened up most generously — Germany and Sweden — find themselves punished for their generosity. Frustrated voters, who feel governments cannot cope with such high levels of integration, are turning to fringe parties with dubious roots. And some frustrated refugees who thought they were heading to a better world, not a bunk bed in an old army barracks, are taking out their anger on, yes, Jews.
One Jewish activist was asked on German television earlier this year whether he would rather be confronted by a menacing local neo-Nazi or a menacing Muslim. He thought for a while and settled for the neo-Nazi. There’s the paradox: the engine of antisemitism is coming from newcomers, enabling veteran, homegrown antisemites to take a backseat and even make a bid for power and respectability.
A few years ago, the European Union would have been aghast at a far-right politician with a long history of flirting with neo-Nazi causes, taking the number two job in a member state. Yet that has just happened: Heinz-Christian Strache, who once posted an antisemitic cartoon on his Facebook page to amuse his followers, is now vice-chancellor of Austria. Mr Strache is briskly cleaning up his statesmanlike credentials and has started by saying how often he visits Israel. Omitting the fact that in Yad Vashem he wore the cap of his old right-wing duelling society rather than the proferred kippa. Omitting too that, as a young man, he attended torchlit processions with the now-banned Viking Youth, a neo-Nazi outfit.
The sanitised Strache sits alongside Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, all far-right leaders who proclaim their democratic bona fides while blowing the dog whistle. It makes their followers feel they are in on a secret — antisemitism rallies many tribes. There are numbskulled skinheads and cult-like Holocaust deniers. At the interstices of the anti-globalisation movement and antizionism, there are clusters of conspiracy theorists who read too much into Emmanuel Macron’s stint at Rothschild. These are the antisemites of the left. In student meetings, their outrage is usually prefaced with the agitprop phrase: “It’s no coincidence that …”
Muslim antisemites, too, are a motley crowd. Some have been told in mosques that the mere existence of the state of Israel poses an existential threat to the Arab world. The demonstrations in Germany against Donald Trump’s decision to locate the US embassy in Jerusalem were inspired in mosques but also by political agitation among asylum seekers. Neither is Britain immune from antisemitic currents. It has the same driving elements: a significant number of British Muslims who are suspicious and resentful of Jews, and, on the hard-left of politics, an antizionist hardcore.
It is Germany, however, that has the most urgent problem. It has, after all, spent more than seventy years trying to adapt its political system to ensure that Jews can never again be persecuted in the country. Public resistance to antisemitism permeates the public domain. If you want to work in the Springer media group, which includes the mass circulation Bild newspaper, you have to pledge “support of the vital rights of the state of Israel”.
Angela Merkel may be confused by the competing need to defend the Jewish community in Germany and the desire to provide shelter to desperate people from the Middle East and other war zones. She cannot, however, duck the difficult choices. Here’s what she should do. First, make the granting of asylum conditional on full vetting of possible antisemitic attitudes. It is astonishing how little screening of refugees has been conducted so far. Second, allow — subject to other strict background checks — young families to join those who have been granted right of residence.
Both measures are controversial. The first will slow down processing of asylum applications at a time when the government is trying to fast-track repatriation. The second, family reunion, alarms conservatives including those in the chancellor’s own CDU party. The extra costs, however, are worthwhile because studies show that children speed up the social integration of refugee families. And the children will be schooled almost entirely in Germany and not fed the antisemitic poison that runs through so much of the Middle Eastern school curricula. Merkel should take the risk. She owes it to history.
Roger Boyes is a British journalist and autor.