The recent fatal shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels, as well as the results of continent-wide parliamentary elections, has brought the multidirectional threats faced by Europe’s Jews back to the forefront.
These threats are coming together from the “right-wing, certain elements of the Muslim community, and at the same time also from the radical left, which is viciously anti-Israel,” said Daniel Schwammenthal, director of American Jewish Committee (AJC) Transatlantic Institute in Brussels.
A shooter killed four people in the May 24 attack at the Jewish Museum of Belgium. Five days later, 29-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, a French national with suspected ties to Islamic radicals in Syria, was reportedly arrested in connection to the shooting. Two of the victims were an Israeli couple in their 50s, Mira and Emmanuel Riva. On the same day as the shooting, two Jewish brothers were beaten by two still-unknown assailants outside of a synagogue in Creteil, a suburb of Paris.
French media reported that Nemmouche is suspected of having been in Syria with jihadist groups in 2013. At the time of his arrest on Friday, Nemmouche was in the southern French city of Marseille in possession of a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun similar to the ones used in the Brussels attack. Even before the arrest of Nemmouche, there have been several European Muslims, including from Belgium, who have traveled to Syria to join the fighting in the civil war there.
The Brussels Jewish community has been forced to significantly increase security following the shooting. Schwammenthal, whose children attend a Jewish school in Brussels, said that “when the kids are being brought and picked up, now they have police protection throughout the entire day.”
European voters, meanwhile, went to the polls May 25 to elect MEPs – members of the 751-seat European Parliament, which is also based in Brussels. Eurosceptic (opposing the political integration of Europe), right-leaning, and in some cases far-right parties gained electoral ground in the elections, in results that were dubbed a “political earthquake” by French Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
In France, the right-wing National Front party won 25 percent of the vote for that country’s parliament seats, and in the United Kingdom the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) won 27 percent of the vote. Additionally, the son a Nazi SA assault division member was the first candidate from the extreme-right National Democratic Party (NDP) of Germany to be elected to the European Parliament.
Jewish groups and leaders have expressed concern about the election results. But Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish-Jewish activist, journalist, and expert from the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained that many right-wing parties throughout Europe are actually reaching out to the local Jewish community for the purpose of the struggle against Muslim immigration.
There is “violence that is disproportionately targeting Jews, and in most cases the perpetrators are Muslim immigrants or descendants of Muslim immigrants who believe it’s legitimate to seek revenge on Jews for real or alleged wrongs of Israel,” Gebert said.
For example, in 2012, three children and a rabbi were killed in a shooting at a Jewish school in the French city of Toulouse by Islamic extremist Mohammed Merah, a French national of Algerian origin. Due to such incidents, European Jews in some places have become more accepting of far-right parties that take a tough stance against radical Islam.
“They ]some European Jews[ legitimately fear for their physical safety, and the right-wing is willing to patrol the streets and pick up threatening-looking Muslims,” Gebert said, citing as an example the Flemish extreme-right party Vlaams Belang, which sees Jews as allies.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, AJC’s Paris director, said that the National Front party has managed to capture a French public – especially young people and working people – that is critical of how the mainstream conservative and socialist parties have handled the country’s economic crisis and growing Muslim immigration.
“In an opinion poll a few months ago, 90 percent of French respondents said they did not trust their current political leaders. Marine Le Pen [the National Front’s current leader] has managed to convince voters that she is a credible alternative to the current system,” Rodan-Benzaquen said.
“While parts of the electorate hold clear anti-Semitic views, and certain elements in the party and around it do, too, I do not believe that the majority of the electorate of the National Front necessarily votes for the party because they despise Jews,” she said. “The link between a rise in anti-Semitism and a growing National Front is the unhealthy environment in which extremism and populism prosper.”
Gebert said that Le Pen has tried to distance herself from the extremism of her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen.
“She has taken great effort to show that she is not anti-Semitic, and that what she really cares about is what the every man in France cares about,” he said.
There is a “feeling by the European common man that he’s no longer in control of events,” a sentiment Le Pen has targeted, according to Gebert. The National Front’s strategy is all a “smoke and mirrors act,” Gebert said, but since Le Pen has attempted to distance herself from extremism, it has become more acceptable to vote for the party.
Meanwhile, the election of the NPD candidate from Germany, while “an outrage, and an affront to Germany,” was a fluke due to the recent cancelation of a 3 percent threshold for European Parliament elections in the country, explained Gebert.
Of greater concern, he said, is the rise of Britain’s far-right-leaning UKIP, as well as the advances of the far-right Golden Dawn party in Greece and far-right Jobbik party in Hungary.