What is anti-semitism and why is it spreading in Europe?

Pascale Alhadeff, director of the Belgian Jewish museum
Pascale Alhadeff, director of the Belgian Jewish museum
By Hassan Refaei
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"Anti-Semitism remains pervasive across the EU and has become disturbingly normalised"


Follow recent figures showing a rise in anti-semitic attacks in France, Euronews' Hassan Refaei asked Pascale Alhadeff, director of the Jewish Museum in Brussels what she made of the current situation. Her answers were sent on email.

Four years ago, four people were killed when a gunman opened fire at the museum.

Question Hassan Refaei: French government statistics published last week that nearly 500 anti-Semitic attacks happened in the country last year, an increase of 74 percent in comparison with 2017.

In your opinion, is this escalation in anti-Semitism intensifying in France in particular, or perhaps you find that it is a wave moving throughout Europe, and what is the specificity of France in this context?

Pascale Alhadeff: Anti-Semitism remains pervasive across the EU and has become disturbingly normalized. The phenomenon is not limited to France. The escalation and specificity of France is that it is taking place within a context of social protests. Anti-Semitic acts happened alongside protests of the yellow jackets during the last months. There were large mobilizations, which should now be followed by sanctions and a reinforcement of the legislation.

HR: What are the reasons behind the rise of anti-Semitism in France?

Pascale Alhadeff: The rise of anti-Semitism in France, as everywhere in Western Europe, is a combination of anti-Semitism from the extreme left and the extreme right. Jews are seen as ideal scapegoats for all the problems of French society: economic difficulties, unemployment, climate change… Additionally, the resurgence of anti-Semitism is linked to the revival of conspiracy theories. Today, the release of hatred on social networks is moving to the streets. Anti-system discourse is a catalyst for anti-Semitic revival. Hate speech has been spreading for years on social media.

As argued by French Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur who recently published a book on the issue and will present it on February 28 at the Jewish Museum: “antisemitism is never an isolated hatred but the first symptom of a coming collapse. Anti-Semitism is the first exposure of a larger loophole, but it is rarely interpreted as a harbinger when it strikes.” This plague does not concern solely the Jews, it concerns the whole society.

HR: How do you describe the situation here in Belgium on the issue of anti-Semitism?

Pascale Alhadeff: Anti-Semitism rose during the last years in Belgium as well. The government protects Jewish institutions, Jewish schools, and synagogues. There is a constant threat. Jewish children that go to Jewish schools grew up with guards. Belgian law though is protecting the Jewish community and condemns all form of anti-Semitism and promotion of hate speech against Jews.

HR: In May 2014, the Jewish Museum in Brussels was attacked by attackers that killed a number of people, and the perpetrators are now being brought to justice.

How do you categorize the perpetrators?

PFA: Myriam and Emmanuel Riva, Dominique Sabrier and Alexandre Strens have been killed on May 24, 2014. Alexandre Strens was Muslim, he is buried in Morocco. The trial of Mehdi Nemmouche and Nacer Bendrer should shed all the light to understand what really happened on that day and who is responsible for this terrible attack. The killer was well-trained. He coldly killed four people in less than 90 seconds. The evidence on the suspects is overwhelming. The life trajectories of the two suspects have been intensively studied. Mehdi Nemmouche is said to have committed atrocities in Syria. He was acquainted with the terrorists that committed the attacks on the airport of Zaventem, Brussels’s subway station and the Bataclan in Paris. He is said to have tortured French journalists Nicolas Henin and Didier François, who came as witnesses to the trial. They stated that they recognize him and remember how sadistic and narcissist he was, and how much he hated Jews. The killer was radicalized and acted outside a social frame. The terrorist attack on the Jewish Museum was an attack targeting Jews but also culture and democracy. This attack aimed at jeopardizing our democratic values and state of law. It is not promoting Islamic values but is the result of foolish men. Nemmouche acted under the control and orders of the Islamic State (IS).

HR: Do you think that the images of the victims in Gaza, the West Bank and the Middle East in general fuel the aggressive predisposition of some young people in Europe?

Pascale Alhadeff: The Islamic State has been recruiting young people who seek a sense for their lives, to identify with a group. They do not know the values and ethic of Islam. They are fascinated by IS, radicalized, caught in a whirlwind of violence. Their indoctrination has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

HR: How is the relationship between Jews and Muslims in Belgium?

Pascale Alhadeff: Jewish and Muslim religious leaders are working together, side by side, on common issues today: ritual slaughtering and circumcision, which are under threat. Those religious leaders share common values of tolerance, respect, peace and dialogue. In terms of relationship between Jewish and Muslims Belgian citizens, those relationships are harmonious when citizens share common values and built projects together. One should also underline that those communivaryaries in size: there are about 40,000 Jews in Belgium, and about 800,000 Muslims. When people work together, get to know each other, relationships turn to friendship.

HR: If we go back to the subject of anti-Semitism. The question that comes to mind of many people , especially from the Arabs, is whether anti-Semitism is the same as anti-Judaism, and if so why is it not called anti-Judaism.


Pascale Alhadeff: The term anti-Semitism was invented by Wilhelm Marr in 1879. He focused on the supposed racial, as opposed to religious, characteristics of the Jews. He opposed the so-called “Aryan” roots with the so-called “Semitic” ones. The distinction was corresponding to racial groups. Eventually, it became a way of speaking about all the forms of hostility toward Jews throughout history.

Jews are not a race but a people sharing a common history. Various people are considered as Semites today, among them the Arabs.

HR: What can be done to block the anti-Semitic current in Europe, and do Israeli policies towards the Palestinians have anything tied with this issue?

Pascale Alhadeff: An essential way of countering anti-Semitism is education. We need to build all together a better and more inclusive society, where everyone counts whatever his differences or belonging. We need to share common ethical values, to promote democracy and the state of law, to give to every citizen equal opportunities.

The importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Europe impacts the way Europeans have perceived their Jewish counterparts. It has presented European Jews as totally in favour of the Israeli government and as responsible for the situation in the Middle East. European Jewish communities are plural. They hold various opinions and everyone has his own view on this complex political conflict. But at the end of the day, European Jews are living in Europe and they vote in Europe.


Even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were solved tomorrow, this will not eradicate anti-Semitism in Europe, which results of other factors.

Anti-Semitism has also spread in Arabic countries. The protocol of the Sages of Sion is sold in many bookstores. The spread of this type of book is devastating.

HR: What are the activities of the Jewish Museum in Brussels, and is there coordination with other religious centers in the city, for example with the Islamic Cultural Center?

Pascale Alhadeff: After the terrorist attack of 2014, the Jewish Museum became a symbolic place. But we are also a museum that explicitly chose openness and chose to contribute to build a better and more inclusive society. The Jewish Museum has three main missions: heritage, culture and education. These missions and message are notably conveyed through the themes developed in our exhibitions: migration, multiple identities, discriminations, minority rights. Through our cultural activities, such as concerts, conference, theatre, we aim to contribute notably to intercultural dialogue, tolerance and non-discrimination, by building bridges with other communities, among which Muslim communities. One key moment of gathering and encounter is the iftar – brake of the fast – organized at the Jewish Museum during Ramadan. This event allows us to gather Jewish, Muslim and Christian community leaders, activists and a general audience from all origins. Each year, those 250 people share a unique cultural event: a concert, visit of an exhibition, conference, before eating together.

Dr. Pascale Alhadeff is director of the Jewish Museum of Belgium and author of a number of works on Jewish history and culture.

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