Last month, BBC TV director Danny Cohen made headlines when he told a conference that he’d “never felt so uncomfortable being a Jew in the U.K. as I’ve felt in the last 12 months.” Yesterday, his own station offered a textbook illustration of the very anti-Semitic attitudes that are becoming more openly expressed in Europe, and leading its Jews to question their future there. While covering Sunday’s massive solidarity rally in Paris, BBC anchor Tim Willcox suggested that violence against French Jews might be understandable because they were collectively culpable for Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.
In an interview segment, Willcox spoke with Hava, identified as an Israeli who had lived in France for two decades, and Aziz, a Frenchman of Algerian descent. The two said they’d met in an association where members study Arabic and Hebrew. Willcox asked Hava if she felt threatened in France, and she replied that she hadn’t previously, but now she no longer felt safe. “We have to not be afraid to say that the Jews are the target now,” she said. Willcox then offered an odd interjection: “But many critics of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.” A confused Hava responded that “We cannot do an amalgam between—” before Willcox cut her off. “But you understand,” he said, “everything is seen from different perspectives.”
To be fair, there is a long tradition in Europe of justifying violence against Jews by pointing to the alleged crimes of completely different Jews in the Middle East. Unfortunately for Willcox, that tradition is the anti-Semitic tradition, and he gave voice to it on the air.
But don’t take it from us. Just listen to former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who explicitly condemned the practice of using events in Palestine to legitimize European anti-Semitism, specifically in reference to the murder of Jews in France. In 2012, after jihadist Mohamed Merah brutally killed three Jewish children and a rabbi at a school in Toulouse, and claimed he did so in the name of Palestine, Fayyad lashed out at this rationalization for hate:
It is time for these criminals to stop marketing their terrorist acts in the name of Palestine and to stop pretending to stand up for the rights of Palestinian children who only ask for a decent life. This terrorist crime is condemned in the strongest terms by the Palestinian people and their children. No Palestinian child can accept a crime that targets innocent people.
Commenting on Fayyad’s words at the time, Bard College’s Walter Russell Mead unpacked why those who justify violence against Europe’s Jews by pointing to Israeli actions are so repugnant:
Schoolchildren in France have nothing to do with the construction of settlements on the West Bank or anything else that the government of Israel may or may not do. The fact that so many otherwise sensible people accept this kind of muddled collectivism (all Jews are complicit in and responsible for what any Jew does) shows just how widespread anti-Semitism still is.
There is no doubt that if a Jew started shooting random Arabs on the street in Brooklyn and tried to justify this action by pointing to things Arab governments or movements had done in the Middle East, we would all understand that the claim made the killer more guilty and more despicable, not less so. If a white man in Seattle started shooting African-Americans because his mother had been mugged by some African-American teenagers in Miami, we would see the killing as an atrocity that was aggravated, not meliorated, by his rationalization of hate.
The whole concept of “hate crime” is that it is more odious to attack people because they belong to a group with whom you are angry than just to assault someone. But when it comes to Jews, the fact that a crime is a “hate crime” is taken as some kind of explanatory or even extenuating circumstance.
Willcox has since tweeted a tepid apology for what he calls a “poorly phrased question.” Undoubtedly, Willcox had no intention to cause offense, and likely harbors no conscious prejudice against Jews. But this is precisely why his words are so disquieting. His blithe presentation of a textbook anti-Jewish trope on live TV is a testament to how hard it can be to expunge generations worth of anti-Semitic assumptions in Europe, even among those who believe they have moved passed them. If Europe is to live up to its ideals in the difficult days ahead, it will have to do a better job of confronting these entrenched attitudes.