With violent attacks against Jewish communities on the rise across Europe, it’s worth revisiting one of the sillier memes to have infested public discussion over the past decade: that Muslims are the “new Jews.”
This claim gained currency about a decade ago, when France banned the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols (including the Islamic face veil) in schools. The following year in Denmark, newspaper cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed set off riots around the world. The concomitant rise of right-wing populist parties, which often deploy crude anti-Muslim messaging, played into a narrative that Muslims were an endangered minority.
“Nazism reminds us of how thin is the crust of European civilization, and that it can be thrown off by the slightest provocation or none at all,” Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in Britain’s Independent in 2006, before reaching her damning conclusion:“Today the new Jews of Europe are Muslims.” That same year, London Sunday Times columnist India Knight trotted out the analogy to condemn parliamentarian Jack Straw, who had expressed discomfort at having to meet with fully veiled Muslim female constituents. That his remarks did not cause more outrage, Knight wrote, indicated an “open season on Islam—Muslims are the new Jews.”
The platitude hit a peak in 2011, after far right extremist Anders Bering Breivik murdered 77 people, mostly youth members of the Norwegian Labor Party, in protest of what he considered its lax attitude towards Muslim immigration. For many, the Breivik incident definitively proved that “Islamophobia” had replaced anti-Semitism as the continent’s reigning prejudice.
The claim that Muslims are experiencing anything resembling the Holocaust of European Jewry is of course absurd. There are no measures barring marriage between Muslims and non-Muslims (as the Nuremberg racial laws did among Jews and gentiles), never mind death camps for followers of the Islamic faith. As offensive as some Muslims might have found the Mohammed cartoons, they are nothing compared to what appeared, with daily frequency, on the pages of Der Stürmer. Even Breivik took his rage out not on Muslims but left-wing political activists.
To be sure, those asserting that Muslims have replaced Jews as the continental scapegoat are not claiming an exact likeness between the past experience of Jews and that of today’s Muslims. Rather, their argument invokes the slippery slope: Popular attitudes toward Muslims and Islam, they say, are creating the sort of “climate” wherein the continent’s ugly history could be repeated. “I wish I could believe the mantra of ‘never again,’ ” Huffington Post UK political director Mehdi Hasan wrote earlier this year after anti-immigrant parties won a record number of seats in the European Parliament. “But these European election results fill me with dread.”
While it’s true that many Europeans are prejudiced against Muslims, to conflate all critical attitudes of Islam is to act as if Islam itself and the behavior of Muslims play no part in generating negative views. Jews never carried out terrorist attacks against civilians, issued fatwas on cartoonists who drew hook-nosed rabbis, or openly boasted of their goal to “conquer” the European continent, as prominent Muslim spokesmen have repeatedly done. Jewish schools did not indoctrinate their charges with hatred of Western civilization, as a recent British government investigation, dubbed “Trojan Horse,” found earlier this year, reporting an “aggressive Islamist agenda” being pushed in some Birmingham schools. To liken the potpourri of anti-Muslim bigotry—Dutch populist Geert Wilders calling for “fewer Moroccans,” the occasional accosting of a veiled woman—to eliminationist anti-Semitism is a gross exaggeration of the challenges Muslims face.
Much of what passes these days for “Islamophobia”—a conversation-stopping word meant to render any and all criticism of Islam as “racist”—simply cannot be equated with anti-Semitism, either in nature or degree. To express qualms about the reactionary attitudes prevalent in many Muslim communities about women, as did the late Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn (who was murdered for his heresy), is not racist, nor is it in any way comparable to the bigotry directed at Jews, historically or today. In the United States, FBI statistics show that, since Sept. 11, anti-Semitic attacks have far outnumbered anti-Muslim ones. In Europe, mobs do not rampage and attack Muslims or mosques following Islamic-inspired terrorist attacks, as Jews are regularly assaulted whenever tension flares in the Middle East.
None of this should obscure the fact that there are important similarities between the Muslim and Jewish experience, of both today and yesteryear. Muslims, Reed College Anthropology Professor Paul Silverstein told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, are “the object of a series of stereotypes, caricatures and fears which are not based in a reality and are independent of a person’s experience with Muslims.” Replace “Muslims” with “Jews” and you get a serviceable definition of anti-Semitism. In Europe today, both Muslims and Jews have been the targets of campaigns aimed at outlawing their traditional religious practices, namely, circumcision and the provision of kosher or halal food. Claiming their real motive to be concern for the “bodily integrity” of children or “animal welfare,” militant European secularists portray Muslims and Jews as barbaric peoples stuck in the past. Living in Germany two years ago at the height of the country’s anti-circumcision hysteria, I was confronted with provocative advertising campaigns that effectively likened Jews and Muslims to child molesters. French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who likes to fashion herself a friend of the Jews, has called for banning not only the headscarf but also the kippah in public.
Likening legitimate criticism of Islam to anti-Semitism, however, elides the fact that there does indeed exist a genuine clash between liberal, enlightenment European values and those embraced by a considerable number of Muslims. In 2010, Muslim author Reza Aslan was asked by Miller McCune magazine about his thoughts towards “those who perceive a real clash between the cultural values of the Netherlands, for example, which is otherwise very tolerant, and those of Muslims.” Aslan disputed that any such clash existed, telling his interlocutor that, “They said the exact same thing about Jews before they started slaughtering them.” Criticism of Islam, then, is mere prelude to genocide.
The Muslim and Jewish experience also differs in another crucial way: size. Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe and Muslims represent a far greater percentage of the population than Jews ever did. In France, Muslims comprise 8 percent; in Germany, they are 5 percent. According to the 1933 German census, less than 1 percent of German citizens were Jews. For Muslims to be “the new Jews,” they would have to be a diasporic people lacking a national home to protect them should the situation become truly intolerable, as was the case for European Jews of the 1930s who were prevented from immigrating to Mandate Palestine due to British quotas and heartlessly turned away from American shores. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation boasts 57 member states, and Muslims have about 1.6 billion co-religionists, nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
Perversely, many of the people claiming the mantle of historic Jewish victimhood challenge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish refuge. In this reading, if Europe’s Muslims are the new Jews, its (few remaining) Jews are the new Nazis. With tiring regularity, comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany can be found everywhere from the pages of Europe’s supposedly respectable, liberal newspapers to the massive demonstrations at which the Jewish state is accused of committing “genocide” against Palestinians.
Eight years ago, as Mehdi Hasan has noted in the New Statesman, the alleged tide of Islamophobia led the Jewish journalist Jonathan Freedland to imagine the experience of being a Muslim in contemporary Britain. “I wouldn’t just feel frightened,” Freedland wrote for The Guardian in 2006. “I would be looking for my passport.” Yet as events over the past few months indicate, it is Jews who are scrambling for ways to leave the Old Continent due to rising intolerance against their very presence. And, irony of ironies, that intolerance comes almost exclusively from the alleged “new Jews” themselves, that is, Muslims. A November survey, conducted before the latest uptick in anti-Semitic attacks, found that 29 percent of European Jews have considered emigration. In the past few weeks alone, the number of anti-Semitic incidents has doubled in Britain, a Muslim mob tried to break into a Paris synagogue, and shouts of “Jews to the gas chambers” can once again be heard in Germany.
The “new” Jews, it turns out, are the same as the old ones: Jews.
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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.