Swedish politician Alexander Kieding resigned from his position as alderman in the Stockholm suburb of Jarna two weeks ago after claiming in a newspaper interview that deception is a part of Jewish culture and that Israel exaggerates how many Jews died in the Holocaust. His anti-Semitic comments, shared in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expo Idag, sparked an immediate uproar and he announced his resignation within hours of publication.
Though outrageous, Kieding’s comments are far from unprecedented, even in a country with a history of tolerance like Sweden and are part of a growing trend of anti-Semitic expression and action in many European countries.
“There’s some disturbing things happening,” said Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. “There’s a perception that this is a real problem.”
Kieding isn’t the only Swedish politician in trouble for making anti-Semitic remarks. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Mikael Hoglund, who, like Kieding, was an alderman and member of the small but growing right-wing Sweden Democrats political party, claimed in an interview that a conspiracy of Jews control the United States government. He also quickly resigned and the Sweden Democrats party, whose members hold 20 of the 349 seats in the Swedish parliament, has disavowed the anti-Semitic comments made by the former aldermen, citing their official zero-tolerance stance toward racism.
It’s not just rhetoric either as a new report from the European Jewish Congress and Tel Aviv University revealed a 30 percent increase in crimes motivated by anti-Semitism worldwide last year. The report tracked 686 accounts of violent behavior and vandalism in 34 countries.
“There’s a huge uptick in anti-Semitism in recent years,” Lipstadt said.
The EJC report indicated that the number of anti-Semitic acts of vandalism and violence reflect the expansion of right-wing, nationalist organizations and political parties in Europe. Right-wing extremist organizations in Europe are nothing new, but their recent successes are a cause for new concern, she said. Through political parties in places like Hungary, Greece and Ukraine, anti-Semitic views are gaining new traction in ways both subtle and blatant.
“It may ebb and flow but it’s always with us,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Congress and an adviser on anti-Semitism to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Anti-Semitic sentiment is coming both from those in political power and being generatefd at a grassroots level, Lipstadt said, but the potential for generating and manipulating anti-Semitism for personal or political gain exists now just as it always has. Accusing Jews of innate deception or of running sinister conspiracies is a familiar and unfortunately historically successful tactic.
“It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in the 1930s,” she said.
When the horrifying facts of the Holocaust came to light after World War II, many hoped the specter of anti-Semitism would be forever banished to the fringe of society. Many Zionists hoped the founding of Israel would normalize relations between Jews and other people. In some ways however it has done the opposite.
“A lot of it has grown out of hostility toward Israel,” Lipstadt said.
“Europe has its own stigmatism in dealing with Israel,” said Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park. “Criticism of Israel is wide open there.”
Valid criticism is, of course, not the same as broad prejudice or racism but it can be an excuse for anti-Semitic comments or policies.
“A lot of criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism but it can legitimize anti-Semitism,” Telhami said, explaining that such legitimization pushes forward the acceptance of anti-Semitism as an acceptable view in a subtle but real fashion.
“We see in many places that Jews are conflated with Israel,” Baker said.
Some of the worst anti-Semitic statements and political planks today come out of Hungary, where members of the far-right party, Jobbik, regularly make racist and anti-Semitic comments, such as a few months ago when lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi called for the counting of all the Jews in Hungary, especially in government because of the national security risk they pose. He later said he meant only those with Israeli passports and refused calls to resign by outraged protesters both within and outside of Hungary.
“This rhetoric was once just used in the city square but now it has found its way into parliament,” Baker said.
Jobbik, whose members make up a little over a tenth of the seats in the Hungarian parliament, also drew media attention last year when one of its rising stars, Csanad Szegedi, resigned after publicly admitting he had found out his mother was secretly Jewish and that he had attempted to hide this fact from others since learning it himself in 2010.
EJC president Dr. Moshe Kantor noted that Hungary stands out as a particular hub of anti-Semitic activity in a recent press release.
“There are extremely worrying signs emanating from Hungary at the moment where barely a week passes without an attack on minorities or outrageous comments from far-right politicians,” he said.
Jobbik frequently rails against immigrants and foreigners in the country, decrying their presence as the source of economic and social problems the country is facing. And despite the generations that Jews have been in Hungary and their level of assimilation and involvement in Hungarian culture, they face the same prejudice.
“Some Hungarians see Jews as outsiders,” Baker said.
Anti-Semitism also plays an important role in the broader anti-immigrant policies of the Golden Dawn Party in Greece. Explicitly racist and xenophobic in its goals and speech and the subject of controversy almost since its inception, that party won seats in the Greek parliament for the first time last year. Campaigning using ads depicting the burning of Israeli and American flags and using slogans like “so we can rid this land of filth,” party leaders unashamedly denied the Holocaust and stated their admiration for the Nazis. Ilias Kasidiaris, a Golden Dawn member of parliament, even quoted from the anti-Semitic hoax The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Much like some members of Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn leaders have claimed that a sinister Jewish-led conspiracy controls the economy and is responsible for the last several years of economic turmoil.
Although the Golden Dawn represents an extreme end of anti-Semitic politics in Europe, it is indicative of where the acceptable levels of anti-Semitic sentiment have moved. Baker said that the anti-Semitism of these groups did not lead to their current growth but it does give them a bigger stage to promote their anti-Semitic views.
“Their success opens the door to their anti-Semitism having more of an impact,” Baker said. The response from the mainstream political parties and politicians also affects the place of anti-Semitism in the political arena and overall attitudes.
“One can question how active the government is in trying to address the problem,” Baker said.
Calls for censure and condemnation of politicians exploiting anti-Semitic language occur very quickly after the fact but how much criticism and how much of a real impact it has can vary a great deal depending on the kind of comment and where it is made. Holocaust denial still stands out as drawing the harshest backlash, but beyond that there is more leeway for anti-Semitic prejudice.
“The deniers are the outliers but if you say Jews are crafty that’s okay,” Lipstadt said, and added that more subtle Holocaust denials take the form of attempts to blame the Jews for the atrocities perpetuated against them or claims that the Nazis must have had some valid reasoning.
“There’s a kind of Holocaust revisionism taking place,” Baker said.
For now, the rise of anti-Semitic groups seems unlikely to abate as the uncertain economic and social situation in Europe continues.
“I see no reason for optimism right now,” Lipstadt said.
“We should brace ourselves for a continuation of the problems we see today,” Baker said, but added that groups like his that fight against anti-Semitic attitudes and policies are worth mentioning as it can be hoped they will help reverse this trend.
“We need to get responsible people to speak out,” Lipstadt said.