Anti-Semitism seems to be all the rage in England and the Continent

By Teresa Mia Bejan

Reports of a rise in anti-Semitic acts in Western Europe—the firebombing of schools, the desecration of cemeteries and synagogues, hate mail, and phone threats—only reinforce what many already suspected: Anti-Semitism is alive and well and living in Paris. And London, apparently. And Berlin, Amsterdam, Madrid…and Oxford, too, to my shock and chagrin.

Even before I had boarded my plane for Heathrow to begin my year of studying abroad, I had anti-Semitism on the brain. A recent trip to Normandy with my family, dreamt up by my mother after a Band of Brothers marathon, had been marred by the firebombing of a Jewish community center in Paris the day we arrived. I had also been disturbed when, while driving down one of the charming little roads that crisscross the French countryside, the beauty was suddenly marred by the sight of a lone speed-limit sign defaced by a large swastika.

What is more, my sister, fresh from her own study-abroad experience, had regaled me with the tale of a swanky cocktail party in London where a stylish older woman announced to her audience, a group assembled for fancy drinks and fancier conversation, “But, of course, the Jews are trying to take over the world.” Apparently, instead of horror or raised eyebrows, that remark met with nods and murmurs of assent.

Even so, I was a bit incredulous; after all, England is not France (thank God) and my sister is sometimes prone to exaggeration. Nevertheless, I eagerly awaited the chance to see for myself.

And see it I did. As disturbing as the reported violence itself is, the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the cultural conscience, not to mention in Western Europe’s best and brightest, is almost more so. In the midst of an otherwise excellent study abroad experience, I have discovered a terrible, nascent force in Britain. Specifically, I am increasingly skeptical of their supposed liberal and progressive ideals, which, they assure me, far exceed those of the backward Americans and the empty rhetoric of our buffoon-in-chief. Or is this simply an example of their superior ironic wit? I never can tell.

Comments like those mentioned by my sister, or, alternatively, “Everyone knows there is a Jew behind every government and major corporation!” abound. Walking down the famed Cornmarket Street in central Oxford, one routinely sees the telltale combination of Lonsdale-brand jacket with Gap T-shirt—the neo-Nazi’s favorite fashion statement for the clever way in which it displays NSDAP, nationalistische sozialistische demokratische Arbeitspartei, proudly across his or her chest.

In the past decade, the sort of endemic hatred that was usually more at home in Gaza, Cairo, or Damascus has moved gradually and consistently west. The question becomes less one of whether or not it will jump the Atlantic, but rather when will it take up residence in our own backyard. Or maybe it has done so already. It’s chosen gateway? Academia, of course, the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference held on Duke University’s campus this October serving as a prime example. That particular event spurred a horrific display of anti-Semitism on the editorials page of the student newspaper, the Chronicle, in an op-ed entitled ‘The Jews’, a piece that might easily have been written by one of my fellow Oxford students, who exclaimed at dinner just last week, “Well, no wonder the Jews are hated wherever they go!”

Universities are as universities do, I suppose. And what they seem to do increasingly is enable the self-selection of the idle, self-impressed, and repressively ‘tolerant’ into segregated, gated communities, safe from the contamination of the ‘real world’ and the unwashed masses. Subsequently, one can’t help hoping—secretly and, perhaps, guiltily—that the rift between Red America (Wal-Mart) and Blue America (Harvard) continues to grow if these are the ideas gaining ground in the latter.

Of course, whether or not such hatred could ever invade and pervade American public opinion to the extent that it has in Europe remains to be seen. To be sure, this particular hatred has to contend with an American tradition of tolerance and individualism, not to mention the high concentration of Jewish students and professors in our universities, a situation not found overseas. Moreover, America lacks Europe’s long and notorious anti-Semitic tradition, which certainly predates—although Europeans will deny it disingenuously—the founding of Israel in 1948.

One would have hoped that the memory of the Holocaust and its horrors that took place on their doorstep not so many years ago would correct that particular, age-old folly. But mentions of the Holocaust at the traditional Oxford formal hall are met with derisive coughs and cries of “don’t bring that up again!” The expectation of guilt, it seems, breeds continued resentment and, with time, all things are forgotten.

Then, let us hope, perhaps vainly, that we can avoid the creation of new memories.