Spain has long been Europe’s favourite destination for sunshine holidays, so it may come as a surprise to many Europeans that it also tops the list on a much less attractive issue. According to the Pew survey published this week, forty-six per cent of Spanish people rate Jews unfavourably. Eastern Europe comes next on the list, with more than a third of Poles (36%) and Russians (34%) responding with anti-Jewish views. Significant numbers of Germans (25%) and French (20%) were also negative about Jews. Even more disturbing are the negative opinions about Muslims registered in almost all of the 24 countries covered by the survey. Half of all Spanish (52%) and German respondents (50%) rate Muslims unfavourably. Significantly negative attitudes to Muslims were also found in Poland (46%) and somewhat less in France (38%). And whereas anti-Jewish feelings are far less pronounced in Britain and the United States, around one in four persons (23%) in these two countries also voiced dislike of Muslims.
These are the alarming results of the wide-ranging opinion poll on attitudes towards religion and religious groups conducted in March and April 2008 by Pew Research Center in Washington D.C.as part of its Global Attitudes Project. Pew describes itself as a non-partisan „fact tank“ that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. Its surveys on many issues are widely quoted by experts and the mass media. The spring 2008 poll questioned average samples of around 1,000 respondents in each country. Pew notes that the latest measurements of negative attitudes towards Jews and Muslims are all higher than those in comparable surveys it has done in recent years. In a number of countries, the increase has been especially notable between 2006 and 2008. „Overall, there is a clear relationship between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim attitudes: publics that view Jews unfavourably also tend to see Muslims in a negative light,“ the report comments. Interestingly, Jewish people seem to face less intolerance in the Anglo-Saxon world. Britain stands out as the only European country included in the survey where there has not been a substantial increase in anti-Jewish attitudes. Just 9% of the British questioned are negative towards Jews, and this has remained largely unchanged in recent years. Meanwhile, relatively small percentages in both Australia (11%) and the United States (7%) continue to view Jews
At the opposite end of the scale, the Pew researchers found that negative views of Jews were particularly high in predominantly Muslim countries. They recorded anti-Jewish responses of 96% in Jordan and 97% in Lebanon.
The Pew report goes on to say that the trend in negative views toward Muslims in Europe has occurred over a longer period of time than the growing anti-Jewish sentiment. Most of the anti-Muslim upswing took place between 2004 and 2006, and there has even been a slight decrease in some countries since 2006. As most European countries are dominated by Christian culture, Pew researchers predictably found that negative attitudes toward Christians in Europe are less common than towards Muslims or Jews, and views about Christians have remained largely stable in recent years. But once again, the situation in Spain is surprising: anti-Christian sentiments are also on the rise in that country, with about one in four Spanish (24%) now rating Christians negatively, up from 10% in 2005. Similarly, in France 17% now have an unfavourable view of Christians, compared with 9% in 2004. Growing social and economic tensions in France and Spain may explain the cause of such sharp rises within such a short period.
What actually lies behind these disturbing statistics? Is the dream of a peaceful united Europe in danger of turning into a nightmare of racial division and hatred? Aside from the scepticism that is always necessary when evaluating opinion polls, it is important to ask very precisely who is expressing negative views about whom, and why this is happening. Firstly, what kind of persons are likely to be negative towards Jews and/or Muslims? From their research findings, the Pew analysts have been able to spotlight particular social groups inclined to this kind of racism. „Older people and those with less education are more anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim than are younger people or those with more education,“ they conclude. „Looking at combined data from France, Germany and Spain — the three Western European countries where unfavourable opinions of Jews are most common — people aged 50 and older express more negative views of both Jews and Muslims than do those younger than 50. Similarly, Europeans who have not attended college are consistently more likely than those who have to hold unfavourable opinions of both groups.“ The first conclusion from this is simple, but crucial, and confirms what concerned analysts and activists have been stressing for some time now: education, or lack of it, is a major key to attitudes of racism or tolerance. The second issue concerns age, and reflects the huge demographic shift that is creating increasingly older populations all around the world. Nowadays many Europeans over 50 can expect to live fairly long after retirement. What kind of future are they facing as pensioners, with dwindling national pension funds, rising living costs and soaring prices for housing? Older people tend to be more conservative than the young anyway, and their insecurity is understandable, as is their desire to express anger and disappointment at being dumped by the society they have served for so long as workers and taxpayers. There are rational grounds for discontent, but that doesn’t explain why they don’t attack those responsible, like the politicians and masters of the business and money markets. Why do they pick on minorities, especially Jews and Muslims, who don’t control their society and are certainly not responsible for their plight?
In relation to negative attitudes to Jews and Muslims in Europe, the Pew survey found a number of interesting political parallels. The report notes that, „Anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish opinions are most prevalent among Europeans on the political right. For example, among respondents from France, Germany and Spain who place themselves on the political right, 56% express a negative view of Muslims, compared with 42% of those on the left and 45% of those in the centre. Similarly, 34% of people on the political right have a negative opinion of Jews, compared with 28% of those on the left and 26% of centrists.“ Many commentators have attributed the growing anti-Jewish feeling among the left in Europe to criticism of Israel’s politics and sympathy with the Palestinian cause. Again, this is a case of misplaced blame. Jews the world over cannot be held responsible for the complex and terrible situation in the Middle East, a problem which generations of politicians and experts have been unable to solve. Anti-Jewish feeling among the left falls into the same trap as any other kind of racism: it attacks Jews on an ethnic basis, and ignores the serious, intense debate about the issue of Israel and Palestine that is going on inside many Jewish communities in the western world.
In some countries the number of resident Jews or Muslims seems to have little bearing on the levels of anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim feeling. Spain and Poland, for example, have very small Jewish populations but high rates of anti-Jewish feeling, whereas the USA, with a much bigger Jewish population, registers overwhelmingly favourable attitudes towards Jews (77%). Britain stands out in Europe, with 73% favourable towards Jews. Pew says that it is not actual numbers of Jews or Muslims, but immigration and economic trends that are increasingly becoming the important factors. The report’s overall conclusion is that ethnocentricity — the tendency to regard one’s own ethnic group as superior — is on the rise all over Europe. „Some of this ethnocentricity is obviously related to attitudes toward immigration, which is a big issue,“ said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. „There may be some backlash toward minority groups going on in Europe as a consequence of the EU’s expansion and globalization,“ he added. Commenting specifically on the Spanish, Kohut said that in his view they are „on the cutting edge of globalization“, with Muslim immigrants in large numbers.
The wide scope of the Pew Spring 2008 survey and its clear discernment of trends make it an important source for researchers and activists everywhere concerned with promoting tolerance and democracy. On 18 September 2008, the day of its publication, BBC World Radio reported on the survey in several bulletins, highlighting the relatively „good score“ of the British in comparison with other European countries. Here in Germany, the Pew survey confirms many of the observations of people who are working to combat racism and ethnic and religious prejudice on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully the survey results will underline the urgency of decisive government action against undemocratic, anti-constitutional groups. Given the deplorable rise in anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim feeling, it is incredible that neo-Nazi and neo-fascist groups should be allowed to carry on their hate campaigns openly. The connection should now be obvious between vicious anti-immigrant propaganda and the spread of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim attitudes. The Pew survey’s findings that the situation has worsened since 2006 are confirmed by my experience in Berlin, where I live as a resident foreigner. Two years ago, in September 2006, I was driving down a main road in the city with Ury, an Israeli immigrant. The local government election campaign was in full swing, and the lampposts all along the road were covered with posters from the far right National Democratic Party (NPD). Several of the posters were openly racist. One of them pictured a group of Muslims in traditional dress, shown from the back, heavily laden with baggage, with the slogan, „Have a good trip home!“
Ury slowed down the car to take a better look, sighed, and said, „That’s bad news, not only for Muslims. If we let the neo-Nazis get away with posters like that, the Jews will be next.“ We spent the rest of the ride discussing why the local and national authorities hadn’t banned those posters for incitement to racial hatred, instead of allowing them to be put up all over the city. Only afterwards did I remember why the „immigrants go home“ propaganda had shaken me so deeply. It reminded me of a photo from the 1934 carnival procession in Singen, a town in southwestern Germany near the Swiss border. The carnival took place the year after the Nazis published the Nuremberg Laws ostracising Jews and licensing anti-Jewish hate. The photo shows a carnival float in the form of a railway carriage. Three local people dressed up as caricatures of „Jews“ are leaning out of the carriage windows, smiling. The sign on the side of the train says, translated: „From Berlin to Palestine“. That railway float won first prize at the Singen carnival. Only a few years later, real railway trains started deporting real Jews to labour and extermination camps in Eastern Europe.
The parallel with the neo-Nazi poster in the 2006 Berlin election campaign is impossible to miss. Old racial stereotypes and hate images are being recycled all over Europe. The targets may be Jews, or Muslims — or Sinti and Roma, who are particularly under threat right now in Italy from new laws that have been widely seen as neo-fascist. The Pew report is the latest in a long series of warnings that social and economic troubles in Europe are leading to the search for scapegoats. It’s not just a matter of Jews or Muslims any more. The threat of racism and hatred against ethnic minorities of any kind is growing right inside our societies, and will continue to menace the fabric of democracy unless we fight it decisively, here and now.
With thanks to Rabbi Ruth Sohn and Rabbi Reuven Firestone in Los Angeles for alerting me to the Pew survey.
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