The lazy thinking that threatens Europe's Jews
Like most Jews, I've occasionally experienced antisemitism - from the mildly irritating to the infuriating. Of late, however, I've been feeling much more alarmed about a possible flare up of anti-Jewish sentiment around Europe.
Late in February, I came to England from my home in Portugal to promote my new novel, The Warsaw Anagrams, a mystery set in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, when a friend emailed me to suggest that I watch John Galliano's drunken, antisemitic rant on YouTube.
It reminded me that there are people all around us who, beneath thick disguise, regret that the Nazis were unable to wipe out Jewish culture and kill every last Jew, including of course my grandparents and parents. And that such individuals exist in supposedly sophisticated circles in what are generally considered cosmopolitan cities, like Paris, where I have a small apartment and where I have, until now, felt quite at home.
At first, I was pleased that Galliano let his mask down; it always seems fitting when vicious bigots end up auto-destructing. And, no, I don't feel sorry for him. We all know he'll go into rehab, come out a "new man" and end up on Oprah, winning back his fans with an impressive flow of tears.
While still in England in early March, I then got word from another friend that Julian Assange had claimed that the criticisms of him in the British media were part a Jewish conspiracy. This made me less happy about famous people dropping their masks. After all, Assange is regarded as a hero by millions across the globe and tens of thousands of them might give credence to his ludicrous and offensive remarks.
So many seem to have learned nothing from the suffering of millions
Back in Paris, I read in the French newspapers that, according to the latest polls, Marine Le Pen, the head of France's far-right National Front, was the number one choice of the French people for President. You may recall that Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party in 1972, famously dismissed the Nazi death camps as "a mere detail of the history of the Second World War."
The polls showed that Marine Le Pen would get 24 per cent of the vote for President if the election were held today. Shocked, I realised that every fourth person I saw in the street - that woman in the fur-collared coat, standing in line at my favourite bakery, perhaps - thought, like Jean-Marie le Pen at least, that French Jews weren't as French as she was. And would very likely prefer that legislation be enacted to make me and other "undesirable" foreigners give up our homes in France.
Had I let paranoia get the best of me? I don't think so. Although most French journalists have dismissed the 24 per cent as largely a protest vote against the unwillingness of politicians to adequately address issues such as unemployment and immigration, I don't buy it. There are quite a number of other parties in France for whom one could cast a protest vote and who have never supported xenophobic or antisemitic policies. And there are many other options for those who wish to express their disillusionment with "politics as usual". For instance, whatever happened to the grand old French tradition of demonstrating in the street?
Matters are even more frightening when you consider that no French Jew (one per cent of France's total population) or Muslim (nine percent of the population) would ever vote for Le Pen. So her popularity among French Christians must lie closer to 30 per cent.
While in Paris, I also heard that Marine Le Pen would be posing for a spread in Elle magazine - when bigotry becomes popular in France it also becomes très chic!
Although I do not believe that the Jews of France are in any serious danger, I do believe that Galliano's sick comments and the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in France are symptoms of a deeper problem: a significant minority of Europeans would gladly return to the days when a white, Christian elite made all the rules. Rather than think seriously about the causes of their problems, the intellectually lazy among them would prefer to envisage Jews with hooked noses and fat wallets pulling the strings of ministers, media moguls and corporation presidents, from London and Brussels to Washington DC and Sydney.
Back in Portugal, I wonder what Erik, my 70-year old Jewish narrator of The Warsaw Anagrams, would say about the persistence of antisemitism today. I suspect he'd feel the dead weight of forgotten history on his shoulders with so many people seeming to have learned nothing from the suffering of millions of Jews, gypsies, gays and others during the Holocaust. And even worse - that prominent figures like Galliano, Assange and Le Pen seem to have learned all the wrong lessons.
Richard Zimler's novel, 'The Warsaw Anagrams', is published by Corsair.