Does Muslim immigration into Europe pose a threat to Jewish communities?

Keith Kahn-Harris responds to a recent comment piece critiquing the Pears Institute’s recent report on immigration and antisemitism

July 19, 2018 10:50

Never uncontroversial, immigration has become one of the biggest sources of political controversy in recent years. On his July 2018 visit to the UK, Donald Trump stoked the controversy with his claim that immigration was “changing the culture” of Europe and that this was a “very negative thing.” His words build on the growth of the European populist anti-immigration right which, in Italy and Hungary in particular, sees refugees – and Muslim refugees in particular – as a direct threat to their nations.

Inevitably, Jews have been ensnared in this controversy, but not necessarily in a traditionally antisemitic way. Rather, Muslims are accused of bringing antisemitism with them to Europe. Opposition to Muslim immigration is increasingly framed in anti-antisemitic terms.

European Jews are often suspicious at the apparent conversion of the far-right from antisemitism to the defence of Jews. In the UK, all major communal organisations have resisted overtures from the likes of Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League. While the situation in continental Europe is more variable, Netanyahu’s embrace of Hungary’s anti-immigration prime minister Viktor Orbán has found a more favourable audience in Israel and America than in Hungary itself. Certainly, the antisemitism directed at George Soros and other Jews who take a more liberal line on immigration, suggests that the far-right’s concern for Jews is selective at best. 

Nonetheless, European Jews, however liberal they might be, cannot avoid the issue of Muslim antisemitism. Not only have many of the bloodiest attacks on European Jews in recent times been carried out by Muslims, surveys - including the Institute for Jewish Policy Research’s 2017 antisemitism survey – do show distinctly higher levels of antisemitic attitudes amongst Muslims.

Yet this is not a simple picture, and it does not necessarily follow that Jews should resist the immigration of more Muslims into Europe. The Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, based at Birkbeck College in London, recently carried out a five-nation study, commissioned by the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ) Foundation in Berlin, to assess whether recent immigration since 2011 has had an impact on antisemitism. The study focuses on immigration from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) into the UK, Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands. 

The study has proved controversial in some quarters. In the JC, Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee, accused the study of ‘burying your head in the sand.’ His criticism is that the study does not address the European Jews’ experiences of antisemitism from Muslim immigrants.

The report does not ignore Muslim antisemitism, noting its disproportionate presence among this minority and its tendency to ‘spike’ during periods of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, it sees at least some Muslim antisemitism as a symptom of ‘thwarted integration’, providing a convenient way of making sense of disadvantage. Attending to that disadvantage may mitigate at least some of the antisemitism as would programmes that improve integration and provide positive Jewish-Muslim projects. Overall, it emphasises that antisemitism from majority populations is as significant as that coming from Muslim and other minorities.

The report is another example of the ways in which studying contemporary antisemitism is always politically fraught. Part of the reason for this is methodological. There at least three methodological challenges that studies such as the Pears report raise.

First, much MENA immigration is very recent. The attitudes of the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict in Syria that Germany has accepted in the last few years do not necessarily appear in surveys, the best of which are organised over long time-scales. It will take time before we can make a considered assessment of the contribution or otherwise that recent MENA immigrants have made to European antisemitism. The Pears report makes this clear, particularly in the case of German, and calls for further research in this area.

Second, there are significant limitations as to what surveys of non-Jews - MENA immigrants or anyone else - can tell us about the threat that antisemitism poses to Jews. It only takes a few people to constitute a threat. The violence we have seen against Jews in France and other European countries has been perpetrated by a small but significant minority within a minority. This does not mitigate the threat that it poses. Rather, it tells us that the most crucial question regarding Muslim or any other kind of antisemitism is not how broadly particular attitudes are held, but how likely these attitudes are to lead to violent or other behaviour. This is not something that surveys can necessarily help with. And surveys of recent MENA immigrants, which capture the views of a population very much in transition, are even more difficult to interpret in this regard.

Third, too often the existence of a gap between Jewish perceptions of antisemitism and studies of antisemitic attitudes and actions, is treated as a problem to be solved, one way or another. Jews in Europe are clearly concerned with Muslim antisemitism, particularly in countries where Muslims have violently attacked Jews. That Jewish perceptions may not constitute a reliable guide to the perpetrators is inevitable – most Jews are not social scientists, after all. Yet when this inescapable fact is pointed out, it is sometimes treated as evidence of Jewish perfidy or hysteria over antisemitism, or – as in criticisms of the Pears study – as evidence of insensitivity to Jewish concerns.

The truth is, there is much we do not know about antisemitism in Europe, and the Pears study is not the only one to point out the limitations in our knowledge. Other studies have also pointed out the lacunae, most notably JPR’s ground-breaking 2015 paper ‘Could it happen here?’.

The biggest uncertainty is how to fight antisemitism when it comes from Muslim minorities who themselves may be subject to prejudice and discrimination. And make no mistake, the condition of Muslims in many European countries is often one of discrimination and marginalisation. It is understandable but too easy to split the world into victims and perpetrators – some people can be both. It may well be that doing what the Pears report suggests and attending to Muslim integration might mitigate insecurity and, in doing so, reduce antisemitism. Certainly, comparing the condition of Muslims in France, where both Islamophobia and violent antisemitism are at dangerous levels, and that of the UK where modestly better conditions go along with a relative lack of violence, suggests there might be something to this.

It is unwise to treat Muslim antisemitism as simply a temporary and unfortunate scream of frustration that can be wiped out by removing the source of that frustration. We know too much about the persistence of antisemitism in a wide variety of social conditions not to recognise both its persistence and the force that ideology exists on its own. Yet given the uncertainties no one should dismiss the recommendations of the Pears report as definitively impractical or dangerous. Indeed, fighting prejudice and discrimination against Muslims is not a reward for good behaviour, but a necessary part of building an equal and decent society.

The thorniest issue of all is whether the disproportionate presence of antisemitism among Muslims is a reason to halt or heavily restrict immigration from MENA countries. Critics of the Pears report such as Rabbi Baker don’t exactly say that, but they come close. It’s worth pointing out that the report certainly doesn’t whitewash the challenges in integrating immigrants from war-torn countries, particularly when they arrive in large numbers. Rather, it puts a substantial proportion of the responsibility with dealing with those challenges with the host societies.  

One of the dangers of pointing to antisemitic and other problematic attitudes among immigrant groups is that it is but a short step to treating immigration as a kind of reward for being nice. Yet there are strong arguments for the acceptance of MENA and other refugees that do not depend on the ‘character’ of the proposed immigrants. Demographic decline amongst majority populations, labour shortages and – above all – simple justice and compassion may be reason enough to accept the challenge that immigration poses.

The unanswered questions raised by the Pears study are a demonstration of the fact that immigration always has uncertain consequences. That uncertainty is not a case for counterpoising a spurious certainty – as Rabbi Baker does - and definitely not for restricting immigration to a trickle as a precaution. Rather it is a case for working harder at creating convivial and welcoming environments for immigrants that can at least address some of the of the more problematic consequences.

And we are ultimately going to have to do this work. In the next few decades, as climate change makes some parts of the world unliveable – including areas with high Muslim populations – it is a delusion to think that we will not have to deal with unprecedented waves of refugees to Europe and elsewhere. Even under the most restrictive conditions, it will be impossible to keep out every Muslim with antisemitic attitudes, should we wish to or not. We had better get good at responding to the challenges that come with it. The Pears report, with all the uncertainties it acknowledges, is a better basis from which to proceed than more tendentious predictions that present themselves as definitive. 


Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a writer and sociologist.

July 19, 2018 10:50

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