NYT on anti-Semitism across Europe: a masterful though flawed report

 Anti-Israel demonstration in Montpelier, France, July 24.

For Rosh Hashana, which began at sundown Wednesday, The New York Times published a mostly masterful overview on the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe, with four reporters covering hateful words and deeds in five nations. I say "mostly," because the story has a few glitches.

Like what? Well, let's start at the end:

For Leonid Goldberg, the community leader of the Wuppertal synagogue, the emergence of a radical Islamic fringe is less a surprise. Just four days before the synagogue attack, someone had spray-painted “Free Palestine” on the front wall of the building. In recent years, Mr. Goldberg has used a celebration of Rosh Hashana at the synagogue — an event attended by elected officials and religious leaders of the city, including Muslims — to warn about rising anti-Semitism among extremist Muslims in the city.
“No one wanted to hear that,” he said.

Well, we readers did. Why run a story on Rosh Hashana, then include the only reference to the holiday just as you're wrapping up the article?

But let's be fair and acknowledge the achievement in putting together events and trends in a variety of places -- France, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Hungary -- into an ominous pattern. This is what the Times does best:

SARCELLES, France — From the immigrant enclaves of the Parisian suburbs to the drizzly bureaucratic city of Brussels to the industrial heartland of Germany, Europe’s old demon returned this summer. “Death to the Jews!” shouted protesters at pro-Palestinian rallies in Belgium and France. “Gas the Jews!” yelled marchers at a similar protest in Germany.
The ugly threats were surpassed by uglier violence. Four people were fatally shot in May at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. A Jewish-owned pharmacy in this Paris suburb was destroyed in July by youths protesting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. A synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, was attacked with firebombs. A Swedish Jew was beaten with iron pipes. The list goes on.

The Times does deeper reporting in Brussels, Sarcelles and Wuppertal, talking to activists and people on the streets alike. The story traces the hatred through various streams:

* The feeling that Jews are "often perceived as privileged compared with Muslims and other minorities confronted with discrimination."

* Protests against the fighting in Gaza, which often blur the line between opposition to Israel and hatred of Jews.

* Political movements that catch Jews in the middle: Left-wing parties who oppose Israel, right-wing movements that seek to revive classic tropes like swastikas.

The Times humanizes the story with people -- at least 18 directly quoted sources. Their comments are often vivid and troubled:

“We are a microcosm of the Middle East. The Middle East is being imported into Europe.”
“Synagogues are burning again in Germany in the night.”
“I have friends who are never political and they are posting things about Gaza every day. It seems like an obsession. Is your obsession because you want to save children, or because you have a problem with Jews?”
"Life is comfortable here. The big question is: Should we be paranoid or not?”

The story adeptly captures not only the gross actions but the quieter occurrences:

It was the May shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels — and the subsequent arrest of Mr. Nemmouche — that attracted international attention, as four people were killed, including two Israelis. But there have been smaller incidents that received less notice: a Turkish shop owner in Liège who posted a sign saying he would serve dogs but not Jews, a voice on the intercom of a commuter train that announced a stop as "Auschwitz" and ordered all Jews to get off.

The Times article, then, is a compelling account of overlapping trends, all with the common feature of Jew hatred. But it does have a few flaws.

One is the occasional lapse into colorful writing. Examples: "Europe's old demon returned this summer," social media as a "swamp of hatred," "The ugly threats were surpassed by uglier violence." I know, from experience, the temptation to "improve" stories about anti-Semitism. But the paradox is that the more you try to sell such a story, the less power it has. The facts and events are fearsome enough to command attention without embellishment.

Another issue is the free use of tags like "far right" and "extremist left-wing," which pepper this article 15 times. It assumes that most readers automatically know what the terms mean. I'm not sure that's true.

There's also a curious couple of mentions of a group of men wandering a Muslim neighborhood in Wuppertal, calling themselves "Shariah Police." What were they doing? "Lecturing young people about vices like gambling (while apparently not mentioning Jews)." Then why were they in a story about anti-Semitism?

Finally, it may sound odd to recommend more Muslim voices in an article on anti-Semitism, but understanding a virus is the first step to countering it. Sure, scholars and Jewish leaders have their opinions, and those deserve space. But so do those of the haters. What are the roots of their antagonism? Who is driving it?

The Times does talk to a Muslim teenager in Sarcelles who accuses the media of lying about anti-Semitism there:

“Somehow, some Jews control politics, information, business and finance,” he said. “I’m not talking about the Jews here. I’m talking about Jews in general.”
“Jews, in general,” he added, “only let you see what they want you to see.”

Many will recognize this as a classic anti-Semitic theme: that Jews secretly wield control over society. It would have been worth a couple more sentences to ask this teenager why he believed so, and where he heard it. After all, the Times story was already 3,600 words.

Another Muslim voice toward the end of the story is more helpful. Returning to Wuppertal, the Times examines the mutation of the Muslim situation there:

Until the synagogue attack, Wuppertal officials had taken pride in the peaceful coexistence of so many religions and ethnicities. Many of the older Muslims had arrived in the 1960s for work but assumed they would eventually return to their home countries. Now a third generation, born in Germany, is growing up with different expectations, as well as a sense of alienation.
“They have to justify why they don’t fully belong to the society,” said Samir Bouaissa, a local Muslim leader.

Later, the same Muslim leader illustrates a ray of hope. After the synagogue attack, he attends an interfaith rally at the building. "People were shocked," Bouaissa says. "A threat against one of our religious houses is a threat against all of us."

It bears repeating: None of the above detracts from the achievement in doing the story. With so many newspapers cutting staff and scope of coverage, the Times still tackles the big topics and plunges into their depths. It's a great reader service and a contribution to an informed public.

Photo: Anti-Israel demonstration in Montpelier, France, July 24. Photographer: Peter Curbishley, via Flikr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved (CC-by-2.0).

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