Europe's Slow Surrender to Intolerance

A seemingly small incident at a London supermarket suggests a deeper problem.
Anti-Israel demonstrators atop a Trafalgar lion (Luke MacGregor/Reuters )

On the one hand, it is completely unsurprising that Europe has become a swamp of anti-Jewish hostility. It is, after all, Europe. Anti-Jewish hostility has been its metier for centuries. (Yes, the locus of much anti-Jewish activity today is within Europe’s large Muslim-immigrant population; but the young men who threaten their Jewish neighbors draw on the language and traditions of European anti-Semitism as much as they do on Muslim modes of anti-Semitic thought.)

On the other hand, the intensity, and velocity, of anti-Jewish invective—and actual anti-Jewish thuggery—has surprised even Eurocynics such as myself. “Jews to the gas,” a chant heard at rallies in Germany, still has the capacity to shock. So do images of besieged synagogues and looted stores. And testimony from harassed rabbis and frightened Jewish children.

But I find myself most bothered by what seems to have been, on the surface, a relatively minor incident. The episode took place last weekend at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London. Protesters assembled outside the store to call for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. Quickly, the manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section. One account suggests that a staff member, when asked about the empty shelves, said “We support Free Gaza.” Other reports suggest that the manager believed that demonstrators might invade the store and trash it. (There is precedent to justify his worry.)

After a good deal of publicity following the incident, Sainsbury’s apologized to its Jewish customers. “This will not happen again,” its corporate-affairs director, Trevor Datsun, said, according to The Jewish Chronicle. “Managers will be told not to move kosher food because of some perceived threat.”

Why do I find this incident to be more disturbing than, say, reported attacks on kippah-wearing Jews, or the scrawling of swastikas on Jewish shops?

To the extent that it suggests that Israel and Judaism have been thoroughly conflated in the minds of many Europeans, the Sainsbury's kosher controversy is similar to other recent incidents. Kosher products—in the case of the Sainsbury’s branch in question, some apparently from the U.K. and Poland—were intuitively understood to be stand-ins for Israel itself, just as French Jewish males wearing kippot were understood by their attackers to be stand-ins for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

We have learned a number of unfortunate truths about the nature of the global anti-Israel movement this summer. One is that the war in Gaza is understood by many to be a continuation of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and not of the 1967 Six Day War. Which is to say, many protesters are challenging Israel’s very right to exist, not its policies in the territories it came to occupy in 1967 (or in Gaza’s case, territory it occupied in 1967 and then turned over to Palestinians in 2005). A second is that the line separating anti-Zionism—the belief that Jews have no right to an independent state in at least part of their ancestral homeland—and anti-Judaism, already reed-thin, has pretty much vanished.

And yet, the Sainsbury’s incident is disturbing not so much for what it says about the nature of European anti-Israelism, but for what it says about the broader response within Europe to forces of intolerance and hatred. Employees of the Sainsbury’s branch in central London seemed to have understood, based on an accurate reading of recent events, that anti-Israel activists posed a threat to their store, and perhaps to their own physical well-being. And so the manager made a decision to surrender to the mob and engage in what could only be called an act of self-preservational, but objectively anti-Semitic, preemption.

Cowering of this sort is a sign that a country is losing the ability to stand for the values it professes to maintain. In the U.K., it is also a sign that a society hasn’t fully grappled with the radical intolerance exhibited by some of its citizens.

The Sainsbury's incident happened in the same city in which recruiters for Islamic State, the too-radical-for-al-Qaeda group that executed American photojournalist James Foley, have been seen openly passing out propaganda. It happened in the same place where what appeared to be a jihadist flag flew outside a housing estate. As many as 1,500 Britons are apparently fighting for Islamic State's cause. There are said to be more British Muslims fighting on behalf of Islamic State than for the U.K.'s military. Foley’s executioner, currently the world’s most infamous terrorist, is widely believed to be a British subject.

Let me be clear—I am not equating street thugs who attempt to physically intimidate supermarkets into boycotting Israeli goods with the terrorists of Islamic State. I am not even equating the Muslim men who scream “Jews to the gas” with the terrorists of Islamic State. But I am arguing that there exists in Europe a continuum of prejudice, and that, on occasion, the U.K., like so many other European nations, has forgotten how important it is to be intolerant of intolerance.


This post originally appeared on Bloomberg View.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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