by Madi Ro
The image of freshly painted swastikas on the tombstones of Holocaust victims in France is a harrowing scene. Emmanuel Macron canceled meetings in mid-February to visit the cemetery in a city close to the German border. “Whoever did this is not worthy of the French republic,” the president remarked.
The Interior Minister of France, Christophe Castaner, reported that anti-Semitic crimes had increased by 74% from 2017 to 2018. Unfortunately, these types of incidents have been increasing throughout Europe. Germany has also experienced a 60% rise in anti-Semitic related crimes. Leaders in Hungary and Poland have been accused of Holocaust revisionism. Even Sweden, a country generally seen as a leader for progressive ideas, has seen several anti-Semitic demonstrations.
Resurgent anti-Semitism is only one symptom of a rising “populist” ideology throughout Europe. “Populism” is a term that is often thrown around but rarely clearly defined. Political scientist Jan-Werner Müller describes populism in his book “What is Populism” as being characterized by three main facets: anti-elitism, anti-establishment, and the sole representation of the people’s will.
Because populist leaders assert that they are the sole representatives of the people, they inherently claim that “outsiders” such as Jews and immigrants are not part of this general will that they represent. Müller paints a picture of this in the following example:
Think of Nigel Farage celebrating the Brexit vote by claiming that it had been a ‘victory for real people’ (thus making the 48 percent of the British electorate who had opposed taking the UK out of the European Union somehow less than real—or, put more directly, questioning their status as proper members of the political community).
While the above example is a bit dramatic, it reveals the underlying principle that many populist leaders cling to. They claim that they are not only the representatives of the people but also the sole representatives. Those taking away resources from the working class and middle class are not of the voice that they represent, and therefore those who are truly “of the people” should be prioritized.
The rise of populism in Europe accompanies the European migrant crisis, as well. Due to the rising number of people coming into EU countries from across the Mediterranean, there is widespread concern over strain on government and taxpayer resources, not to mention stigmas associated with Islamophobia. Angela Merkel of Germany paid a heavy political price for letting in Syrian refugees, and will no longer seek reelection once her term ends in 2021.
Unrest and dissatisfaction with higher costs of living have given politicians a greater impetus to fuel anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiments both explicitly and implicitly. Populist principles are enticing because they provide a scapegoat for the ills of the society, and while they may expose real concerns, populism is often ridden with hypocrisy. These leaders claim they are anti-elitist and anti-establishment, and that they want to “drain the swamp” of those who have not prioritized their own people. However, once elected, populists themselves become the very elites with vested interests that they set out to combat.
Ultimately, we should not be surprised by the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe because of its long and deep-rooted history, but we certainly should be concerned. In an era of questioning European integration and supranational European institutions, one can understand the populists’ efforts to distinguish their message as the unique voice of the people. However, the rise of populism, whether manifested in anti-Semitic posters or Islamophobic slurs, sheds light on not only a widespread discontent felt across Europe, but also the potential dangers that accompany its leaders’ solutions.