PARIS - The day after I arrived in Paris, a ferocious fire ran through the Israeli embassy near the Champs-Elysees. More than 150 firemen couldn't save it from the flames that raced up its wooden staircase and across wood-paneled rooms.
Speculation in the street naturally centered first on terrorists, though there was no initial explosion and it's entirely possible that an electrical short-circuit unrelated to Muslims, Jews or the Middle East set off the blaze. The gendarmes, however, were out in force the next day on the streets of Paris. Visits to the Museum of Jewish Art and History took longer than usual. Each visitor was intentionally and momentarily trapped between two entrance doors for close inspection before being allowed to enter.
The French are nervous about rising anti-Semitism. Even if the fire was, as it seems to have been, an accident, it nevertheless ignited discussion over whether mounting European sentiment against Israel begets sentiment against Jews. Numbers of synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish properties have been attacked in Belgium, Britain and France.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen, infamous for his bitter anti-Semitic tongue, made the final round in the French election, albeit with 17 percent of the vote, fear of anti-Semitism waxed, but these fears waned when he lost badly in the runoff election. It was then that everyone noticed that his recent rhetoric was more anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish, tapping into French frustrations - shared across Europe - over immigration.
France has an unsavory history of anti-Semitism, and now the French, like the Germans, are documenting their past behavior toward Jews. They've built a dramatic memorial behind Notre Dame Cathedral marking the depot where 200,000 French men, women and children, mainly Jews, were sent to concentration camps. As many far right parties gain prominence in Europe, fear of anti-Semitism naturally rises. The polls in France show little difference in the numbers of anti-Semites on the right and the left, but that's hardly a reassuring.
The German election campaign is now confronting a revived brand of anti-Semitism flourishing in, of all places, the Free Democratic Party, which includes many Jews as members. It's a liberal party with conservative connections, as liberal and conservative are defined in Europe, moving aggressively to the center with hopes to win enough votes to be the swing party in the next election.
Jurgen Mollemann, its deputy leader, has implied support to the Palestinian suicide bombers, saying that he would "resist violently" if his country were similarly occupied. He endorsed a Syrian-born candidate for membership in the party who accused the Israeli army of using "Nazi methods."
Piling it on, he said: "Hardly anyone makes the anti-Semites, who unfortunately do exist in Germany, more popular than Mr. Sharon."
While differences of opinion over the Middle East conflict do not necessarily lead to anti-Semitism, of course, the virulent attacks on Sharon's tactics, closely similar if not identical to George W. Bush's strategy to eradicate terrorists out to destroy America, give anti-Semites both megaphone and ammunition. The Germans I talked to in Berlin and Potsdam are upset at the tone of this debate over Israel, characterizing it as patently political, and it is clearly making the Jews in Berlin uncomfortable, especially as it seems to be paying off. The poll numbers for the Free Democrats are rising.
Germans have worked diligently to have good relations with Israel, and to remember and remunerate Jews whose families were victims of the Holocaust, but there aren't many Jews left in their country to confront. In the past decade, however, the Jewish community has grown from 30,000 to 130,000 because of Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union. It's not yet clear what this means for Jews in Germany. It's an unpleasant fact of history that the more Jews in Europe, the more the anti-Semitism.
A post-Holocaust generation in Germany does not share the attitudes of those who knew the Nazi horrors up close. After much controversy, ground has been broken for a national "Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe" near the Brandenburg Gate, close to Hitler's unmarked bunker. This will be a reminder of where anti-Semitism once led, but some Jews fear it could set off a backlash.
Germans crowd in to the Jewish Museum in Berlin to see the documentation of German Jewish history that stretches for almost 2,000 years. While museums and memorials can document the past, they do not make contemporary political policy.
"Playing with the fires of anti-Semitism for electoral reasons is deeply irresponsible," Edmund Stoiber, a conservative who could be the leader in a new coalition with the Free Democrats after the September elections, told The New York Times. History teaches that such fires are easier to start than to extinguish.