30/05/2012 13:55 BST | Updated 30/07/2012 06:12 BST

Is the Medieval Blood Libel Alive and Well?

There was a time when it was socially acceptable, even rewarding, to spread hateful invective about Jews being directly responsible for the death of infants in order to observe their archaic, bloodthirsty rituals. There was a time when it was considered so socially acceptable that even elected officials, representatives of the people, thought nothing of making these claims in public and without fear that they would be challenged or criticised for doing so.

Incredibly, that time was just a matter of weeks ago at the European Parliament.

It has become very common for people to respond to the suggestion that Europe is becoming a less tolerant place by dismissing the very notion without thought. Europe is fairer than it has ever been, they say, just look at the emphasis that governments place on human rights and equalities legislation and the great public support that global anti-racism campaigns receive - not to mention the fantastic work done by countless NGOs. And it certainly is true that we should be more tolerant and accepting of difference than we ever have been. Yet last month, an Austrian MEP named Andreas Molzer tabled a formal question to the European Parliament entitled "Child Deaths Caused by Halal Meat" - the question went on of course to refer to both Halal and Kosher meat.

The question raised by Molzer begins by noting the "hundreds of children" that die in France of "bacterial infections caused by contaminated meat" and by wondering "to what extent the increase in E. coli contamination of minced or ground meat is linked with increasing consumption of halal or kosher meat."

There is, of course no evidence to support the ludicrous notion that Halal or Kosher meat is more susceptible to infection or is dangerous in any way but no matter, for that, it turns out, was the reason for asking the question. Mr Molzer goes on to ask whether an upcoming study can be used to examine this important issue.

Truthfully, I have no idea whether Mr Molzer fully understands just how unpleasant his question is or whether he believes there's a legitimate scientific concern to be discussed. What concerns me is the nature of the response to it - deafening silence.

Yes, I will be writing on behalf of the Conference of European Rabbis to express our displeasure and I hope that others in the community will read this and do the same but in general, the response of the media and other politicians has been extraordinary in its indifference. The fact is, it has become more acceptable than at any time in recent memory to make wild accusations and generalisations about minorities.

In the UK, the far right has all but entirely imploded as a political force - recent local elections left the BNP with just four councillors nationwide. Yet on the continent the opposite is true. In France, Holland, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Finland and even Germany - the far right are gaining in popularity and influence. Jews may no longer be their first target - the Muslim community tend to bear the brunt of their hatred - but make no mistake, they are not attacking Islam, they are attacking difference.

Recently, I joined other European religious leaders and the prime minister of Norway at a ceremony to pay tribute to those whose lives were brutally taken by Anders Breivik. Following a minute's silence, we made a commitment to respect and cherish difference so that it can never become a source of intolerance or hatred. I fear though, that it is one thing to make that commitment but quite another to have the bravery to honour it. How many of us can really say that we make reaching out to those who are different to us a priority?

In an age when society is not as tolerant as we would perhaps like to think it is, each one of us shares the responsibility to identify and challenge hatred, at home, at work, in all aspects of life, in the UK and across Europe.