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Big Question: Anti-Semitism in Europe

Compiled by Callie Plapinger, Sasha Mitchell, and Jordan Palmer

In the Summer issue of World Policy Journal, we published an article exploring both Turkey and the Czech Republic’s long and complicated histories with their respective Jewish populations. The author, Aliza Goldberg, found that while the Jews of Turkey are often targeted and held responsible for Israeli action in the Gaza strip, the Jewish community of the Czech Republic enjoys widespread support from Czech society and valuable protection from the state. That said, anti-Semitism is on the rise across the Old Continent. From the 2014 shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels to the 2015 terrorist attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head.

We turned to members of the Jewish community across Europe for their assessment of the situation. We asked, to what extent do you feel safe in your country? The responses we received from Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic shed light on the underlying causes of anti-Semitism in Europe. Although some fear that this will lead to the emigration of Jews from Europe, others offer solutions for a brighter and more harmonious future for the Jewish minorities within European societies. 

 

Tomáš Kraus, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic

This is indeed a simple question. But like many simple questions, this one does not come with a simple answer.

Regarding today´s situation in the Czech Republic, the Jewish community on the whole feels safe. We keep track of anti-Semitic incidents, as they are reported by official authorities or by members of our community each year. According to these figures, the level of anti-Semitism in our country is indeed very low, especially when we compare the statistics with those of our European neighbors or even with other countries around the world.

That said, we are also aware of the fact that this unique situation can change at any moment. The Czech Republic is located literally in the heart of Europe, and as such is exposed to all of today’s trends and challenges. This is why our Jewish institutions are devoting quite a lot of effort and resources to our security.

We enjoy support and sympathy from the Czech society, which sees the Jewish legacy as an integral part of the Czech history and culture. At the same time we do not forget that this was the situation of our parents and grandparents in pre-war Czechoslovakia, a country viewed by many as the only democracy in Central Europe. And we all know what happened next.

Jonathan Kreutner, Secretary General of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities

Switzerland is a very safe country. Sharing in equal rights for almost 150 years, the small Jewish community has become an important part of society. Anti-Semitic physical attacks don’t happen often, but on Facebook and on the Internet, the Jewish community has recently been facing threats with increasing frequency. During the 2014 war in Gaza, we were particularly surprised by the amount of anti-Semitic threats that were made through social media.

Most Jewish people who are not visible as Jews still feel safe in Switzerland. However, the terror attacks in France, Belgium, and Denmark have agitated us. These attacks have been a turning point for large parts of our community. Some Jewish men who wear a kippah don’t wear it anymore in certain areas or  hide it under their caps. Security has also become an issue for the communities and institutions that haven’t had many security measures in the past. The authorities say that the risk of a terror attack in Switzerland has risen. And as one knows, the Jews and Jewish institutions are always targets at risk. We are not panicking, but we have become more cautious.  

Yohan Benizri, Board Member of CEJI, Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe, Belgium

As proponents of democracy, and as Jews, we do not feel safe in Belgium. How could we when security forces, the press, and Jews are being attacked here and in our neighboring countries? Just look at ordinary anti-Semitism in parts of the Muslim community, the rise of extremist parties, and terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam as they target symbols of democracy and Jews. And the picture only looks more grim if we add the cancer of demonization, double standards, and delegitimization of the State of Israel– all of which translate into hate speech, if not hate crimes, against Jews.

The more interesting question is what we can do about it. Strong and relentless political commitment to solve this issue is paramount at all levels of power. Without active legislative and enforcement action at the level of the European Union and at the national level, there is virtually no hope. Maintaining a high-level of security and intelligence operations (infrastructure, private, police, and military if need be) is still necessary. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the long term, we must educate our people against prejudice and actively promote social inclusion.

Pablo, Spain

I am Argentine, but I have been living in Madrid for 10 years. Although the Spanish Jewish community is a lot smaller that the Argentine Jewish community, I have found a group of active young people with a strong community feeling. And this community is quite cosmopolitan, thanks to the presence of Argentine and Venezuelan Jews, as well as Moroccans. Given the size of the community, everyone must participate and be active in community events.

Of course, on a day to day, I encounter non-Jewish ignorance. Many Spaniards have told me I’m the first Jew they’ve met. And there is some truth to that. The biggest challenge in being Jewish in Spain is finding a Jewish spouse. The odds are against you.

But the situation for Jews has deteriorated significantly since 2011 or 2012. First, due to a crippling economic situation, many Spanish Jews have emigrated, reducing the size of an already small community. Second, many simply feel the wave of anti-Semitism, and fearing that it will eventually envelop Spain, have decided to preempt trouble by migrating to Israel or other Spanish-speaking countries.

Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress

When I walk the streets of Europe, the first thing that strikes me is the fortress-like existence of European Jewry. The walls to Jewish institutions, schools, and synagogues are growing, the barbed wire is being doubled in length and width, and the police presence is increasing.

The message this imparts to our children, the next generation of European Jews, is that your lives are at daily risk and your mere existence provokes and presents a threat to certain people. When there is an attack, or even a suspicion of an impending attack, schools are cancelled and people are told to stay away from noticeably Jewish institutions.This has become the new normal for European Jewish communities.

Recent attacks against Jewish targets such as schools, museums, shops, and synagogues in Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, Copenhagen, and elsewhere demonstrate that the forces of extremism are growing on our streets, and as ever, the Jews are the first targets.

As much as the situation escalated rapidly, so a quick and forceful response can deescalate the situation and return us, the Jewish citizens of Europe, to a normal existence. Our authorities need to start comprehending the nature of the hate and extremism driving the violence and bloodshed, and move from defensive measures to offensive movements against the enemies of the Jewish people, which are in fact the very same enemies of Europe.

Pierre Haas, President of the Liberal Jewish Union of Strasbourg, France

The Jewish Community of France comprises around 500,000 individuals– the largest in Western Europe. Since the days of the Dreyfus Affairs (1890s), anti-Semitism has been fairly marginal, but since the early 2000s, a form of far-left, anti-Semitism has emerged under the pretext of pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionism sentiment.

This anti-Semitic speech, which systematically equates “Israeli” and “Jewish,” appeals to a number of disadvantaged young people, mostly Muslims and those of foreign descent. Islam is the second most practiced religion in France, with around 10 percent of the total population but as many as 60 percent of inmates in French prisons. These marginalized young people face a severe identity crisis and tend to reject republican values. This has left enough room for the development of anti-Semitic ideologies that are the perfect breeding ground for indoctrination.

Violence combined with fierce competition on the job market has also generated in other sections of the population an inward-looking reaction, which allows the far-right to prosper and trivialize its racist views.

Consequently, the Jews are caught between these two forms of anti-Semitism and serve as scapegoats. We know, however, that we can count on the support of the French political class that believes in republican values and on the State to ensure the security of the Jewish community. But this doesn’t make the Jews of France feel safe. Some have even resorted to concealing their Jewish faith and identity. In many neighborhoods and in public transport, French Jews are forced to hide their kippot to avoid getting abused or physically assaulted.

The Jews of France are now at a crossroads. If the situation doesn’t improve, an increasing number might decide to leave. But if France manages to reassert its republican values and national unity, French Jews will be on the front-line of this struggle. 

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[Photo courtesy of Senia L]

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