While police in Belgium are hunting for a gunman who killed an Israeli couple a French woman, and a receptionist at the Jewish museum in Brussels on Saturday, Jewish groups from around the world have leveled harsh critiques at European leaders.
Issuing calls for an overhaul of how issues of anti-Semitism are dealt with in the European Union, these leaders believe that not enough is currently being done to combat a rising tide of hate, which has led some to question the continued viability of continental Jewish life.
In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu , strongly condemned the Brussels killings in a statement from his office. They were, he said, "the result of endless incitement against the Jews and their state". He offered Israeli cooperation in the Belgian investigation.
Security camera footage of the killer, who authorities believe acted alone, was released by police on Sunday afternoon. In the video, the assailant can be seen carrying a large bag and wearing a baseball cap as he walks up to the entrance of the museum and arms himself with a rifle. After discharging his weapon he calmly walks away.
Belgium has raised its terror alert to its highest level.
Less than a day after the Brussels attack, two Jews were beaten outside of a synagogue in a Paris suburb, prompting authorities in France to “"immediately secure sites linked to the Jewish religion or Jewish culture,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
Pope Francis, in Tel Aviv on Sunday, condemned the attack in Brussels, where about half of Belgium's 42,000-strong Jewish community lives.
"With a deeply saddened heart, I think of all of those who lost their lives in yesterday's savage attack in Brussels," he said.
"In renewing my deep sorrow for this criminal act of anti-Semitic hatred, I commend to our merciful God the victims and pray for the healing of those wounded."
At some 550,000, France's Jewish community is the largest in Europe, though violence such as the 2012 murders of three Jewish children and a rabbi by Islamist gunman Mohamed Merah have prompted higher emigration to Israel or elsewhere. Saturday’s shooting has been likened to the Merah attack by a number of Jewish leaders.
Despite the immediate response by Belgian and French authorities to their countries’ respective attacks, several regional and international Jewish groups were quick to point to the attack as indicative of the need for systemic reforms in how Europe combats anti-Semitism.
One communal leader in Brussels termed the attack a wake up call, seeking to impress authorities with the need to combat racism, incitement and what many Jews see as a growing atmosphere of hate.
According to a recent study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, 27 percent of Belgians harbor anti-Semitic sentiments.
“While violence against Jews in Belgium is extremely rare, the attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum is another tragic reminder of the frightening atmosphere for Jews in parts of Europe,” ADL head Abraham Foxman said in a statement.
Following a number of high profile attacks, bans on ritual slaughter and the rise of neo-Nazi parties in several countries, Jewish leaders are wary of the direction Europe will take following Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
Jewish groups have been calling for tougher action against the growing power of the right for some time. Last year in Budapest World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder demanded a continent wide ban on “Neo-Nazi” parties such as Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece.
According to Foxman, “the rise in Europe of openly anti-Semitic political parties, the proliferation of clearly anti-Semitic expressions on social media platforms and the disturbingly high levels of anti-Semitic attitudes in many places in Europe contribute to a witches’ brew of hate in which those who are inclined to engage in violence against Jews can find encouragement.”
Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that while he expects Belgian authorities to pursue the killer with all possible vigor, it is also “time for them and all the European leaders to also take measures to reverse the extreme anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes held by as many as 150 million European citizens.”
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the Brussels based head of the European Jewish Association, went even further. In a statement on Sunday, Margolin asserted that condemnations of anti-Semitic attacks are merely “a way to cleanse ones’ conscience.”
Calling for a “pan-European task force in order to annihilate Anti-Semitism,” Margolin said that “those that do not bother to eradicate these Anti-Semitic lesions within themselves, those that exercise understanding and forgiveness to such terror attacks because of narrow political interests - will end up being victimized by the same nationalist Anti-Semites.”
In response to the attack, security was stepped up at Jewish institutions, as voters came out to participate in elections for regional, federal and EU parliaments.
In Belgian's second largest city of Antwerp, home of the most observant Jewish communities in Western Europe, members of the Jewish community felt safe enough to go about their daily lives, and turn out at polling stations.
Daniel Michael, a student at the city's Beit El Synagogue, said he felt deeply upset by the shootings and that he did not understand why Jews continued to be the victims of racism.
"Such a thing, it only happens with the Jewish people, or because of racism and all these things, it is not only in Europe. it is something world-wide that people need to understand, not because somebody is of another colour, not because some-one is born to other parents, it is a reason to kill him. It is no such way, you can not think that way," he said.
The Mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, a top candidate in the Belgian elections, told Reuters Television police had stepped up security immediately after the attack and would continue to do so.
"Yesterday already I received many phone calls from the Jewish community who were very worried, so we immediately increased police security in the Jewish neighborhood and we protected the synagogues and all the places where terrorists threats against the Jewish community can take place, and an hour later we even increased to the highest level of security. There are permanent guards in the Jewish quarter and every Jewish building or institution in the city. So, I think we are doing the maximum effort to maintain the safety of the Jewish community," he said.
Police also tightened security at Jewish schools and institutions such as the Israeli embassy in Brussels where about half of Belgium's 42,000-strong Jewish community lives.
Revealing more details of the attack earlier on Sunday, a spokeswoman for Brussels prosecutor's office said the fate of the fourth victim was unclear after he was pronounced in critical condition.
The two Israelis, Emmanuel and Miriam Riva, both in their 50s, were described by officials as Israeli civil servants.
"It's still too early to confirm whether it's a terrorist or an anti-Semitic attack, all lines of investigation are still open,” a spokeswoman for the Brussels prosecutor's office told reporters.
Several Belgian politicians, including De Wever, have stated that it is likely that the attack was racially motivated.
Both British Premier David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed their horror at Saturday's attack in Brussels in messages to the Belgium Premier and Belgium Foreign Minister respectively.
In Cameron's message, after condemning the atrocity, the UK Premier offered Britain's help "to confront such bigotry across Europe".
Meanwhile Hague in his letter to the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Didier Reynders expressed his 'deep shock and sadness' before adding "Tragic events like these only strengthen our resolve to work with you and others to eliminate such shocking extremist, discriminatory behaviour in Europe and elsewhere across the world."
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