(photo credit: REUTERS)
On a recent Friday afternoon, I heard two people on a crowded New York suburban commuter train carrying on a loud, long-winded conversation in Hebrew.
Earlier, on the way to New York’s Grand Central Station, I walked by a Lubavitch RV with Jewish music blaring, as several men approached me and others asking, “Are you Jewish?” I wished them Shabbat Shalom and took a brochure. Others, taking up the offer of the Lubavitchers, put on tefillin and recited prayers on the busy sidewalk.
Such glimpses of New York Jewish normality are highly unlikely to occur on the streets of major European cities, where ascendant anti-Semitism has accompanied jihadist-inspired terrorism.
“Jews live a reality where little things they do every day are acts of courage,” my Paris- based AJC colleague, Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, told NBC News after the deadly attack on a kosher supermarket in France on January 9. Those “acts of courage” are taking children to a Jewish school, attending synagogue, food shopping for Shabbat, and wearing clothes that are identifiably Jewish.
European Jews have lived in fear in recent years. In a 2013 report, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) reported high levels of anxiety. For example, 34 percent of Jews in the eight countries surveyed have considered emigrating. In France, the figure was 50%.
One-third of the FRA respondents reported that they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment at least once in the five years before the survey was conducted, and 23% said that at least occasionally they avoided Jewish events or sites. No doubt the numbers would be even higher if the FRA survey were administered today.
Political leaders have acknowledged the problem and made a variety of pledges to confront anti-Semitism. But the failure last December of the European Parliament to approve a measure establishing a task force to fight anti-Semitism indicated that this was hardly a priority. Even the deadly attack last summer at the Jewish Museum in Brussels by a French jihadist with Islamic State (IS) experience was seen as little more than one more tragic act of terrorism.
It took the recent combined attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the kosher market and French police to grab the attention of political leaders, the media and ordinary citizens. World leaders seemingly woke up to the severity of the problem.
“I never thought I would see the day when members of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom would say they are fearful of remaining here,” said Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that “if 100,000 Jews leave, France will not be France.”
Between the January 9 attack on the kosher supermarket and International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, a groundswell of empathetic statements condemned anti-Semitism, vowed to remember, pledged to protect, and, in some important instances, publicly acknowledged that attacks on Jews endanger entire societies.
Also, more visible security around Jewish institutions – primarily schools and synagogues – was instituted to assuage the fears of local Jewish communities. Even so, it remains unclear what actions governments will take to confront this menace, to make clear that growing anti-Semitism is a high priority for all of Europe.
The most recent violence in Paris, as well as threats in Brussels and other European cities, emanates from within local Muslim communities, and the source must be tackled head-on. Some European Muslims, infused with the radical teachings of local imams, have become further radicalized by training and fighting with IS and al-Qaida in the cauldrons of Islamist radicalism in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
A sea-change in rhetoric is needed from the leaders of Arab countries. At the UN General Assembly special session on anti-Semitism on January 22, the Saudi ambassador, speaking on behalf of the 57-state Organization of Islamic Cooperation, asserted that anti-Semitism is not about the victimization of Jews.
“Occupation is an anti-Semitic act,” said Ambassador Abdallah Y. Al-Mouallimi. “Persecution” of Palestinians “is also an example of anti-Semitism,” he added for emphasis.
Anti-Semitism in governmental policies and statements, and in the media across the Muslim world, is unacceptable. Unless countries like Saudi Arabia are prepared to join global efforts to confront anti-Semitism, ending the hatred of Jews will remain unattainable, and the threats will continue to expand.
The EU adopted a definition of anti-Semitism in 2005 that provides a basis for the 28 member-states to develop and implement initiatives to counter anti-Semitism in their respective countries. Muslim nations need to take similar action to join in international efforts to address and resolve what US Ambassador Samantha Power told the UN special session “is a global problem”—anti-Semitism.The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.