European responsibility to protect Jews

European ethnic and religious groups, distinct minorities in a majority culture, tend to be quite insular.

February 19, 2015 20:56
4 minute read.
The covered bodies of Paris kosher supermarket terror attack victims.

PRESIDENT REUVEN Rivlin delivers a speech near the covered bodies of Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Philippe Braham and Francois-Michel Saada, victims of Friday’s attack on a Paris grocery, during their joint funeral in Jerusalem.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The similarities between the recent terrorist attacks in Copenhagen and in Paris last month are striking.

The targets of these radical Islamist extremists in both cases were journalists/cartoonists, noted for their depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, and Jews noted for... what exactly? Being Jewish? Europeans understand the threat to their values when journalists are attacked for their views, and the journalists themselves were aware of the threats they faced for their outspokenness.

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They were given police protection.

But why the Jews? Jewish shoppers buying groceries in a kosher market on the eve of Shabbat. A 12-year-old Jewish girl celebrating her bat mitzva with family and friends. Why were they targets, and how do we protect them? The answer to the first question is that radical Islamist extremism is deeply anti-Semitic.

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Jews in Europe knew this after the murder of three young children and a parent at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, in 2012, after the murder of four Jews at the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Belgium, last May, and they were reminded again in Paris and Copenhagen.

By now, governments and political leaders should have recognized this fact, but some have been reluctant to identify the victims as Jews or to identify the perpetrators as radical Islamists or even to call it anti-Semitism.

To protect Jewish institutions adequately requires governments to acknowledge the special dangers Jews face. But when Jewish victims are described, in the words of one Western European government, as “citizens of different confessions who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” what message is being sent? Jews, who know the dangers they face, do not feel confident that their governments also know.

Two years ago, Belgian officials told me they considered the threat level facing Jewish institutions to be the same as that facing the Israeli and US embassies in Brussels. But Marines guard US embassies, and Israel knows something about security. Who shall provide similar protection to Jewish schools and synagogues? Even today the Belgian Jewish community is awaiting an answer from the government to its request for additional security and funding.

Last fall, Danish government officials explained to me why they had rebuffed Jewish community requests for a police presence in front of the synagogue and Jewish school. “We have a relaxed approach to security,” they told me. They were concerned that armed guards in front of these buildings might disturb the sense of ease that Danish citizens value. Fortunately, after that first attack last Saturday police, responded to an emergency request from the Jewish community, but even so one brave young Jewish security guard lost his life.

The threat from returning jihadist fighters and from self-radicalized Islamists is real, and Jews are a target. Protecting them presents a challenge, but reassuring them that you know requires no delay.

There will surely be intensified efforts to identify Islamist extremists and to deradicalize them, as well as programs to address the larger problem that many European Muslims face, living in poor neighborhoods, with poor education and limited job prospects, and facing prejudice and discrimination.

Such initiatives are long overdue.

But in the process governments must address the anti-Semitism that is disproportionately higher among them than in the rest of the population.

In many Western European countries today elements of the Muslim population are the primary source of anti-Semitic incidents, and specifically, physical and verbal harassment.

These are not lethal threats, but they have slowly and steadily eroded Jews’ sense of security and comfort. They are why nearly 40 percent of Jews in the EU, surveyed more than two years ago, were already considering emigration.

There is something Europe might learn from our American experience. Twenty-five years ago I served as president of the Interfaith Conference in Washington.

We regularly brought together Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Mormon religious leaders. While we had our share of heated discussions, we found much common ground.

This past November, when the OSCE organized a high-level conference on anti-Semitism in Berlin, it drew nearly 500 participants from governments and civil society. But surely one of the most impressive “delegations” was that from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. This broad coalition delivered the message that anti-Semitism, at least in the US, is everybody’s problem, just as is racism, discrimination against Muslims, and bigotry directed at the LGBT communities.

Can this approach work in Europe? Not easily. European ethnic and religious groups, distinct minorities in a majority culture, tend to be quite insular.

Also, Europeans have high and perhaps unrealistic expectations that governments will do all the work. In France, for example, the bedrock principle of laicité, or secularity, frowns on any public display of ethnic, religious or communal identity.

Not only has this prevented the identification of the perpetrators of anti-Semitic and other hate crimes, it severely limits the development of community organizations and leaders who could be a force for good in these challenging times.

While the American model is not easily adaptable to Europe, the crisis we face demands an urgent response and a search for new tools and methods. The future of European Jewry may be at stake, and that of democratic Europe as a whole.

Rabbi Andrew Baker is the American Jewish Committee’s director of International Jewish Affairs ( This op-ed is based on his remarks before the White House Conference on Extremist Violence in Washington.

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