A Star of David on a man's kippa.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is one thing to read from afar about the growing antisemitism in Europe; it is another to witness the signs of it. The latter is of course better than experiencing it, but the signs themselves are sufficiently ominous to make one pause and realize that when it comes to the Jews, something once again is rotten in the state of Denmark, in France, in Germany, in Italy and in other countries across the continent. This is not normal.
I recently spent two weeks in a major European city whose Jewish community was established many centuries ago. For reasons of security, that is the closest I will come to identifying this locale. On the surface, Jewish life there appears to be healthy, with internal communal rivalries testifying to its vibrancy. The synagogues are all Orthodox, since in this European Jewish community, as in many others, while the majority of its members are not Orthodox, the synagogue they attend when they attend – and many do attend on Shabbat and holidays – must be. The single, large community school reflects the diversity of Jewish lifestyles.
To visitors, the situation of this community initially appears only positive, possibly ideal. The synagogues are active and both Jewish education and cultural activities are strong. There are kosher grocery stores and eateries. But soon, some unsettling facts emerge. While local Chabad hassidim and other haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews cannot disguise their obvious Jewish appearance in public, it was suggested to me by a member of the community that it would be wise to tuck my tzitziot into my pants and consider wearing a hat over my kippah.
RECENTLY, Felix Klein, the German government official responsible for combating antisemitism, was quoted as saying he could not recommend that Jews wear the kippah “at all times everywhere in Germany.” He cited increasing brutality and “society’s inhibitions being broken down.” In response to this undoubtedly well-intentioned word of advice, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin expressed anger and defiance, declaring: “We [Jews] will never submit, will never lower our gaze, and will never react to antisemitism and defeatism.” Yet Klein was doing no more than reinforcing what is undoubtedly becoming the self-imposed norm by Jews throughout Europe. Just short of 75 years after the end of World War II, European Jews again find reason to be afraid.
Even more disturbing than witnessing religious Jewish men hiding their kippot under baseball caps is the intensity of security surrounding the synagogues and the Jewish school. All synagogues, I was informed, employ security guards on Shabbat and holidays. However, as is the case with an increasing number of European cities, a military unit is assigned to protect this community’s main synagogue throughout the week. Vehicular access to its street is limited, as both ends are blocked, while heavily armed soldiers patrol in front.
A similar scene, but with an even higher level of security, confronts passersby at the Jewish school, community offices and attached synagogue. One end of the street is permanently closed to vehicles while the other offers access only to those with a special permit. For these, a concrete anti-vehicular column is remotely lowered into the ground, allowing cars and small trucks to enter.
AN ARMORED military jeep is present and armed soldiers train their watchful eyes on every person approaching the area. At the beginning and end of the school day, additional private security personnel are present. To enter the complex, one passes through bulletproof glass doors into a small ante-chamber. There, you are again scrutinized by some person sitting behind one-way glass. A button is pressed that opens a second set of glass doors, finally allowing you to enter. This, in one variation or another, is the new normal for many of Europe’s Jews.
About half a block from this Jewish compound stands another private school serving a non-European ethnic community. There are no guards.
What is keeping the Jews of Europe where they are? Is it their disbelief in the growing severity of their situation; their business and property interests; their family ties; their fear of change, of having to learn a new language and adapting to a different culture; or is it mere inertia? Is it some or all of the above?
Since the return to Zion, the Jews of Israel live under constant threat. Thousands of innocent lives have been lost in a succession of wars and in heinous acts of terrorism. Nonetheless, these losses have not been in vain; it is only in Israel where Jews are not dependent upon the goodwill of others to protect and defend them. Such national pride is not hubris; rather it contributes to a sense of collective and individual self-worth. This is – or should be – what is normal.
The writer is the director of iTalkIsrael in Efrat.