Are European Jews afraid? Should they be?

Anti-Israel rhetoric has played a key role in setting the stage for classic antisemitism to reappear in a post-Holocaust world.

Flowers and candles are seen outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany October 10, 2019, after two people were killed in a shooting (photo credit: REUTERS/FABRIZIO BENSCH)
Flowers and candles are seen outside the synagogue in Halle, Germany October 10, 2019, after two people were killed in a shooting
It’s no secret that antisemitism in Europe and other parts of the world has become rampant. Should we be surprised? No.
Anti-Israel rhetoric has for the most part been mainstreamed and this has given the green light for old-school antisemitism, which has classically stemmed from the far Right, to rear its head once more.
On Yom Kippur this week, Judaism’s holiest day, a gunman killed two people outside a synagogue and a nearby kebab restaurant in an attack in Halle in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt that he livestreamed on a video-gaming platform.
Before the attacker began shooting on Wednesday, he livestreamed an antisemitic manifesto online. He attempted to enter the synagogue.
“I think the Holocaust never happened,” he began, before adding: “Feminism is the cause of decline in birth rates in the West,” mentioning mass immigration and concluding: “The root of all these problems is the Jew.”
In the video, the man drove to the synagogue in Halle, found the gates shut, swore, and after failing to force the gates open, shot several rounds at a woman passerby.
On Saturday, a knife-wielding man yelling “Allahu akhbar” and “F*** Israel” tried to gain access to a synagogue in Berlin but was thwarted.
These are just two examples of how blatant antisemitism – one directly connected to anti-Israel sentiments – has continued to rise in Europe over the last few years.
Following trips to France, Belgium and Hungary over the last few months, I realized that with this in mind, it’s also important to understand that although the type of antisemitism we are seeing in several European countries is the same, the way in which it rears its head can vary, depending on the politics on the ground.
IN FRANCE I learned that the amount of antisemitism Jews are exposed to on a daily, weekly or monthly basis depends on where they live and the socioeconomic situation of that particular neighborhood or town.
For Jews living in the wealthier boroughs, antisemitism is a nonentity.
In July, Guillaume Chneiweiss, who comes from one of the wealthier boroughs, told The Jerusalem Post that he feels the issue of antisemitism in France is being blown out of proportion.
“There is no reason to panic or make rash decisions,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, these are isolated incidents; it’s not day-to-day or as often as people think. It’s the same as the Poway or Pittsburgh attacks in the US: it’s isolated.”
He grew up in a wealthy Paris suburb, attended public school there, and said that up until now, he has never felt any antisemitism or been exposed to any problems.
“Neither have my friends or family,” he said. “I went to a public school and it never came up; it was never a problem for us, and it still isn’t.”
Chneiweiss said that he sees no competition or contradiction in being both Jewish and French. “I am proudly both.”
He stressed that there are certain boroughs in France you can’t go to, because they are not safe for all types of people, not just Jews, adding that he stays away from those places.
However, several members of the community living in middle-class areas and in some of the poorer parts of France felt differently.
Eli Dan, a medical student, said that he grew up in a middle-class area, Rosny-sous-Bois, located outside of Paris, and attended public school there.
“It was sometimes very difficult. I would feel lonely because it’s hard to share things about your culture with people who don’t understand you,” he said. “There were very few Jews in the city, and sometimes my classmates would make antisemitic comments like ‘You Jews are all rich’ – and they would say ‘Jews are the terrorists’ when speaking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Dan made it clear that it isn’t an everyday occurrence, but there is antisemitism in his hometown – and it’s rising.
“Today,” he said, “my wife sees it more. She works in the school system, and there’s a [general] problem of antisemitism in public schools [in France]. Jewish parents are saying that their children can’t stay or go to public schools anymore.”
He said that although he tried to live in Israel for a year while studying, and hopes to go back one day, his wife is not yet ready to take the plunge.
Several Jewish youths who come from some of the poorer districts echoed Dan’s sentiments about the rising antisemitism. Several told the Post that the situation “is really serious, and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves.”
The youngsters said that they’ve seen a lot of antisemitic graffiti and had friends who have had antisemitic slurs directed at them, which sometimes has been a weekly occurrence.
IN BELGIUM, Jewish leaders are growing more and more concerned about antisemitism.
The anti-Israel rhetoric is something seen almost weekly in the country’s mainstream media, and politicians on both sides of the spectrum are not doing much to stop it.
This rhetoric is not just criticism of Israel. Writers have used it as a springboard to attack Jews and make blatant antisemitic comments in their “anti-Israel pieces,” opening their articles with comments such as Jews have “ugly noses” and the age-old stereotypes that Jews control the world’s money.
Antisemitic cartoons have also become rampant in mainstream media, and earlier this year a float used at a carnival in Aalst, 25 km. from the European Parliament in Brussels, featured the grinning stereotypical figures of Orthodox Jews with large noses, standing on large piles of money.
Jenny Aharon, an adviser of EU-Israel Affairs at European Union institutions, who is based in Brussels, told the Post that what’s led to this, “if we think about it, is the anti-Israel rhetoric in the papers and the lack of response.”
She explained that, for some reason, neither side of the political spectrum – the right and left – sees any need to speak out; “it doesn’t suit them to say anything.”
Aharon said that perhaps it may be “apathy or a fear of their own base.”
Asked about incidents of antisemitism in Belgium, Aharon said that there are a lot more incidents that take place – especially in Antwerp, where the main base of the Jewish community resides – than are reported.
“Very few are reported,” she explained, adding that some of the incidents include slurs and hats or shtreimels being knocked off, which “perhaps they don’t see as serious enough to report.”
Over the last few weeks, Aharon has highlighted some of the serious antisemitic incidents that have happened in Belgium in the past months, including an antisemitic artwork painted and presented by a local politician featuring a swastika and the words “And God created A. Hitler” at a prestigious Brussels art gallery.
The float from Aalst, antisemitic newspaper columns and antisemitic sign language used at a university in Belgium, which depicted Jews as hooked-nosed, were also mentioned in her Facebook post.
She warned that this is becoming a weekly occurrence, and that what is even more concerning is that the mayor who allowed the antisemitic float to be used in the Aalst parade and defended its use, Christoph D’Haese, has been appointed to a prominent position in the immigration commission.
“Instead of being punished [following the outcry of antisemitism], it’s almost as if he’s been rewarded,” she added.
Aharon stressed that the anti-Israel bias is becoming antisemitic. When articles about Israel – which have a strong Palestinian bias – are posted online, the comments that are posted by readers are not anti-Israel, “they are antisemitic.
“By misinforming the public on the situation in Israel, the chance is given for hundreds of antisemitic comments to be made,” she said, adding that when Israel, for example, is compared to the Nazis, this, too, fans “the rise of this new antisemitism.”
Earlier this year, Belgian prosecutors decided not to prosecute a café owner who in 2014 hung a sign reading “Dogs may enter but Jews are not allowed” on his window.
According to Joel Rubinfeld, a former cochairman of the European Jewish Parliament and current president of the Belgian League Against Antisemitism, the case was dropped because the Jewish community turned down an offer to drop charges in exchange for an apology, JTA reported.
Rubinfeld told JTA that “what is unusual is that recently we’ve had a string of incidents where officials, opinion shapers and artists are defending antisemitism.
“That is quite a worrisome development, which I think is only happening in Belgium on this level,” he said.
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association, also told the news agency that “recently we’ve seen an accumulation of antisemitic cases where the response was as worrisome as the original issue.”
“There is a concern that acceptance of antisemitism is making unusual advances here,” he said.
IN HUNGARY, the situation is quite different from that of Western Europe.
Although statistics say that some 30% to 40% of Hungarians are antisemitic, nevertheless, because there is virtually no anti-Israel rhetoric, antisemitic incidents are extremely low.
Rabbi Shlomo Koves told the Post that unlike many countries in Europe, “Hungary is one of the safest places to be Jewish freely.”
He also told me several interesting stories about Hungarians who have found out they were Jewish or had Jewish lineage, stressing that it’s something that happens often.
Several members of the Jewish community also explained that 80% to 90% of the Jewish community is left-wing and secular. However, overall, Hungarian Jews live a relatively peaceful life.
“There are small concerns things could change for the Jews, but it’s very unlikely that it will. We are happy here,” one community member said. “The government is pro-Israel and has a great relationship with [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. Because of this, it’s not okay or ‘fashionable’ to say you are anti-Israel or anti-Jewish, so that adds to the reasons why we don’t feel the antisemitism.”
Another community member said that because Hungary is still a relatively young democracy, there is still a very strong stigma associated with antisemitism, “so even if people think bad things about the Jews, they don’t have the go-ahead to say it, because it’s not popular politically or in the media to do so.”
However, this is not to say there isn’t antisemitism in the country – there is, and it should not be ignored or played down – but in comparison to other European countries, where hundreds of antisemitic incidents are reported, the numbers in Hungary are very low.
In 2018, a report by the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry said that there were some 30 incidents of antisemitism in Hungary.
“The major categories of antisemitic incidents included: episodes of hate speech (18 reported incidents), vandalism (9 reported incidents), and assault (three incidents),” the report states. “In at least two cases concerning physical assaults, two men wearing a kippah were attacked in public spaces and their kippahs pulled off. Vandalism incidents include a variety of graffiti with Nazi symbolism (such as swastikas) and antisemitic remarks against Jews on public and private properties.”
A 2018 CNN survey about knowledge of the Holocaust and perception of Jews showed that 19% of Hungarians interviewed held a negative opinion of Jews, compared to an average of 10% in the surveyed countries.
“The same survey also finds that two out of five people think that Jews are too influential in business; one out of three that they are too influential in political affairs; and more than one out of four people hold the view that Jews are too influential in the media,” the survey stated.
In an interview I did last year with Prof. Judy Baumel Schwartz of the Israel and Golda Koschitzky department of Jewish history and contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University on the rise of antisemitism, she made it clear that “hatred of Jews began a very long time before Hitler.
“Anybody who thought that because there was a Holocaust that took place against the Jewish people 70 years ago and now everything is going to be great forever, then they’re fools,” she said.
“Should the Jews worry? Yes. Should this be a new worry? No, they should never have stopped worrying,” Baumel Schwartz added.