Terra Incognita: Europe’s shame

The story of the “Jew in the box” is representative of the circumscribed life that Jews are asked to live in Europe.

Europe's shame (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
Europe's shame
(photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)
In late March the Jewish Museum in Berlin opened a new exhibit popularly derided as “Jew in a box.” Unlike most exhibits this one is a living representation. Jewish volunteers agree to be placed in a transparent glass box and sit on a chair. Below the box the question: “Are there still Jews in Germany?” invites visitors to ask the living specimen other questions. The Museum has titled the installation “Everything you wanted to know about Jews.”
The story of the “Jew in the box” which one community leader compared to putting Jews on display at a zoo, is a symbol of the way in which many in continental Europe view Jewish people, and is representative of the circumscribed life that Jews are asked to live in Europe.
When my father and I visited in 2005 we went to see some of the Jewish sites in Berlin. Among them was the Oranienburger Strasse Neue Synagogue. When it was constructed in 1866 it could sit 3,000 people.
With its two minaret-like spires and large dome it looks more Ottoman than German, reflecting the typical Oriental style of construction for Jewish places of worship of the period. The synagogue was burned on Kristallnacht in 1938 and then again during the Allied bombing. After the war it lay mostly abandoned until its restoration in the 1990s. It once again hosts services. When we visited it there was a guard next to the door. Later we strolled around the corner to Tucholskystrasse and saw a kosher Jewish restaurant with Hebrew letters on the front spelling out Beit Café.
Apparently this is one of the few kosher establishments in Berlin. There were two armed policemen next to the café, one shouldering a Heckler and Koch model submachine gun. This seemed like overkill, who needs so many police to secure a lone Jewish restaurant, and perhaps the police were there for a different purpose? But in subsequent travels in Europe it turned out that the oppressive security provided to Jewish establishments and places of Europe was not the exception, but the rule.
The Great Synagogue of Florence on Via Luigi Carlo Farini has a beautiful green dome that can be seen from every high point in the city. Oddly enough, at street level it seems more like a foreboding fortress, with its large iron fence and a tiny entrance monitored by cameras and a security guard who has a special window to watch those who come and go.
When I was living in Florence in 2002, down the street from the shul, it was not uncommon to see carabinieri, or paramilitary police, stopping next to the entrance to make sure everything was ok. Perhaps it was for the better, since the Jewish graveyard not far away was vandalized by drunken youths that year.
IN GREECE we had the good fortune of seeing the Etz Hayim synagogue in Crete two months before Greek and UK racists burned it down in 2009. In Athens, the Beth Shalom Synagogue on Melidoni street is the principal place of worship in the city. A beautiful large rectangular white marble building, it is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and has a security house to one side through which people are allowed to enter.
Like other synagogues throughout Europe that have this security, it feels unwelcoming and almost unnatural as if it lives in a hostile environment.
Security is a major concern for Europe’s Jews. The Community Security Trust, a Jewish security agency in the United Kingdom, has installed 1,000 closed circuit cameras in the country and, according to an article, has a budget of $5.8 million. Comparatively, Norway’s Jewish community spends less than $100,000 on security.
The security is for good reason. In Oslo, a Muslim extremist fired on a synagogue in 2006. In Malmo, a bomb was planted at a community center. In Toulouse, Mohammed Merah murdered three children and a rabbi last year. In October of 2012 shots were fired at one shul in Paris and there was a bombing of a Jewish store.
After an assault on a rabbi in Berlin in August of 2012, Gideon Joffe advised community members not to wear a kippa in public. According to the JTA, Jews in Germany have been disuaded from wearing outward displays of their religion, following an attack on a Chabad kindergarten in 2007.
Wherever Jews live in Europe there are attacks and even when there are no Jews there is vandalism against Jewish graveyards and sites. Last year someone wrote in giant white letters, “Hezbollah” outside the Garnethill synagogue in Edinburgh.
One might say that all these incidents are blown out of proportion by a media that seeks sensationalism. After all, there are around 730 million people in all of Europe (500 million in the European Union) and there are around 1 million Jews, not including those in Russia. However anti-Semitism is part of the normal fabric of Europe.
Recently, Dutch television ran an interview with Turkish youth in which they expressed admiration for Hitler. Alma Drayer, a journalist, noted that anti-Semitism was at pre-1940s levels. The man who conducted the interview, PhD student Mehmet Sahin has now had to go into hiding with his family in the Netherlands for daring to expose anti-Semitism.
In the UK Lord Ahmed, a Muslim member of the House of Lords, often held up as an example of UK diversity, was sentenced for dangerous driving. When he was sentenced he blamed Jews “who own newspapers and TV channels.” The peer has since apologized after being suspended from the Labour party, but the very fact that the knee-jerk reaction to his punishment was to blame Jews, who had no connection to his case, is an example of a typical anti- Semitism that runs under the surface. He was caught on video in Pakistan making the comments in Urdu as if they were normal and acceptable, which indeed they are in Pakistan and likely among the Pakistani community in the UK as well.
WE HAVE been conditioned to accept anti- Semitism in Europe. Jewish Europeans are especially conditioned to accept it, because in many cases the oppressive security is something that has been typical for years.
The mentality is: Of course there are security cameras outside our place of worship, of course our children need guards at their school, of course our community center needs a wall to prevent bombings, of course thugs draw swastikas on Jewish graveyards in towns where no Jews live.
But doesn’t it seem odd that if Jews in any of these places simply converted to Islam and made their synagogue into a mosque that they would have less to fear? Doesn’t it seem shocking that people who have lived in a place for 1,500 years have to worry about sending their children to school or wearing their religious garments in public? And that really is where the bar should be; there should be no anti-Semitism, no swastikas, no youth who praise Hitler, no Lord Ahmeds ranting about Jewish conspiracies Some people want to point blame only at the Muslim immigrants and the conflict in Israel to excuse the hatred. But the hatred for the Jews transcends all political viewpoints. Whereas in Greece it is the Golden Dawn party that is accused of anti-Semitism, in the 1960s and 1970s the Red Army Faction leftists plotted to bomb a Jewish community center in Berlin in 1969 and praised the murder of Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympics as an act of “anti-imperialism.”
Other religions take for granted that their place of worship does not have to be a fortress, festooned with cameras and guarded by police and private security. Jews, alone in Europe, must walk through fences, walls and other layers of security just to go to pray. There is something insidious in that.
There are credible terrorist threats by foreign groups such as Hezbollah (which the EU doesn’t define as a terror organization) against Jews. But there is also a need for Europe and European Jews to set the bar at the same level as they would for hate crimes against other groups and stop accepting the idea that Jews must live inside a box; a box of security no less demeaning and restrictive than the box the Jewish Museum disastrously chose to put a Jew on display in.