It’s not the 1930s in Europe, experts say

Adults and children participating in a silent vigil outside the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels for the four victims of a shooting there by an unidentified gunman, May 25, 2014. (Cnaan Liphshiz)
Adults and children participating in a silent vigil outside the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels for the four victims of a shooting there by an unidentified gunman, May 25, 2014. (Cnaan Liphshiz)

There’s been a sea change in Europe. Fifteen years ago, anti-Semitism was not a serious concern for European Jews. Now, with Jews being attacked and murdered, the Jews of Western Europe are questioning their future there.

That’s the view of Rabbi Andrew Baker, director for international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee and the point man on anti-Semitism for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Baker spoke to a lunchtime audience of 35 with Stephan Kramer, the director of AJC’s European office on anti-Semitism.

Neither man was ready to write off the Jewish future in Western Europe. Kramer, a former leader of Germany’s Jewish community, said that contrary to what many think, Europe is not experiencing the 1930s all over again.

“You don’t have governments supporting and executing anti-Semitism,” he said. “Since 1945, Jewish communities in Europe have enjoyed a prosperous life. That doesn’t mean we are happy campers in Europe. We have to worry about anti-Semitism from the far left, the far right, academic circles and from the Muslim community – although it is not the [whole] Muslim community.”

And yet what is happening now is that when every rise in anti-Semitism settles down, it doesn’t return to the previous level, Baker said. The base line is always higher.

Last summer’s rise in violence coincided with Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. But Israel’s actions were not the source of the violence, Kramer said. The attacks that killed Jews in Brussels last spring and in Toulouse in 2012 happened before the Gaza war began.

Meanwhile, two surveys released Nov. 17 by a French think tank found that three groups are more anti-Jewish than the general population: supporters of the extreme right National Front party, to a lesser extent supporters of the Left Front coalition (extreme left), and members of the Muslim community.

For example, 25 percent of all French people believe Zionism is “an international organization that aims to influence the world and society in favor of the Jews,” 57 percent of Muslims, 32 percent of National Front supporters, and 28 percent of Left Front supporters consider that statement true, according to The Foundation for Political Innovation (Fondapol).

Seventy-three percent of all survey respondents said the protests and violence against Jews during the summer were unacceptable, while 14 percent said they were understandable.

Perhaps ironically, while Western Europe grapples with anti-Semitism, Jews in Eastern Europe feel relatively safe. “Jews in Russia feel rather blessed when they see what’s happening in Western Europe,” Baker said.

An audience member suggested that European Jews reach out to immigrant Muslim communities on the basis that both are minority groups. Baker said that while that makes sense in the United States, it does not in France, for example.

“Jews in Europe see themselves differently than we see it in America,” he said. “French Jews don’t see themselves as a minority. They see themselves as French. They see Muslim immigrants as a group that doesn’t want to assimilate. Having said that, you want to find ways to show cooperation and understanding.”

There are issues that both groups could work together on, such as assuring the continued right to prepare kosher and halal meat, and circumcision, they said. Washington-area Jews might want to consider bringing both European Jews and Muslims here to see how their co-religionists live.

“What Jews in Europe need is encouragement,” Kramer said. “Bring their leaders here to see what Jewish life can be. To give them the strength to stand up and believe in their own cause.”

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