Anti-Semitism is one of the most alarming examples of how prejudice can endure, lingering for centuries, curbing Jewish people’s chances to enjoy their legally guaranteed rights to human dignity, freedom of thought, conscience and religion or non-discrimination.
So starts a foreword by Morten Kjaerum to the study, “Discrimination and hate crimes against Jews in the EU member states: experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism,” which was published earlier this month by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in conjunction with the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.
According to the report, the Jewish people in the EU encounter anti-Semitism at work, in public spaces, at school and in the media. The findings demonstrate that three-quarters of respondents believe anti-Semitism has become worse during the past five years in all countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Romania, Sweden and the U.K.) investigated. Some 25 percent of respondents told interviewers they had personally experienced verbal threats and/or harassment in the past 12 months; that number was one-third (or around 33 percent) in Hungary and Belgium.
Close to half of all respondents said they are worried about becoming a victim of a verbal attack or harassment, and almost as many reported fear of becoming a victim of a physical attack.
“The report is not only accurate, it confirms what many other reports and surveys and studies show,” said Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of Worse Than War. He said that anti-Semitism in Europe is at “alarming levels,” and expressed concern based on his own research — years of studying anti-Semitism and prejudice in general — that there is alarming growth in people who are anti-Semitic, likely 50 percent of people living in the European Union.
“Jewish life in Europe is becoming intolerable, and it is causing Jews to leave Europe and possibly leave a continent with no Jews left it in,” Goldhagen said.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Simon Wiesenthal Center associate dean, expressed similar sentiments. He said he “wished the study were wrong,” but from his work feels confident it is on target — pun intended.
Rabbi Cooper noted that a look at what used to be considered isolated incidents can now be strung together to paint a picture of a lively and growing anti-Semitism in Europe. He noted several examples of this, including recent efforts by the Polish government and Norway to ban ritual slaughter; virulent anti-Semitic rhetoric by Hungary’s Jobbik Party; and the flagrant demonization of Israel through the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement in England. Also, the study showed there is a fear of wearing a kippah and other identifiably Jewish items in Sweden, where 49 percent of 800 respondents said they refrained from such actions.
In Germany, said Rabbi Cooper, the heart of the Nazi movement in World War II, younger generations with no collective memory of World War II are hearing and spewing “plenty of anti-Israel stuff.”
“In many places in Europe when we say freedom of religion, we mean from religion,” the rabbi said. “The whole idea that … Jewish people want to keep our Judaic mitzvot, for a lot of younger Europeans, they look at all religion and say, ‘That is so yesterday.’ ”
He continued, “When we look at each area, it is hard to find real cause for optimism.”
Rabbi Cooper said it is important that Jews keep their eyes open and not rely on others to “do the heavy lifting.” He cautioned that if there is a ban on kosher slaughter in one place, others will follow. He also noted that in places like Norway, shechita is referred to as “the Jewish blood orgy,” which is contrary to the whole concept of kosher slaughter; shechita is based on minimizing the pain caused to an animal during the slaughter.
“We need to create a generation of young Jews, whatever their level of commitment, that are knowledgeable enough to understand the core Jewish values and why they are worthy of standing up for,” said Rabbi Cooper.
Jonathan Boyd, executive director of JPR, said that there is credence to Goldhagen and Rabbi Cooper’s statements, but he also noted that it is important to differentiate one area from another when speaking about the EU.
“Often people talk about Europe as a single area, and one of the key things the study finds is that it depends on which part of Europe you are looking at. Each area is distinctive in terms of the type of anti-Semitism, the level of anti-Semitism and the anxiety about it,” Boyd said, noting he lives in London, which came out “reasonably well” in terms of described anti-Semitism, while France and Hungary show different pictures.
Additionally, he said there were positive points to the survey, which were overshadowed by the negative revelations. For example, the vast majority of Jews in the sample feel a strong sense of belonging to the country in which they reside and are highly integrated into mainstream society.
Finally, he noted, there should be a distinction between reported anti-Semitic acts and a perception or fear of anti-Semitism.
“What we need to unpack is to what extent the anti-Semitism people feel is real and what is in their minds,” said Boyd.
Goldhagen noted that people in America should pay attention to anti-Semitic trends in Europe and be available to help in times of need. He said that often anti-Semitic rhetoric can lead to violent acts, even mass murder.
Rabbi Cooper called on the U.S. to do a better job of forging solidarity with their brothers and sister in Europe and said that working together we could potentially solve — or minimally decrease — the level of anti-Semitism abroad. Likewise, he said, “We better stand up for [them abroad] or we will find ourselves with anti-Semitism in our own backyard.”
Maayan Jaffe is editor-in-chief of Washington Jewish Week’s sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times.