Even as a rabbi in Brussels called for Jews there to arm themselves and police in Belgium stepped up security around Jewish sites, Jews across Western Europe this week are increasingly asking a frightening question: Is Jewish life still viable on the continent?
The question is being asked everywhere Jews gather: at a Jewish wedding in Paris, inside a synagogue guarded by French soldiers, and at a Brussels day school just reopened following last week’s police raid against jihadis suspected of plotting a terror attack.
“You hear people talk,” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s office in Paris, told The Jewish Week. “‘Should we leave? Am I a responsible parent to have my kids continue here?’ I don’t know any Jew who does not ask that question.”
The director of the AJC’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, Daniel Schwammenthal, put the fear Jews are feeling — and the possibility of mass aliyah — in even starker terms: “Absolutely — I absolutely see this as a threat,” he said. “The future of European Jews is being decided.”
As anti-Semitic incidents have increased in recent years, European Jews have shown a growing interest in making aliyah or settling in safer lands, especially during this summer’s Israeli war against Hamas terrorists in Gaza. But in the wake of the murder of four Jews at a Paris kosher market (which followed by two days the slaying of 12 in the Charlie Hebdo attack) and of the arrests in Brussels (and the eastern industrial city of Verviers), Jews throughout Europe feel more under attack and are weighing their future there, leaders said.
European Jews now “talk to each other more about their future,” said Serge Cswagenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress. He said EJC leaders have conducted an ongoing dialogue with prominent leaders of the Islamic community in France, but conceded that these leaders hold little influence over the young, radical members of the Muslim community who are largely responsible for terrorist attacks.
Jewish institutions have been increasing security for awhile in response to years of anti-Semitic attacks, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“I don’t think this is a sudden change — this is cumulative,” he said. While “day-to-day [anti-Semitic] incidents don’t get the visibility,” he said, the killings at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket “brought this to a high level of visibility. It was the bubble bursting.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League agreed. “The attacks on Jews in France represent more of a rising tide than a sea change,” said. “There is a growing sense of vulnerability and insecurity in Jewish communities throughout Europe.”
Rodan-Benzaquen of the American Jewish Committee, agreed. “It’s a situation that has deteriorated over the last 15 years,” she said. She called the 2012 terrorist attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse — in which a teacher and three children were murdered — the “turning point” for French Jewry. Last week’s attack magnified the change.
“We see the same kind of [anti-Semitic] phenomenon all over Europe,” she added. “France is the worst.”
There is also a changing perception among American Jews of their French counterparts: the growing number of solidarity missions made to France’s Jewish communities, as was the case years ago to Iron Bloc countries. Within the last week, visitors to Paris included Rabbi Yehuda Sarna of New York University, Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabba Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Rabbi Adam Scheier of Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In response, the European Jewish Congress this week urged Belgium and other European Union members to increase security around Jewish institutions, and to establish a continental-wide position — a so-called anti-Semitism czar — to deal with the threat against the Jewish community.
What actions do Jewish communities expect from their governments? Unified action against terrorism, better intelligence work, programs to prevent the radicalization of Muslims in prison, tolerance education in public schools, better protection of Jewish sites, better-enforced laws against hate speech on the Internet, measures to keep leaders of radical Islamic terrorism groups out of Europe and to keep them from preaching in mosques and teaching in Muslim schools, the Jewish leaders who talked with The Jewish Week said.
Schwammenthal said he’s looking for “more pubic gestures and visible outrage” from government officials when anti-Semitic attacks take place. “I would like to see this from every politician in Europe — outrage from the heart, and not dry token words of support.”
In the Jewish area of Antwerp, where roughly 16,000 Jews live, the majority of them chasids working in the diamond business, soldiers stood guard this week. In secular Brussels, security professionals from around Europe took part in a drill for a scenario in which a car bomb explodes outside a synagogue; and Jewish leaders there opposed the call by some members of the community to apply for gun permits “for the essential protection of their communities.”
“It’s a very small minority” of Belgian Jews who are interested in arming themselves, said Cswagenbaum. “I can understand it. I don’t accept it.” Security, he said, should be in the hands of the army or police.
Julien Klener, who heads Belgium’s Jewish umbrella organization, said that while “there is no panic” among Belgian Jews, there are more people who are considering leaving. “It is clear that after what happened in Brussels … questions are asked about individual futures,” said Klener, who is president of the Consistoire Central Israèlite de Belgique. “I know some Jews who would settle in Sarasota or the nice parts of Florida, or in Canada. The levels of security inquiries are much higher.”
“French Jews are undoubtedly living in fear, knowing that this could happen again, anywhere and at any time,” said Stella Amar-Cohen, a Jew from western France who has lived in Manhattan for a decade. “Some people have refrained from going to shul or have gone without children, but slowly regular life is resuming. Some secular people who don’t typically go to shul went after the events, to show unity and solidarity with the rest of the community.”
Today’s Jewish communities in Western Europe cannot be considered in danger of extinction they were under the Third Reich, or as the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were during communist times, because these countries’ contemporary governments are protective of Jewish interests and share Jews’ fear of radical Muslims, Jewish leaders said. But there is a new danger, enough Jews will emigrate or drop out of Jewish life to weaken the tenor of the Jewish community.
“It’s not that [Jews] feel insecure. They are insecure,” Schwammenthal said.
He and Rodan-Benzaquen last summer wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “Do Jews Have a Future in Europe?”
Their answer: maybe not.
“Many in the Jewish community, perhaps for the first time since they rebuilt their homes in Europe after the Holocaust, fear once again for their security and future,” they wrote.
In England, where police expressed “heightened concern” about a possible terrorist attack on Jews, a survey found that one-quarter of British Jews have considered leaving the country. In Germany, where two suspected jihadis were arrested last week and 13 homes were raided this week, Abraham Lehrer, vice president of the umbrella organization of Jews in Germany, declared that “If Jews [anywhere] are threatened, then we all are threatened.”
The World Without Nazism organization was to release on Wednesday a 1,000-page report, “White Papers of Hate,” on the rise of neo-Nazi movements, radical nationalism and human rights violations in 19 European countries.
“The ‘White Papers of Hate’ was created to track manifestations of hate so leaders properly respond to this escalating problem,” Valery Engel, the organization’s first vice president, said in a statement. “We cannot wait for the next Charlie Hebdo, the next synagogue bombing or the next hate-fueled attack.”
For many European Jews, the next year will likely determine if they stay or if they go.
“If we find ourselves in exactly the same situation a year from now, I don’t see how Jews can continue to feel comfortable here,” Rodan-Benzaquen said.
Jewish schools in Brussels reopened this week, but many parents chose to keep their children at home for at least another day. “We’ve talked to a lot of parents” who were nervous about safety at school, said Schwammenthal.
After keeping his children out of their Jewish school in Brussels for a day, he let them go back. He said he had “no confidence” in his decision because the police “haven’t arrested everybody” who would commit terrorist attacks against Jews. But said he had little choice.
“We can’t keep our kids out of school [forever],” Schwammenthal said. “There is, of course, no 100 percent security.”