I was in Barcelona, dropping by a friend’s shared apartment, when it started up. “I’ve been so busy here, I haven’t even had time to go shopping!” I laughed, and was met with this teasing response from my friend’s housemate — a Bulgarian cellist I barely knew. “No shopping? Why, for you, that must be as unthinkable as not building settlements would be for an Israeli!”
Huh? What on earth did shopping have to do with Israel? It was a nasty comment, and weird to boot. I was still reeling from the unexpected dig at a nationality none of us had any obvious ties to when the cellist’s girlfriend, a Brazilian, mentioned that she hadn’t been shopping during her visit, either. “I’m very frugal lately — I’m like a Jew, I just hate to spend money,” she said.
Jewishness hadn’t come up in the conversation, nobody had a clue about my heritage, and the comments were uttered lightly, unprovocatively. But there it was. In Europe, I have found, ugly remarks about Israel and Jewish stereotypes surface as a matter of course, with the tacit assumption that everyone shares an anti-Israel viewpoint — and that nobody present is Jewish.
If it is unfashionable to say ethnically pointed things in historically multicultural America, it can sometimes seem the opposite abroad, at least with regard to Jews and Israel. And it can make traveling to otherwise lovely lands, filled with otherwise friendly people, very uncomfortable for American Jews.
It’s not just Europe, either — though when I recently asked readers to write in with their stories of anti-Semitism abroad, nearly all the accounts took place in Europe. Sadly, even after the horrors of the 20th century, it’s true that Europe remains a place of widespread anti-Jewish and often-virulent anti-Israel sentiment, a phenomenon only fueled by swelling Muslim immigration.
But it’s also true that Americans overwhelmingly do their foreign travel in Europe, so incidents there are more frequently reported. On my first trip to South America, my taxi driver from the Buenos Aires airport welcomed me with a lengthy soliloquy on Argentine society, including the following: “We have a lot of Jews here, of course. It’s too bad. We wish we could get rid of them.”
How should one handle such incidents? I am a natural pacifist, and as a youngish woman who frequently travels alone, I tend to avoid confrontation out of a sense of vulnerability. (I am also usually too stunned by insulting comments to formulate an immediate, satisfying argument.) Readers’ own responses to such experiences vary widely: some opt to curtail foreign travel, while others resolutely sally forth across the Atlantic, sporting Jewish stars, kipot and all.
One young reader, Rachel Rabinowitz, traveled to nearly 50 countries during college, covering large swaths of Europe and Latin America and studying abroad in Madrid. Blatant anti-Semitism surfaced nearly everywhere she went, Rabinowitz recalled — and it was all but guaranteed “anytime I mentioned that I was Jewish.”
There was the man on the train in the Balkans who asked her if she’d had her horns removed. There was the Spanish classmate who dropped a penny and taunted “the Jewish girl” to pick it up. There was the Middle Eastern concierge in Sweden who greeted Rabinowitz’s American tour group with an unprovoked tirade about America’s support of the “Zionist regime” and Hitler “not having finished his job.”
As the experiences compounded, they took their toll, even on such an intrepid traveler as Rabinowitz. She became wary of disclosing her Jewish identity, responding to Europeans’ probing by saying she was Colombian — which also happens to be true. “I was nervous that if [being Jewish] came out, I could be in danger,” Rabinowitz admitted, adding that she has felt increasingly unsafe in Muslim-heavy parts of Europe.
Tania Grossinger, travel editor at the Long Island Jewish World and author of “Growing Up at Grossinger’s,” takes the opposite tack. She vividly recalls the rage she felt years ago in an Amsterdam hotel lobby, when a German-accented guest started raving loudly about how Hitler didn’t go far enough with the Jews. Grossinger politely asked the man to lower his voice, which led him to direct his rage at her, scream “Jew bitch” and spit in Grossinger’s face.
“Next I knew, my date was behind me grabbing my right arm which I had pulled back, ready to strike in an attack position,” wrote Grossinger in an e-mail. “Me, who abhorred violence.” She was shocked by her own visceral, physical response — and by the polite applause of her fellow guests, to whom she retorted: “And why didn’t any of you speak up?”
As traumatic as the experience was, it “in no way diminished my interest in travel,” Grossinger said. She resolved to remain open-minded about individuals, noting that “there are idiots wherever one goes.” Most notably, Grossinger was inspired to wear a Jewish star wherever she travels — something she doesn’t do at home.
For travelers whose appearance marks them as observant Jews, there is no choice about disclosure. In my case, my ethnicity isn’t obvious to the casual observer — but when anti-Jewish remarks come out, I make a point of subtly introducing my Jewish heritage or ties into the conversation. Like Grossinger, and perhaps like many women in particular, I have always felt torn by the twin urges to speak out and to avoid potentially dangerous confrontation. If the comments take an absurdly conspiratorial turn, however, I generally silence the bigot with sarcasm like this: “It’s true, I totally control the media and world finance. That’s why I’m so rich.”
I’ve seen a lot of swastikas in my travels, and heard plenty of verbal equivalents. But I’ve also been surprised by the degree to which some Europeans are excited to meet a Jew (a rare specimen in some parts), or demonstrate genuine interest and enthusiasm over Jewish culture — like my German classmates in Italy who made a point of touring local synagogues.
On the subject of Israel, however, I long ago came to an unfortunate conclusion. In European company, I strive like mad to avoid the topic — and if it comes up, I swiftly brush it away. Though exceptions exist, I know from long experience that if I talk about Israel among Europeans with whom I am friendly, it is overwhelmingly likely that the friendship will end along with the conversation. And for a traveler intent on making connections, that is a sad thing indeed. n