Members of the World Jewish Congress executive who had flown to Brussels to discuss the wave of anti-Semitism in Europe felt the sting of that hate firsthand in the Belgian capital.
During the 36-hour meeting last week, there were four separate anti-Semitic attacks against members of the 100-member group, according to its secretary general.
"If you analyze the statistical probability [of that happening], it’s a serious lesson," said Avi Beker. "And our people were [primarily] not in the streets but in the hotel."
At the railroad station, he said, two men struck a bearded rabbi from Moscow, swiped his hat and screamed he was a terrorist.
Another four men verbally assaulted a rabbi outside the hotel.
The men, who Beker reportedly said were Arab in appearance, shouted at him, "Death to the Jews."
Beker said two other verbal attacks in the hotel itself were directed at other members of the conference, who had come from 40 countries.
The attacks came amid a growing shift to the right in Western Europe. The most striking example was the stunning second-place finish of far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in France’s presidential election two weeks ago. Le Pen, who faces incumbent President Jacques Chirac in a runoff Sunday, has been convicted several times of racism and anti-Semitism.
Tens of thousands of Le Pen supporters staged a rally through the streets of Paris Wednesday in answer to several days of demonstrations against him. Despite the outpouring of support, polls show Le Pen will receive no more than 20 percent of the runoff vote.
On Saturday, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets throughout France to demand a repudiation of Le Pen at the polls. The next day, another 10,000 protesters marched through Paris to express their displeasure; students marched the following day.
In New York on Sunday, several hundred demonstrators gathered in the rain outside the French tourist office at Madison Avenue and 50th Street to call for a boycott of French products and travel to France. The rally also denounced anti-Semitism; protesters chanted slogans against Le Pen.
"The fact that several hundred Jews came out in the rain shows the anger and frustration that the American Jewish community feels toward the inaction of the French government toward the record number of anti-Semitic attacks," said Ronn Torossian, director of Americans for Israel’s Survival, which organized the rally.
"We’re planning a series of additional actions aimed at affecting the French economy. They must understand that if the Jews of France won’t be safe, so too will the French economy not be safe," he said.
Beker said that what is happening in Western Europe is a "shameful chapter for European democracy." He said that what his group faced during the Brussels conference was "quite an unpleasant experience."
"At a pre-conference meeting," Beker related, "one of the leaders told us that his 89-year-old mother, a Holocaust survivor, told him, ‘Now you understand what kind of experience we had in the ’30s before the Holocaust.’
"This kind of feeling, anxiety and fear is reflected today in the daily life of the Jews of Europe," he observed. "Today Jews are thinking twice when they send their children to synagogue, to Jewish schools and gatherings. People told us they are fearful when they put on a yarmulke, and going to the kosher butcher is an exercise of courage. Remember, someone fired shots into a kosher butcher shop in France. And the very day we were in Brussels, shots were fired at a synagogue in the suburbs. This is something that is unbelievable."
Beker said the continuing wave of anti-Semitic attacks is the worst since World War II.
"I’m not comparing it, I’m only saying that since the Holocaust there has been no such wave of anti-Semitism in Europe," he said. "There was one report in Germany that a police official in Berlin had advised the Jews not to be visible in their appearance when they walk the streets. It was later said that that was not a formal instruction, but this is something that is mind-boggling."
Last week, Beker said, there had been 360 anti-Semitic incidents in France in the prior two weeks alone. Among the worst incidents was the March 31 arson attack against a Marseilles synagogue that gutted the building. And he said in Belgium there had been at least a half-dozen attacks against Jewish institutions, including the burning of a bookstore.
Other targets of anti-Semites in Europe have been Jewish schools and cemeteries. Jewish day school buses have been targeted, as well: one was shot at, wounding a student. Another had rocks thrown at it. And another was firebombed in an overnight attack.
At a northern London synagogue on Saturday night, vandals destroyed religious objects, broke several windows and carved a swastika into a lectern. They also urinated and defecated in the Finsbury Park synagogue, ripped prayer shawls and threw them and kipas on the floor, stomped on an Israeli flag and poured green paint on the ark. It was the second attack on the synagogue in months.
The perpetrators entered the synagogue by removing a metal grille and breaking a window.
Police reportedly believe the attack was not criminally motivated because nothing was stolen. They believe the perpetrators were either neo-Nazis or Muslim radicals.
The Community Security Trust, which is in charge of protecting British Jewry from violence and intimidation, said it suspects neo-Nazis were responsible.
"Tensions in the Middle East lead to tension on the streets of Europe, but this is one of the worst incidents of anti-Semitism we have seen in recent years," the group’s spokesman, Mike Whine, told the Associated Press. "It follows the upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents we have seen since April throughout Europe."
Some members of the Jewish community blame militant Muslims, pointing out that the Finsbury Park mosque is in the area.
But the vandals left a Union Jack flag propped against the lectern, suggesting right-wing British nationalists carried out the attack.
A spokesman for Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was quoted as saying: "This is the first incident in the country that resembles what’s happening on the [European] continent. In terms of destruction, this is one of the most disturbing attacks we have seen. … The targeting of a synagogue of elderly congregants, many of whom are Holocaust survivors, is particularly distressing."
Jewish leaders said that since the beginning of the year, anti-Semitic attacks in Britain have increased seven fold.
Beker said there is evidence that an "unholy alliance" has developed between the extreme right and Muslims in their attacks against Jews, even though the extreme right opposes the presence of Muslims in Western Europe.
"The extreme right and Muslims are getting together and publishing materials together [against Jews]," he said. "That shows that anti-Semitism can bring enemies together. …When it comes to anti-Semitism, they join forces."
Beker noted that the wave of anti-Semitism has been confined to Western Europe and that there is today "fewer anti-Semitic incidents and an anti-Zionist atmosphere in Eastern Europe."
"That is the paradox of our time," he said. "In so-called liberal societies in the West, there is a feeling that there is an open field against the Jews. In the East, there is a feeling of protection by the authorities. When there is an incident there, there is a feeling that the government is providing the right measures, which is a clear distinction" from what is happening in Western Europe.