For the embattled Jews of Europe, it has been the year of the counterpunch.
As far-right, anti-immigrant parties make gains throughout Europe and anti-Semitism spikes in a number of European countries, observers are taking note of a new phenomenon.
“Anti-Semitism is much more visible than it used to be,” said Agnieszka Markiewicz, the American Jewish Committee’s Warsaw-based Central Europe director, “but the group of ‘anti-anti-Semites’ is also becoming larger and more vocal.”
From Gdansk, the large port city on the Baltic Sea in Poland, to Berlin, to gritty Manchester, England, public support for the Jewish community appears to be growing, prompted in part by the latest attacks, both physical and verbal, against Jews, as well as by attacks on Jewish buildings and Israel’s legitimacy.
It’s a phenomenon, observers say, that has flown under the radar and been largely overshadowed by high-visibility attacks on Jewish interests. And it has given hope to European Jewry at a time when political currents on the Continent — from the actions of authoritarian governments to growing anti-Israel sentiment — are leading people to wonder if there is a future for the Jews of Europe.
The recent situation in Gdansk, which played out on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, is illustrative of what is taking place in pockets across Europe.
Just before the start of the Mincha afternoon prayer service last month on Yom Kippur, someone threw a rock through a window of the New Synagogue, which serves as the base of the Jewish community in the city. No one was injured in the attack, but the rock and broken glass fell just a few inches from a group of women and children.
The counterpunch came swiftly and sharply. The mayor of the city, saying he was “appalled,” immediately condemned the attack and called for the perpetrator’s capture. The country’s president made a similar statement, and some 100 people — most of them non-Jewish Poles — gathered at the synagogue the day after the attack to show solidarity with the Jewish community.
In a country that many Jews abroad associate with anti-Semitism — just last week Poland’s prime minister was heard in a secret recording complaining to friends about “greedy” and rich “American Jews, Germans, Englishmen and Swiss” that run hedge funds — the response of the government and the general population is giving hope to Poland’s small Jewish community, said Rabbi Michael Schudrich, Poland’s Long Island-born chief rabbi.
“The police came within two minutes” of the rock throwing, the rabbi said. “It was taken very seriously,” and a suspect was taken into custody two days after the attack.
The pushback in support of the Jewish community “is part of phenomena, which started some years ago … a vivid interest in Jewish culture and history, among non-Jewish Poles,” Markiewicz said via email. “There are Jewish festivals in the big cities, but small towns as well — every major Polish university has a Jewish studies department. The number of books published each year on Jewish-related topics is remarkable. There are local activists in rural Poland, trying to preserve Jewish heritage in their community —sometimes against all odds.
“It has to do with Poland catching up after years of Communism, when topics related to Jewish presence in Poland were banned from the public discourse,” Markiewicz continued. “It is as if Poland is discovering the huge vacuum that is left after the long presence of Jews here.”
That discovery, welcome as it is, hasn’t slowed expressions of hatred. From swastikas scrawled on the childhood home of Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel in Sighet, Romania, to political campaigns in Hungary that feature Jewish financier George Soros as an enemy of the state, to anti-Semitic taunts using the image of Anne Frank at Italian soccer games, the last year has seen a rise in anti-Semitic incidents in many countries, both in Eastern and Western Europe. But there has also been a concurrent rejection of anti-Semitism by many non-Jewish residents and government leaders.
In Berlin, Jewish leaders have recently advised members of the community not to wear visible signs of their Jewish identity, like yarmulkes, in public. The warning followed a series of attacks on kipa-wearers, including one on an Israeli-Arab student who had donned a kipa to prove that it was safe to walk on the streets of the capital as an identified Jew.
The counterpunch throughout Germany resembled the poignant reaction of the citizens of Billings, Mont., in 1993, who put Chanukah menorahs in their windows after an attack on a Jewish home displaying the ritual object. In German cities large and small — from Berlin, Cologne and Potsdam to Erfurt and Magdeburg — Jews and many non-Jews took to the streets donning yarmulkes in so-called “kipa marches.” In a vivid display, they were showing their support for the Jewish community and sending a message to anti-Semites. The rally in Berlin alone drew more than 2,000 people.
Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, calling every attack on a Jewish life “an attack on all of us,” declared, “We must never allow anti-Semitism to become commonplace in Germany again.”
“It is clear that anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise,” said Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, in an email interview. “There is talk of emigration in places like the U.K., France and Sweden, and we have actually seen signs of it. In France, many are moving internally in the country to places they will be more safe.”
But, Kantor stressed, “The European Jewish Congress is grateful for the response by European governments to try and ensure security for our communities and we know that they are committed to fighting anti-Semitism.” Yet, he added, “There needs to be more work proactively to combat anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of racism, xenophobia and intolerance.”
While the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which runs an aliyah campaign, reports that since 2014 it has brought more than 12,000 Jews to Israel from 26 countries (mostly in Europe) where anti-Semitism is rising, in the short term, a widespread Jewish emigration from Europe is not likely. “Most people who are afraid of physical attacks have [already] moved,” said Andrew Srulevitch, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of European affairs.
That includes more than 50,000 French Jews who have moved to Israel since 2000, compared to 25,000 who left between 1982 and 2000.
Srulevitch said that his “sense is that government and other elites” have been more supportive of the fight against anti-Semitism than “the grassroots.” Indeed, in the wake of the 2015 terrorist attack at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris, the French government tightened security around Jewish schools, synagogues and places of business. In some cases, the “grassroots” have responded: In March of this year, after the brazen murder of 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in Paris, thousands of French citizens filled the streets in a silent demonstration to honor her.
The people held responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism vary from country to country. In some countries, Muslim immigrants are blamed. (Some German Jews, feeling threatened by their country’s growing immigrant Muslim population, recently announced their support for the right-wing, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party.) In other countries, the increased anti-Semitism is linked to members of nationalist or neo-Nazi groups.
“The historic circumstances are different,” Kantor said. “In parts of Eastern Europe there are strong neo-Nazi movements, which still see Jews as the apex of their hate. In Western Europe, Jew-haters have learned to be more subtle and use terms like Zionism as a substitute for Jews. In recent years … many feel it is permissible to say anything against Israel and Zionists when it is a mere cover for their hatred of Jews.”
According to a recent study conducted by the Berlin-based EVZ foundation, there is no “significant connection” between the arrival of Muslim immigrants in Europe and the rise in anti-Semitism. The study stated that people from Muslim societies may be likelier than Europeans to hold anti-Semitic views, but that does not necessarily translate into action.
In England, the number of anti-Semitic attacks have increased over the last few years, according to the Community Security Trust (CST), which coordinates security matters in the U.K. While figures for this year are incomplete, the number in 2017 reached a record level of 1,382 incidents, a 3 percent increase over the previous year; it was the highest total since CST began compiling such statistics in 1984.
The rise comes as a growing number of Jews, alarmed by the increasingly strident statements by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn that are critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinian rights, have recently expressed uncertainty about their future in the country.
While the Labour Party recently adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which is seen as an important first step in determining what statements or actions are a threat to Jewish interests, Corbyn, who would lead the next British government should Labour come to power, is widely regarded as hostile to Jewish sensitivities.
And yet, opponents of anti-Semitism are also becoming more outspoken. Last month, more than 2,500 people, including many non-Jews and political leaders, took part in a rally against anti-Semitism in Manchester, home of England’s second-largest Jewish community. Much of the gathering focused on Corbyn, with speakers stating that he “treat[s] Jews with contempt” and “tolerate[s] vicious attitudes towards those who challenge racism.” The rally was punctuated by protestors interrupting a Labour speaker with shouts of “Corbyn out.”
The AJC’s Markiewicz sought to underscore the complexities of anti-Semitism on the Continent and the pushback against it, especially at a time when the far right and authoritarianism seem to be on the march in Europe.
Asked if the support of non-Jewish Poles gives optimism to the country’s small Jewish community, she cautioned, “That’s a hard question. Poland, like many other countries, is becoming more and more socially divided, and attitudes to topics related to Polish-Jewish history start to be part of those divisions.”