AJC expert: Europe’s Jews are on edge
Most stay put, although anti-Semitism is sowing increasing anxiety
European Jews are wondering whether they have a future, according to the director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
In two appearances in New Jersey, Rabbi Andrew Baker said that Jews in Europe aren’t fleeing en masse as a result of increasing anti-Semitism, but polls show rising levels of anxiety.
“It is not that significant numbers are leaving, but significant numbers are worried,” he said.
Baker spoke Oct. 22 in Millburn and the next day in Princeton on behalf of the local AJC chapters.
In his Princeton talk, Baker pointed to polls showing that some 23 percent of European Jews “are afraid to go to Jewish events or Jewish sites because we are afraid of encountering anti-Semitism. That means they are afraid to go to synagogue.”
A similar number say they won’t wear a star of David or a kipa in the streets.
“Many Jews may not be confronting physical attacks, but they may face verbal harassment. It is certainly something uncomfortable, and when you have war in the Middle East it triggers a surge in incidents, particularly in Western Europe.”
Asked whether hostilities against European Jews increased after Israel’s recent war in Gaza, Baker said, “Heightened conflict between Israel and Palestinians will trigger increased incidents in Europe.” But, he added, “the reality is there are also domestic incidents that trigger anti-Semitism.”
He said AJC and other organizations need to keep pressure on political leaders to crack down on those incidents.
“Many governments didn’t recognize such incidents as anti-Semitic,” he said. “They said they were coming from disadvantaged youth, that it was hooliganism. They downplayed that the preponderance of targets were Jewish. Or they would say, ‘They were reacting to the downturn in the peace process in the Middle East.’
“Maybe that was so. But what makes Jewish schoolkids an appropriate target?” he asked rhetorically.
Baker said that in Western Europe most anti-Semitic outbreaks tend to be carried out by Islamic fundamentalists, while in Eastern Europe, with far smaller Muslim populations, such attacks stem from neo-Nazi right-wing political movements.
He said most of the perpetrators “were probably not born in the nations where they now live” and there is “a real danger that some of the mosques and community centers are not being watched.”
The real danger, he said, is that some of those Muslim centers have also become recruiting centers for those who embrace a more radicalized Islam.
“Many of the religious leaders are not trained locally,” he said. “They are coming from the Middle East. Governments that have had a more standoffish view are now saying, ‘We have to get more involved, and we need to train imams so they understand something about Western democracy and pluralism.’
“But it isn’t a case that they don’t have legal status,” said Baker. “In fact, almost all of them do.”
He suggested that Muslims and Jews form alliances to fight back against such common threats as a proposed law in Denmark that would ban circumcisions and a pending Dutch bill that would outlaw ritual slaughter. The latter was introduced by animal rights activists and had support from right-wingers, said Baker, “who saw it as an anti-Muslim measure…. We share some of the same practices as Muslims, but Jews are in the crossfire.”
In nations of the former Soviet bloc, “there is an anti-Semitism that had been frozen a half-century after the Holocaust and after half a century of communism that has only now begun to thaw out.”
He said many if not most European Jews “want to see their future in their own countries. Governments need to step up and give assistance. Is there a future or isn’t there a future? The verdict is still out.”