Tuesday, 07 November 2023 16:32

European Jews face a “terrible wave” of antisemitism amid Israel-Hamas war

A French police officer stands guard in front of a synagogue in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris, on October 11, 2023.

In Lyon, France, this weekend, a Jewish woman was stabbed in her home. The authorities said they found a swastika painted on her door. In Berlin last month, assailants threw molotov cocktails at a synagogue and Jewish community center. Someone set fire to the Jewish section of Vienna, Austria’s largest cemetery last week, and a violent mob stormed an airfield and hotel looking for Jewish passengers when a flight arrived from Israel in Dagestan, a Russian republic that borders Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Reports of antisemitic incidents are soaring in countries across Europe, following Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in response to the Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7, which killed roughly 1,400 Israelis. Health authorities in Gaza say the bombing has killed 10,000 Palestinians so far, including more than 4,000 children, sparking outrage so intense that Jewish communities in Europe say they’re facing a level of hatred many of them haven’t seen before.

In the United Kingdom, these reports of antisemitic incidents more than quadrupled in the days immediately following the initial attacks, according to the Community Security Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting the British Jewish population. (The reports, it’s worth noting, often include a broad range of behavior, from physical assaults to tearing down posters of Israeli hostages.) In Germany, an organization that tracks antisemitism reported 70 incidents in the 11 days following the Hamas attacks, triple the number in the same period the year before. In France — home to Europe’s largest Jewish community, where Jews make up less than 1 percent of the population — interior minister Gérald Darmanin said there had been more than 1,000 incidents in the last month. “The number of antisemitic acts has exploded,” Darmanin told a French news network.

Stars of David have been spray painted on Jewish homes in Paris and Berlin — an ominous echo of the violence, forced displacement, and genocide European Jews experienced in these same places less than 100 years ago. “I am crying, because I am once again seeing the hate that we received when I was a child,” a elderly woman whose apartment was graffitied told a French television network.

The animosity Jewish communities are experiencing is so striking that the European Commission, part of the European Union’s executive branch, issued a statement on Sunday: “The spike of antisemitic incidents across Europe has reached extraordinary levels in the last few days, reminiscent of some of the darkest times in history,” it said. “European Jews today are again living in fear.”

Those fears are acutely felt by Jewish leaders across the continent. “Jews in Europe today no longer feel safe on this continent,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chair of the European Jewish Association, told the EU Observer, a news outlet based in Brussels, Belgium. “The wave is terrible,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Jewish French public intellectual, wrote on X. “In my life, I’ve never seen this.”

“I have never been so afraid,” the head of the German Union of Jewish Students told the Wall Street Journal last week.

European Jews aren’t the only minority group being targeted due to the violence in the Middle East. An organization dedicated to tracking Islamophobia found that reports of Islamophobic acts in the UK increased five-fold in the days after the Hamas attacks, according to the Financial Times. European Muslims are worried for their safety. “Muslims are really afraid of being stigmatised and blamed, and lumped together with Hamas supporters,” Lamya Kaddor, a German lawmaker of Syrian descent, told the paper. In the United States, too, both Muslim and Jewish communities are being singled out by acts of hatred.

As in the US, the current onslaught is not happening in a vacuum, but amid a climate of rising antisemitism. For the Jews of Europe, though, the context is unique. Less than a century ago, in 1939, Europe was home to the world’s largest population of Jewish people — 9.5 million, according to the demographer and historian Sergio DellaPergola. After 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, the number of Jews in Europe fell to 3.5 million; in the decades since, the population has dwindled even further, with survivors and their descendants leaving the continent and moving to the United States, Israel, and other non-European countries in search of safety and freedom from discrimination.

Today, the Jewish population in Europe is significantly smaller than the populations of both Israeli and American Jews (each country is home to about 7 million Jews.) European Jews, meanwhile, make up between 780,000 and 1 million of the more than 445 million people living in the European Union, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, an organization dedicated to studying Jewish populations across Europe.

Because of this history, the leaders of many western European countries are vocal in their commitment to fighting antisemitism. Germany, along with roughly two dozen other European countries, have explicit laws outlawing Holocaust denial and hate speech against Jews. In statements condemning the antisemitism in Germany, both President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of their country’s special obligation to fight hatred against Jews, stemming from their government’s role in perpetrating genocide against Jews in the 20th century. “It is unbearable that Jews are living in fear again today — in our country of all places,” Steinmeier said at a rally in Berlin last month. “Every single attack on Jews, on Jewish institutions, is a disgrace for Germany.”

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak promised that the government would “do everything in our power” to fight what police called a “massive increase” in antisemitic incidents. French President Emmanuel Macron said it was the country’s “first duty” to protect its Jewish citizens from violence. In several cities, police have stepped up patrols around synagogues and Jewish schools.

Macron’s government in France went so far as to try banning pro-Palestinian protests, citing the likelihood that they would cause public unrest. The decision has been criticized by human rights advocates who argue that citizens of France and other European countries should have the right to protest Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, and see the effort to suppress the protests as part of a troubling record of ongoing discrimination against Muslims.

The attempts to ban the protests haven’t worked. Across Europe, and much of the world, people have taken to the streets to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Though the protests have largely been peaceful, and objecting to the Israeli military’s bombardment of Gaza isn’t inherently antisemitic, there is a range of opinion, including among Jewish people, over which slogans and actions are legitimate protest and which engage with antisemitism. This includes the use of “from the river to the sea,” a phrase many Jewish people have long understood as a call for the elimination of Jews from the region, but which supporters of the Palestinian liberation argue is meant to connote freedom for the Palestinians living under occupation.

Disagreements aside, there is real reason for concern about the rise of antisemitism in Europe, because previous conflicts between Israel and Palestine have correlated with spikes in antisemitism there. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has written, citing data from Tel Aviv University, “during the 2008-’09 Gaza war, there was a massive spike in anti-Semitic violence, death threats, and vandalism worldwide — with a high percentage concentrated in European countries with sizable Jewish populations like France.”

In 2014 and 2021, conflicts between Israel and Palestine led to vandalism and other antisemitic acts in Germany, the United Kingdom, and other European countries. It wasn’t just Europe: in 2021, Jewish diners at a Los Angeles sushi restaurant were attacked during the unrest in Palestine and Israel.

In France, those incidents are closely connected to the public’s memory of recent terrorist attacks targeting Jewish people. In the French city of Toulouse, in 2012, a gunman killed a rabbi and three children at a Jewish school in an attack he said was meant in part to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children. In 2015, four people were killed at a kosher supermarket in Paris, an antisemitic attack coordinated by Islamic extremists, which also claimed the lives of 12 people at the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French newspaper.

Now, with Israel’s siege of Gaza and subsequent anger with the Israeli government’s actions growing, European Jews are grappling with a sense that strong words from their leaders might not be enough to protect them. Some Jewish schools have canceled classes, and schoolchildren in England have been told they don’t need to wear identifying pieces of their uniforms, like logos, outside of school. Some men are hiding their kippot, or head coverings, under hats, while Jewish families are covering their mezuzahs, the tiny parchment scrolls where they keep Torah scriptures on their doorframes. Others are trying not to speak Hebrew in public, for fear of making themselves a target.

Most pointedly, they fear that the situation in their communities could quickly deteriorate. “For the first time in my life I don’t feel my kids are safe at school,” one Jewish resident of Paris who lived through the attacks in 2012 and 2015 told the Guardian. “What can I say to my kids?”