PRAGUE (JTA) — Confronting a rising storm of anti-Semitism as the conflict in Gaza intensifies, European Jews are grappling with the best way to express their support for Israel’s fight against Hamas.
Recent assaults on Jews in European capitals range from the beating of a Jewish teenager in a Paris suburb by assailants who vowed she would “pay for Israel’s acts” to the compilation on an Islamist Web site of a hit list of prominent British Jews. Jewish monuments in France and Sweden have been firebombed. And in Italy, a workers’ political party called for a boycott of Jewish stores.
While Jews have taken to the streets in the hundreds or thousands to demonstrate for peace and Israel’s right to defend itself, they are dwarfed by the tens and hundreds of thousands participating in protests against Israel. In many cases, top European political figures have supported the protests. Sometimes the rallies have turned violent.
The 27-country European Union has approximately 1.8 million Jews and 17 million Muslims, and that difference is keenly visible in the size of events relating to the war in Gaza and southern Israel.
After some 1,000 Jews turned out last week for a rally in Brussels in support of Israel — held opposite the Embassy of Iran, which funds Hamas — tens of thousands showed up Sunday for a march against what they called Israel’s “massacre in Gaza.” The pro-Palestinian rally was organized by three of the four main political parities in the French-speaking part of Belgium, along with some 100 or so nongovernmental organizations.
Chanting “Death to Jews!” in Arabic, the crowd burned Israeli flags and carried signs calling Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni “Hitler’s wife.”
“In a way, Jews feel alone,” said Joel Rubinfeld, the president of the umbrella group of French-speaking Jews in Belgium, known by the acronym CCOJB. “But lots of non-Jews are disgusted, too” with the anti-Semitic messages, he added.
Massive anti-Israel demonstrations last weekend in France, Brussels and Madrid have included anti-Semitic chants such as “Jews to the gas” and swastikas paired with the Star of David.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry, the European Jewish Congress, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Anti-Defamation League have implored European officials to acknowledge and combat the importing of the Middle East conflict to Europe and the scapegoating of Jews.
Countries with large Muslims populations, including France, Belgium and Britain, have seen the largest number of anti-Semitic incidents.
Britain’s Community Security Trust, which monitors Jewish security issues, recorded a huge surge in anti-Semitic attacks — 80 in total — since Israel began bombing Hamas targets in Gaza on Dec. 27.
Undeterred, British Jews staged the largest European demonstration in support of Israel’s right to security in this conflict. Sunday’s demonstration, which also expressed sympathy for Palestinian civilians, drew 17,000 people to London’s Trafalgar Square.
“I decided to do something after watching too much television and seeing the huge coverage of the anti-Israel demonstrations,” said one Jewish Londoner, Matt Freelander, who participated in a pro-Israel rally last week.
In France, Nicole Yardeni, the president of the CRIF Jewish umbrella group in Toulouse, decided not to hold a pro-Israel rally in the region after a car filled with Molotov cocktails rammed into the front gate of a synagogue Jan. 5.
“It’s not that we are afraid,” she said of the community of approximately 20,000. But faced with consistent pro-Palestinian rallies that outnumber Toulouse Jews, Yardeni said the community “could not hold its own on the street” and thus could not have a “successful” protest.
In recent days, the CRIF held pro-Israel rallies in Paris, Marseilles and near Lyon.
The Marseilles rally was unusual in that every major local politician joined the crowd of about 4,000. The Paris rally did not have the same political backing. Many attendees said they left family and friends behind because they were afraid of publicly supporting Israel after seeing the violence and virulent anti-Zionism in a pro-Palestinian protest a day earlier.
"Once again, when in trouble, we’ve found ourselves alone," Patrick Gaubert, the president of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, wrote in a letter published Jan. 8 in a French Jewish weekly.
In Italy, whose prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has been honored by Jewish groups for being pro-Israel, pro-Israel rallies drew government officials.
In Germany, anti-Israel marches were relatively calm, but some marchers carried signs reading “Out with Jews” or "Israelis are child murderers.”
German Jews have turned out for pro-Israel rallies, too, albeit in small numbers. A rally in Frankfurt drew 2,000, while one in Berlin had 1,500 participants.
“When people see our small group,” said Sharon Adler, who co-organized the Berlin rally on Sunday, "perhaps they will understand that Israel is also a much smaller country than all the Arab countries around it, and that Jews in Germany are also a small minority."
In Stockholm, where the Jewish community numbers 5,000, a peace event in support of Israel held Saturday night at a church drew 800 people — about half of whom were not Jewish, according to Lena Posner, the president of the Swedish Jewish community.
“There were about 100 people outside the church shouting insults against Israel,” Posner said. “The police had to close off the whole area around the church and we were escorted back to our cars in groups of 15.”
Earlier in the day, 8,000 protesters chanting anti-Israel slogans gathered for a mostly Muslim demonstration in Stockholm that included the head of the Swedish Socialist Party and the country’s former foreign minister. A Liberal Party legislator attended the pro-Israel event.
Elsewhere in the country, a burial chapel in the Jewish cemetery in central Malmo was firebombed for the third time since Israel began its operation in Gaza.
In Spain, violent incidents have been minimal, although an anti-Israel rally there on Saturday was Europe’s biggest such rally thus far, with crowd estimates ranging from 50,000 to 250,000.
Representatives of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his ruling Socialist Party were among those who participated. Some participants called for jihad, or holy war, praised Hezbollah and cursed Israel. The Israeli Embassy in Madrid took the rare step of openly chastising the prime minister for fueling anti-Israel anger.
“There was hate speech definitely, and a few marched to the Israeli Embassy and threw stones and the police had to intervene,” said Derek Wise, the general manager of Madrid’s Jewish community. “Our prime minister incited what was going on.”
Wise said Spanish Friends of Israel was planning a public pro-Israel event for Jan. 18.
“I understand there might be people afraid to come," he said, "but we want to show it is not only Jews, it’s normal Spaniards who also understand that a democratic state like Israel has a right to defend itself.”
(JTA correspondents Devorah Lauter contributed to this story from Paris, Toby Axelrod from Berlin and Daphna Vardi from London.)