NEWARK, N.J. (JTA) – European Jewish institutions increasingly find themselves potential terror targets.
But attempts to ramp up security at synagogues, day schools, museums and community centers from Paris to Copenhagen have been stymied both by a lingering distrust of the police among some communities and by law enforcement’s reluctance to single out any ethnic minority for special treatment .
Those challenges, among others, brought top European security officials to Rutgers University’s Newark Campus on Oct. 31, where they met with their American counterparts and learned about a new initiative — backed jointly by Rutgers and Jewish Federations of North America — to help European Jewish communities work with police to prevent attacks.
About 40 people attended — representatives of Jewish umbrella groups in the United States and Europe as well as police officials from both continents. Sessions addressed the current threat in Europe and how to share “best practices” from U.S. law enforcement with European police.
“The problem of extremist violence directed at communities of faith transcends traditional boundaries; too often, however, the solutions to the problem have remained parochial,” John Farmer, a law professor who cofounded Rutgers University’s Institute for Emergency Preparedness and Homeland Security, told conference participants.
The Faith-Based Communities Security Program has a $1 million funding commitment from Paul Miller, a New Jersey philanthropist and a former executive vice president of Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant. In the coming months, the program plans to bring top U.S. government and Jewish communal officials to Europe to consult with their counterparts there. The initial meetings will be exploratory; the goal of the conference was to outline what advice U.S. officials could offer and how it should be presented.
The initiative comes after an intensification of violence targeting Jews in Europe, including attacks on synagogues in France during Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip; street attacks on Jews in Germany, the Netherlands and Britain; and fatal attacks at Jewish institutions in Brussels this year and Toulouse, France the year before.
Paul Goldenberg, who heads Secure Communities Network, an arm of the JFNA and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said European nations neglect their Jewish communities at their own peril. “I keep calling it a canary in a mine,” he said. “We are not different, we are the same as you. If we disappear, democracy dies.”
Yet European countries face some unique challenges in protecting Jewish institutions.
At the gathering, an official of the Jewish Community Protective Service in France said that French law enforcement resists engaging with groups representing minorities in part because of traditions dating to post-French Revolutionary turmoil, when civilian militias were seen as a threat, and also because of a post-Nazi occupation distaste for cultivating civilian informants.
Meanwhile, in former Eastern bloc countries, programs that have proved successful in the United States — for example, the Department of Homeland Security’s “See something, say something” campaign, which encourages reporting of suspicious packages and behavior — would not be easy to replicate, participants said.
Policing in the communist era “was an intelligence function of the state,” said an official familiar with European policing practices, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his interactions with European police forces. “That doesn’t change overnight – in some countries, some of the officials of the old regimes are still in policing. It will take a generation to change.”
Also inhibiting law enforcement in several countries is the perception that Jews are capable of protecting themselves. Police in Denmark tend to view that country’s Jewish community “first and foremost as Jewish people who live in Denmark,” said Jonathan Fischer, the community’s vice chairman. “That makes it easy for them to push away the reality and say that this has something to do with the Jews, although the perspective should be that this has something to do with a Danish minority.”
Rabbi Andrew Baker, the international affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, said it can be difficult to get authorities to share information with police departments in neighboring countries. He noted that Danish authorities had records on about a hundred individuals who had joined extremist Islamists in their wars and then returned, but have been reluctant to share that information with other nations’ agencies.
That does not make sense given the EU’s open borders, he said. “We’ve seen how you can get in a car and drive from Brussels to Paris,” he said, referring to the suspected assailant in a deadly attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels this year who was later caught in France. “You can also drive from Copenhagen to Paris.”
Another challenge: addressing threats that come from within the Muslim community while avoiding discriminating against Muslims.
In the process of enhancing security, it’s important not to impose American solutions, said Gabi Jiraskova, the security manager for the European Jewish Congress. “Our role is to make the community understand it is necessary to be prepared, while respecting the different hierarchies in each community,” she said.
That applies to police forces, said John Cohen, a Rutgers professor who is helping to head the faith communities initiative and who until earlier this year headed intelligence analysis at the Department of Homeland Security.
“The police in Paris and Copenhagen do not need American professionals coming in and telling them how they police,” he said. “What is invaluable is when you bring police officials from around the world together and talk about different problems and present different strategies.”
Among the strategies Cohen and others outlined was establishing trusting relations with Muslim communities in order to identify potential attackers, having police forge relationships with community members, educating young people to reject violent ideologies and establishing liaisons between targeted communities and law enforcement.
One strategy is to prepare communities for crises they might have to face together, said Michael Masters, the director for emergency management in Cook County, Ill., who will join the Rutgers initiative on its European tour. He called it the “tornado and blizzard” approach.
“We make sure houses of worship and kids are safe” ahead of natural threats, he said. That builds up trust and preparedness for possible attacks targeting a minority, Masters said. “If you’re better prepared for all hazards, you’re better prepared for a specific event.”