Gauging Threat Of European Anti-Semitism


A warning this week from a German government official that it is not safe for Jews to wear a kipa on the streets of Germany applies also to “certain neighborhoods on the streets of France and Sweden,” according to Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s offices in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Rome and Central Europe.

“The reality is that this has been going on for a very long time,” she told The Jewish Week by phone from Paris. “I think it has been ignored for a very long time and that is a reason it is getting worse. …

Anti-Semitism is like a virus, like a cancer. If you leave it unchecked, it will grow and it has grown across liberal societies around the world in different forms and in different shapes. It is certainly not as virulent and strong in the United States, but is growing elsewhere.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the problem this week, telling CNN: “We have always had a certain amount of anti-Semites among us. Unfortunately there is to this day not a single synagogue, not a single day care center for Jewish children, not a single school for Jewish children that does not need to be guarded by German policemen.”

She added: “Unfortunately over the years we have not been able to deal with this satisfactorily. … Germany will not uncouple itself from developments we see all over the world. But in Germany they always have to be seen in a certain context, the context of the past, which means we have to be that much more vigilant than others.”

Merkel’s comments came after the government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, Felix Klein, said that a rise in anti-Semitic attacks on Jews has now compelled him to advise Jews not to wear a kipa “everywhere all the time in Germany.”

The number of hate crimes officially recorded in Germany jumped 10 percent last year over 2017, and the number of physical assaults against Jews increased from 37 to 62 during the same period.

A spokesman for Merkel, Steffen Seibert, said the government recognizes that its job is to “ensure that anybody can move around securely with a skullcap in any place of our country.”

Former Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind said he would put that to the test, announcing plans to fly to Germany this week to “show solidarity with the Jews of Germany by proudly wearing my kipa and distributing some to others.”

Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum of Lawrence, L.I., who as president of the North American Board of Rabbis led a delegation of 17 rabbis and Jewish leaders to Berlin last November, said he wore his kipa while there but believes “further steps must be taken to promote understanding and respect and bring about a cultural sea change” in Germany.

Deidre Berger, director of the AJC’s Berlin office, stressed that the threat of violence against Jews is not all pervasive in Germany.

“It doesn’t affect people every day and at every moment,” she said by phone from Berlin. “There is a flourishing Jewish life in Germany today, but it [attacks against Jews] is a concern that one has to think about. … There is definitely a growing feeling of insecurity in certain situations — wearing openly Jewish symbols when walking on the street, speaking Hebrew, situations at schools and at sporting events, concerts and sometimes just idle talk at dinner events.”

But Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland, said he has found that although “there has always been anti-Semitism in Europe, I’m not persuaded there is more anti-Semitism [today]. My sense is that anti-Semites are freer to say what they feel. … It was not socially acceptable to say it before and now, because of a variety of reasons, people believe it is permitted or you are not as shunned as you used to be.”

“In the 1990s and in the early 2000s, you rarely heard anti-Semitic slogans,” he pointed out in a phone interview with The Jewish Week. “I walked all over Poland with my yarmulke and didn’t hear it. We had the March of the Living and thousands of young Jews and adults were here, and I don’t think there was one incident. … In the last two or three years there has been a greater openness to express what people felt all along. And when you get a few thousand people together and a few shout anti-Semitic things, it is very disturbing.”

Berger said that in “the campaign leading up to last weekend’s European Parliamentary elections, there were right-wing parties using anti-Semitic posters and slogans.” She said that in the German city of Pforzheim in the south-central part of the country, an election van drove through the city plastered with a poster of a well-known Holocaust denier. When it passed a synagogue on a Saturday, someone inside yelled slogans through a megaphone.

“They were saying things like ‘leave Germany and go back to Israel,’” Berger said. “This is surprising. This level of open anti-Semitism is new. There are still laws about it, but there are very stiff obstacles to be able to prove it is anti-Semitism and not free speech. With the rise of right-wing populism, the spread of conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism on the internet and the open anti-Semitic criticism of Israel in Germany and Europe, the barriers have been lowered and people are more open about expressing anti-Semitic beliefs and stereotypes.”

In European Parliamentary elections, the two major groups representing Europe’s mainstream parties — the European People’s Party of which Merkel’s CDU party is a member and the Alliance of Socialists and Democrats — both lost nearly 20 percent of their seats. Although they are still the largest groups, they must now look to build coalitions with the groups that did particularly well — the Greens, the liberals and the nationalists.

Although support for the populist, far-right parties increased from 20 to 25 percent, they “did not enjoy the huge surge expected,” according to Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Is populism abating?” he asked rhetorically during a conference call with reporters. “This election doesn’t give us a clear answer. On the one hand, populists did not do as good as expected but [they are now] larger than ever. … And [self-described populist and leader of the far-right Fidesz party] Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban got over 50 percent [of the vote]. But we are still in a holding pattern and don’t know which way the political forces will go in the days ahead. In France, the populist party came out on top. [French President Emmanuel] Macron did not have as much wind in his sails as the pro-Europeans would like; this election was more of a holding pattern.”

Asked what these elections say about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, Kupchan replied: “I don’t think the elections themselves tell us a whole lot. We knew the far right was doing well and they have increased their electoral share. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, and it is part and parcel of the nativism and nationalism that is surging in our democracies. … Anti-Semitic acts have been rising sharply in many EU countries and some leaders like Orban in subtle ways are deploying anti-Semitism for political gain. The task of centrist politicians is to beat back these appeals.”

Berger observed that although “a fair amount has been done to provide for the security of the Jewish community … there has to be greater public awareness of the depth of the problem and the threat to the core liberal values of German and European democracy.”