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War in Iraq Around the World, Jews Fret for Israel, and They Fear an Anti-semitic Backlash

March 21, 2003
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Jewish communities around the world are divided in their feelings about the attack on Iraq, but united in their concern that Israel could be endangered — and that they themselves could suffer an anti- Semitic backlash.

At Rome’s Il Pitigliani Jewish Community Center, staff members stayed up all night Wednesday waiting for the long-anticipated, U.S.-led assault to begin.

“We are all glued to the Internet,” one staffer told JTA.

Besides fears that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein could send missiles against Israel, as he did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, “people are very concerned about the risk that the Jews are going to be identified with the war, and this could lead to a backlash.”

Such sentiments were echoed in Jewish communities across Europe, North and South America and elsewhere as the first bombs began raining down on Baghdad.

“This war is going to have terrible consequences for Jews in France,” Alain Seror told JTA.

Seror had come to buy his regular morning croissant at a kosher bakery in Paris’s popular Belleville district, a neighborhood shared by Jews and Muslims and where Islamic bookstores and Halal butchers intermingle with kosher delis and falafel joints.

Seror and others had little doubt that the war would further increase tensions between the two communities.

Muslim youths are considered largely responsible for several waves of anti-Semitic attacks since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. With many Muslims arguing that the United States is out to attack Islam in general — and with some even saying that the United States is acting at Israel’s instigation — the potential for a new outburst of violence is clear.

“Every Arab in France is going to regard this as a personal attack on Islam,” Seror said. “Yes, we are afraid.”

Across the border, the president of the Consistoire Central Israelite de Belgique, the official representative body of Belgian Jewry, said the community was “living moments of high anxiety.”

“We are scared that Saddam Hussein will use weapons of mass destruction against Israel,” Julien Klener said.

Closer to home, he said, “I hope that the Belgian authorities will take all the necessary steps to ensure that Jews will not be the scapegoats of the Middle East turmoil.”

Yet Philippe Markiewicz, president of the body that coordinates all of Belgium’s Jewish communities, noted sadly that Jews in Belgium “are always a ‘privileged target.’ “

“The Jewish communities in Europe will suffer from the war, by the way it will be portrayed in the media,” added Martha Mucznik, a Portuguese national who serves as executive director of the European Union of Jewish Students.

In Russia, Jews by and large agreed with their government’s anti-war stance. Concern was felt primarily for the huge population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union now living in Israel.

“The first thing people in the synagogue asked me this morning was, ‘What’s going to happen with our relatives in Israel?’ ” said Berel Lazar, one of Russia’s two chief rabbis. “I’m telling people nothing bad will come out of the situation for their families in Israel.”

Not all were comforted, however.

“More than a million of our compatriots live today in Israel. Many of these people are Russian citizens,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress umbrella group, said in a statement released Thursday evening.

The war “makes these people hostages to the global interests of the United States,” Satanovsky continued. “We call on the United States to end this war as soon as possible with as few civilian victims as possible.”

Such concerns reached as far away as South America, where Jews expressed mixed feelings about the U.S. attack.

“We have never lived through a war up close in Brazil. Wars on TV look like Hollywood,” Sao Paulo resident Marcia Sasson said. “But a war that involves the Unites States also involves all of us, and particularly the Jews for our connection to Israel.

“My heart will be torn apart when I see that some soldier surnamed ‘-berg’ or ‘-man’ was killed in this war, and I’ll be completely sympathetic to his family in the U.S., saying kaddish for him,” she added.

Particularly worrying to Brazilian Jews was the potentially radicalizing effect the war could have on the large concentration of Arabs living in the area where Brazil borders Argentina and Paraguay. Extremist Muslim groups are known to have strong bases there.

The Brazilian community has been in close contact with authorities to increase security at Jewish sites.

“In general, our Jewish community lives peacefully with the Arab community here, but it’s always prudent to be alert,” university student Frances Baras said. “I have heard — and I don’t doubt it — that” local Arabs “might react somehow. That’s why I condemn any war.”

Numerous Jewish communities said they had discussed their security concerns with authorities. In Argentina, the justice and security minister, Juan Jose Alvarez, said security had been reinforced along the country’s borders and at Jewish communal buildings.

In Montreal, Jews were in “close contact” with all levels of police and government authorities about security at Jewish institutions, including schools, according to Rabbi Reuben Poupko, chairman of the Montreal Jewish Community Security Coordinating Committee.

In France, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy announced last week that security would be heightened at more than 700 Jewish institutions across the country if war broke out.

In Italy, security at Jewish institutions has been tight for years — community sources said some 74 police in Rome, or about one officer for every 200 Jews, are assigned to protect Jewish interests — and events such as an Israeli film festival were to go ahead as planned.

Security in Serbia already was high because of the state of emergency imposed after the assassination of Prime Minster Zoran Djindjic last week, but it was raised even further around synagogues and other Jewish sites.

Rabbis in England and South Africa acknowledged the strong anti-war sentiment in their countries.

They hoped that the war, once begun, could be concluded quickly and with minimal loss of life.

“Clearly there is moral justification for getting rid of the totally evil regime of Saddam Hussein by means of war,” South Africa’s chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, said. “The United Nations was far too slow. The only alternative — a diplomatic solution — could have taken years and years.”

But, he added, “Everyone is praying that it’s going to be very brief, with a minimum of casualties.”

Elsewhere, Jewish reaction reflected each community’s particular historical experience.

A Holocaust survivor in Budapest said she was horrified at the thought of Israelis cowering in their gas masks under attack by poison gas.

In Argentina, the president of the DAIA umbrella organization noted that while this war on an Arab dictator had begun on Wednesday night, Argentine Jews had been suffering from the war with Islamic terrorism for more than a decade.

“For us, the war started in 1992, with the terrorist attack against the Israeli embassy, followed by the bombing of the AMIA” community center in 1994, Jose Hercman said. The attacks killed 29 and 85 people, respectively.

In Serbia, Jews who lived through the 1999 NATO bombing campaign sympathized with the Iraqi people.

“Since we were attacked, we know that there will be innocent victims and casualties among innocent people,” said Davor Salom, secretary of the Federation of Serbian Jewish Communities.

Serbia’s own transition to democracy had shown that war is not the way to overthrow a dictatorial regime, Salom said.

“You cannot remove people from power this way,” he said. Serbian President “Slobodan Milosevic was removed from power not by the NATO bombings, but by the people. We believe the overthrow of Saddam Hussein could be done in a very peaceful way, such as through education.”

The history of the Czech and Slovak republics gave Jews there a different view, however.

“Any normal person is against war, but not at any price,” said Fero Alexander, executive chairman of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia. “We had a bad experience with appeasement in Czechoslovakia with” British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain before the start of World War II.

Jan Munk, president of the Czech Federation of Jewish Communities, said he was sorry that civilians and soldiers would die in the war, but added, “the regime of Saddam Hussein has to be taken down. I think that Saddam Hussein’s regime is definitely a danger for all Jews around the world, and especially for Israeli Jews.”

Munk also referred to the unsuccessful attempts, at Czechoslovakia’s expense, to appease Hitler in order to avoid war.

“The same attitude led to the Munich Agreement,” he said. “And we all know what happened afterward.”

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