OPINION Europe, Wake Up

david harrisBy David Harris*

The deadly attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on Saturday, followed by a violent assault on two kippah-wearing brothers outside Paris on Sunday, have triggered new concerns for the well-being of Europe’s Jews.
The success of several extremist parties in this weekend’s European Parliament elections makes the situation even more worrying.
The piece below, “Europe, Wake Up,” puts these tragic events in the larger context of the past 14 years, during which, together with our European Jewish friends, we have energetically sought to alert Europe’s leaders to a growing threat to Jews — and to core European values. Many, however, were slow to recognize the extent of the emerging challenge.

Europe needs to wake up to the threat posed by anti-Semitism.

Sure, it thinks it’s awake, but, in reality, only partially.

The problem is bigger and deeper than many realize. And the stakes couldn’t be higher, not just for Jews, but for Europe’s core values, beginning with the protection of human dignity.

As a long-time Europhile whose wife and three children are EU citizens, I have some familiarity with this subject.

We were living in Europe in 2000-1, when the anti-Semitic genie reemerged from out of the bottle in several West European nations.

It was obvious, and it was close at hand.

There was the rally in the center of London, where the speaker told the crowd the latest “joke” about the Jews – What do Jews and pizza have in common? They both go into the ovens, but at least the pizza makes no noise.

The crowd roared with delight. And when my wife protested, a well-dressed Englishman looked her straight in the eye and said “F—k the Jews!” No one uttered a word of protest.

There were the incidents at our children’s international school outside Geneva.

In one, an older student, the son of a UN ambassador from a Persian Gulf nation, cornered our youngest child. He said he heard a rumor that we were Jewish and hoped that wasn’t the case, as he didn’t like Jews. Our son was frightened, but admitted that, yes, he was Jewish, before running across the campus in search of his older brother’s protection.

When we protested the incident, school officials didn’t bat an eyelash. They simply were not interested. Perhaps they didn’t want to run the risk of offending their substantial Arab clientele.

And then there was the case of the Israeli student at the school. On International Day, when children were asked to wear something from their native countries, she wrapped herself in an Israeli flag.

A group of hostile students approached, taunted her, and then humiliated her by dripping soda on her head.

She broke from the group and rushed in search of an official. Finding one, she breathlessly began to recount what had just happened. The official responded stone-faced: We don’t get involved in political matters at the school. That’s between you and them.

Meanwhile, with Arafat having turned down the Clinton-Barak proposal for a two-state accord and unleashing a second intifadah, Israel’s need to defend itself became the target of often incendiary reporting in many European media outlets.

I developed an ever-growing folder of one-sided examples, including shocking cartoons and headlines in the mainstream Spanish media that inverted the Holocaust, suggesting that Israelis were the new Nazis and Palestinians the new Jews.

Then came 9/11 and a frantic query from our friends in Greece. Some Greek papers were buying the outlandish notion that the whole thing was a “Zionist plot,” and that thousands of Jews had been alerted in advance to stay away from the World Trade Center on September 11th. Could AJC send a list of Jewish victims of the terrorist attacks to disprove the ghoulish rumors swirling in Athens?

And I vividly recall a tense meeting in November 2001 with Hubert Védrine, the French foreign minister, during the postponed opening of the UN General Assembly session.

We expressed our concern about the growing threat to Jews in France, a threat I witnessed from my Geneva perch just across the border and that I had discussed with French Jewish leaders on many visits.

His response was immediate and categorical: There is no problem of anti-Semitism in France. The problem is one of “hooliganism.”

And indeed, he and his French colleagues would more or less stick to that line, until Nicolas Sarkozy became Minister of the Interior and then President, and began to face things head-on, followed by the current leadership team of President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls.

Occasionally, we’d be told in France in those early years that anti-Semitism was, in reality, “inter-communal violence.” That Jews were always on the receiving end of the attacks didn’t seem to matter to those who peddled this “even-handed” formulation.

Or that the danger was a regrettable but inevitable result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, meaning that the targeting of French Jews could somehow be contextualized – and, yes, held hostage to a conflict a continent away for as long as the peace that Israel sought went unfulfilled.

I could recount literally hundreds more meetings with European officials, not to mention dozens of op-eds, speeches, and conferences, with which AJC was involved in an effort to press the point.

More often than not, we were met with varying degrees of skepticism and doubt. It was as if by pretending otherwise – that age-old temptation of denial – the problem might somehow magically disappear of its own accord.

Along the way, though, some European leaders, to their credit, became more attuned and assertive, but precious time had been lost and the dangers had become more deeply rooted.

Years of failing to call anti-Semitism by its true name had taken their toll.

Years of media irresponsibility in demonizing Israel – from dubbing Gaza the new Warsaw Ghetto to branding Israel the killer of the second Jesus, the Palestinian; from claiming Israel was harvesting the organs of Palestinians to asserting that Israeli prime ministers devoured Palestinian children – had had an effect.

Years of looking the other way, averting eyes, rationalizing hateful behavior, issuing statements that weren’t necessarily followed by appropriate actions, and underestimating the growing threat had had their impact.

When an EU survey last year of European Jews revealed shocking results, including the fact that more than 40 percent of Jews in Belgium, France, and Hungary have considered emigrating, and that more than 20 percent of European Jews avoid Jewish events or sites out of fear, it should have raised alarm bells and stepped-up, and sustained, efforts to grapple with this assault on European values.

When openly anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi political parties gained a foothold in national parliaments and regional councils, and now in the European Parliament itself, more alarm bells should be raised.

And after deadly attacks, inter alia, at a Jewish school in Toulouse killed three children and one adult, at the Jewish Museum in Brussels on Saturday killed four people, and on two kippah-wearing brothers outside Paris the day after, still more alarm bells need to be raised.

It’s high time for Europe to face the stark reality that anti-Semitism is alive and well in its midst, and more action – real action – is needed, and now.

From better intelligence-gathering to enhanced protection, from tough prosecution to improved civic education, from media responsibility to public solidarity, from confronting anti-Semitism at sports events to monitoring social media, there are many pressing fronts to pursue.

The menace comes from a far right that’s been given a new lease on life by populist anger over economic pain and seemingly uncontrolled immigration.

It comes from a far left that relentlessly questions only one nation’s right to exist, Israel, and vilifies the Jewish state at every turn.

And it comes from within Europe’s growing Muslim population, some of whom have embraced the deadly virus of anti-Semitism nurtured in the mosque, the madrassa, or the media.

If there’s good news, it’s that, apart from some question marks about Hungary, no European government today condones anti-Semitism, much less encourages it, and that Jewish communities are determined to stand tall and proud as European citizens – and as Jews.

The future of Jews in Europe depends on getting this right. No less, perhaps, the future of Europe itself may hang in the balance.

* David Harris is the Executive Director, AJC – American Jewish Committee
Edward and Sandra Meyer Office of the Executive Director