Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A question mark hangs over Jewish life in Europe

It is a question that few would like to ponder, but that many are asking: do large Jewish communities have a future in  Europe? It is a provocative question, equally sad and pessimistic, but increasingly prominent as news of blatant acts of anti-Semitic vandalism and violence are reported in the media.  In addition to high-profile incidents such as the terrible murders in France and Belgium, there have been many other less less deadly, but no less disturbing examples that have raised alarm. 

As I have written before, the Jews of Europe face threats from the European far-right and neo-Nazi groups, as well as Islamic fundamentalists. These are groups which represent a threat to European civil society as well. While they may have different ideology what they share is a common hatred for those they consider inferior and a total disregard for the value of human life. What is particularly disturbing in the case of ultra right-wing groups is that they have appear to have tapped into a certain strain of hate and frustration among a segment of voters, leading to success in elections.

This is problematic at a policy of level, as these newly elected officials may be able to negatively influence legislation when it comes to respect for human rights and the protection of minorities. Their election also sends a dangerous message to these on the fringes of society that their hateful beliefs represent legitimate political and social opinions. Furthermore, I believe the increasing popularity and success of groups such as Golden Dawn in Greece have the potential to normalize the sort of prejudice and hatred that leads to violence against Jews and other minorities.

It is important that leaders such as AJC Executive Director David Harris and ADL National Director Abraham Foxman have spoken out forcefully about the threat this legitimization poses. But it is not enough - I would argue it is also incumbent upon anyone who cares about not only ethnic and religious minorities in Europe, but about civil society, to pay attention to what is happening in Germany, France, Greece and other European nations.

The importance of this issue has also not been lost on Israeli leaders. As the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported yesterday, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky has also been musing aloud about the future of European Jewry. I think his comments in the JTA piece reflect a broader concern among Jewish leaders around the world that it's not just cultural survival, but physical safety that has become a concern.

I would like to think that those who speculate about the potential demise of major centers of European Jewry are being alarmist, but there is real cause for concern. I don't think Europe's Jewish communities will disappear any time soon - but it will take more than statements by Jewish leaders to stem the tide of hate that is rising across the continent. The question of whether Jewish communities in Europe have a future has been raised, and voices of moral weight and authority have weighed in - now it is up to the people of Europe, leaders and citizens alike, to respond.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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