|Rabbis meet in the shadow of rising anti-Semitism
Conference of European Rabbis is held in Berlin under heavy security • The rabbis discuss ways to curb new anti-Jewish legislation in Europe and show little faith in the politicians who promised to fight the phenomenon.
The rabbis at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate
Photo credit: Eli Atkin
Two weeks ago, a convoy barreled its way through the streets of Berlin, the German capital. Wailing police cars accompanied four white buses on a journey as intricate as any military operation, which was timed to block off the side streets. Israeli security guards also joined in the mission.
No, this was not the entourage of a prime minister or president. Rather, it was a group of 100 rabbis that had gathered from all corners of Europe. Some preferred to look at the heavy security detail as a sign of respect in a city drenched in Jewish blood, but most of them knew the real reason — rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
Just a few hundred meters from memorial slabs commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, Adolf Hitler’s bunker and the boulevards that hosted Nazi military parades, the rabbis who comprise the Conference of European Rabbis gathered to mark 75 years since Kristallnacht. More importantly, however, they gathered to discuss contemporary anti-Semitism. They feel it is knocking on the doors of the Jewish community.
The conference was overshadowed by two recent dramatic decisions which seriously harmed the standing of the Jews: the decision by the European Council to ban circumcision, and Poland’s decision to prohibit kosher slaughter, a move adopted by other countries.
These are threats to two of the most fundamental aspects of Jewish life. While the European Council is indeed a body devoid of constitutional or executive authority, it is still, as one rabbi put it, “a council of intellectuals” that devotes itself to human rights, enabling it to position itself as a moral reference point for European politicians. From the standpoint of the rabbis, the horse is out of the barn, even though the ban on kosher slaughter was lifted.
“There’s something that we refer to as psychological anti-Semitism,” said Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Ukraine and the vice president of the Conference of European Rabbis. “This was also how it started 80 years ago, with laws passed against minor things, and everyone knows how it ended.”
Earlier, Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary-general of the European Council, appeared before the rabbis and told them in no uncertain terms: “The European Council was formed to combat racism and anti-Semitism. I want to make it unequivocally clear that in no way does the European Council wish to outlaw circumcision. There is no European country that bans circumcision. Those who made this decision have no legislative power. Their decision doesn’t bind anyone. The only body that is authorized to take such a decision is the European Court of Human Rights, and they didn’t make a decision on it, nor will they make such a decision.”
While Bleich enjoyed hearing those statements, he was not mollified: “We’ve heard this promise a thousand times, and it is calming, but the fact that it came up for public discussion — it means that a taboo of sorts was broken.”
Burning of a sukkah
Not all rabbis see these bans as directed against Jews. Some claim that they are really aimed at Muslims.
“There is hatred and a tremendous fear of Muslim culture and Muslim empowerment in Europe,” a senior rabbi said. “Parliamentarians want to curtail their customs, but they can’t be perceived as racists who legislate laws and attack only Muslims, so they also latch onto things that Jews also suffer from.”
The controversies surrounding Muslims are a great concern to the rabbis of Europe. Conference president Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt said, “I want to speak openly about what is happening in Europe. The Muslim presence is growing stronger and it has reached unprecedented dimensions. In France today, there are more Muslims who frequent the mosque than Christians who attend church. Every fourth child in Holland is Muslim.”
The Europeans do not like the Muslim rise in their territory. In France, 80 percent feel that Islam is forcing itself on the state, while in Germany 70 percent believe that Islam is a “radical, fanatic religion.”
“Everyone thinks that there is a war between Christians and Muslims, but they are wrong,” one rabbi said. “There is a war between Islam and an intolerant, anti-religious Europe. We, the Jews, are in the middle, and we understand that the war is not aimed at us, but you must take heed of past lessons and stop the terrible trends that threaten the fundamental underpinnings of our existence. There are no initiatives that are devoid completely of anti-Semitism, and you owe it first and foremost to yourselves.”
Despite the legislators’ original aim being to curtail the Muslims, nearly all of Europe’s top rabbis feel that anti-Semitism on the continent is on the rise. They do not present facts and figures, but nearly all of them have harrowing stories to tell.
“People in Israel don’t understand what it is to be Jewish in Europe, what it is to live in the same building as a gentile,” Bleich said. “I built a sukkah by using an outside door and somebody came over and set the door on fire.”
A rabbi in Ukraine wanted to build a synagogue. Pigs’ heads were twice thrown into the building. In Hungary, a memorial was built to honor a senior officer, Admiral Miklos Horthy, who collaborated with the Nazis. Whoever digs into the subject discovers endless stories of demonstrations in favor of fascism and protests with chants denouncing Jews.
The response: Lobby and educate
There is a proper response to anti-Semitism.
“Today nobody stands at the gates of parliament and yells, ‘Anti-Semitism!'” said a senior rabbi at the conference. “Today there is a lobbying firm in London which has access to every parliament member that deals with the issue, and it also knows how to get to everyone. If it’s someone who deals with animal rights, so we explain to him that Jewish kosher slaughter is much more humane than non-kosher slaughter. We also know how to explain to them that circumcision doesn’t harm the human rights of a child, but actually looks out for his health. We are working much smarter.”
Another course of action is to strengthen Jewish identity among secular Jews in Europe.
“The most important thing is education,” Bleich said. “If you are of a young age, it has an impact. The children grow up and identify with their Judaism, unlike in the United States, where everyone goes to a Reform or Conservative synagogue and there is a high percentage of assimilation. In Europe, it’s different.”