THE HAGUE, Netherlands (JTA) — A laconic man who abhors hysteria, the president of France’s CRIF umbrella of Jewish communities is not naturally inclined to emphasize his community’s fear in public, preferring to underscore French Jewry’s achievements and capacity to prosper despite recent hardships.
But in a filmed interview posted this month on the CRIF website, Roger Cukierman was uncharacteristically candid in describing this summer as “a time of fear, which we shared with our Israeli brethren” who suffered weeks of bombardment from Hamas rockets.
The fear was not merely the significant uptick in violent attacks on Jews in recent months, but a mounting sense that public authorities could no longer be relied on to provide the community with protection. The events, he said, “left the Jewish community with the impression of being isolated within the nation amid attacks by another population.”
Across Europe, Jews have encountered measurable increases in anti-Semitic activity over the past year, prompting both increased immigration to Israel, or aliyah, and a creeping sense of uncertainty over the future of their communities.
Cukierman’s description of a growing Jewish sense of isolation is especially true in France, where Europe’s largest Jewish community lives in an often uneasy coexistence with a large Muslim population. But the situation is hardly unique.
In the Netherlands, where one of the chief rabbis saw his house vandalized for no less than the fifth time in July, several anti-Israel rallies in The Hague featured chants about killing Jews. Similar calls were heard at a rally in Belgium, where the community is still reeling from the slaying in May of four people at Brussels’ Jewish museum — the bloodiest attack on a Jewish institution in Europe since the 2012 murder of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. Just this week, arson was the suspected cause for a fire at a synagogue near Brussels.
Belgium also saw three instances in which Jews were denied professional services, including one case of a doctor who advised a 90-year-old Jewish woman from Antwerp to seek help in Gaza. In both the Netherlands and Sweden, people were beaten for displaying an Israeli flag.
The summer war “emboldened jihadists in a way never seen before, resulting in a coming-out of sorts,” said Manfred Gerstenfeld, a prominent Israeli scholar on anti-Semitism. “Mostly it intimidated Jewish communities, but it also produced some pushback.”
For example, in Greece, two years after its entry into parliament, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party was feeling a strong response from the establishment. With many of its leaders jailed or on trial since September 2013 for crimes linked to the racist violence encouraged by its members, the party must now contend with a new law that criminalizes Holocaust denial and increases penalties for “inciting acts of discrimination, hatred or violence.”
Among the European leaders who spoke out forcefully against anti-Semitism in Europe was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who last week addressed a Berlin rally against the hatred of Jews. Before a crowd of several thousands, Merkel called German Jews a “national treasure.”
Meanwhile, at Europe’s eastern edge, Jews also felt themselves under assault, though for much different reasons. In Ukraine, Jewish immigration to Israel skyrocketed as Jews fled the bloody battle zones where Ukrainian troops clashed with pro-Russian militiamen.
The intensity of the attacks on Jews — some European politicians have referred to it as “the import of the Middle East conflict to Europe” — caught several European governments off guard, exacerbating the Jewish sense of abandonment and prompting some Jews to take the quest for security into their own hands.
In Paris, where police consistently failed to enforce a recent ban on Gaza-related protests, officers stationed outside the Don Isaac Abravanel Synagogue, or the Roquette Synagogue, found themselves vastly outnumbered and besieged by dozens of young men who splintered off a nearby anti-Israel protest rally on July 13. Dozens of young Jews, many from the far-right Jewish Defense League, fended off the mob in a violent street brawl as six police officers waited for backup.
Similar scenes unfolded in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, where riot police acted as a buffer between an Arab mob and approximately 100 Jews who on July 19 had gathered outside a synagogue — many with clubs in hand — “to prevent a pogrom,” as local community leader Serge Najar described it.
In France, particularly in Paris, violent assaults against Jews became an almost daily occurrence in April and May, months before the onset of the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Jewish Agency officials said the violence contributed to a dramatic increase in French aliyah.
More than 4,500 immigrants have left France for Israel this year, making France the No. 1 source of immigrants to Israel for the first time in decades, topping the United States and even the embattled Ukraine by a considerable margin.
The figures do not include the French Jews who left for countries other than Israel. Jewish communities from Montreal to Miami reported a rise in the number of French congregants in what some are calling “a silent exodus.”
“I left because this country is no longer the France I knew,” said Lionel Berros, a former kosher supervisor in his 40s who was born in Paris and moved to Netanya in July. “I used to take the bus to school wearing a kippah, but now have to cover it with a baseball cap and worry that maybe someone is going to kill my daughter at her school. I’m sad because of what happened to France, but am happy to leave it.”
Jewish leaders have hardly acquiesced to the dwindling of their communities. Cukierman has vowed that after 2,000 years of French Jewish history, the “Jewish presence in France will continue.”
Still, the increase in aliyah is significant and evident across the continent. While aliyah from Britain and Holland remained stable, 272 Belgian Jews immigrated to Israel in 2013, the highest figure recorded in nine years. Jewish emigration from Italy also rose, climbing to 209 in the first eight months of 2014 from 162 in 2013.
The identity of the suspected assailant of the Brussels museum attack — an alleged jihadist named Mehdi Nemmouche who reportedly honed his killing skills while fighting in Syria — “demonstrates the profound change in the nature of the threat we are facing,” European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor told JTA. “No longer the odd hate crime but trained killers with the ideology, know-how and weapons to carry out massive attacks.”
Immediately after the museum attack, EJC and the local Jewish community set up a crisis management center, the result of a two-year effort initiated after the Toulouse attack by the EJC’s Security and Crisis Center, the body responsible for providing medical, psychological and security services in times of crisis. In addition to the EJC effort, the governments of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, among others, allocated millions of dollars toward security for Jewish institutions.
“The threat is still being treated on an individual state basis, whereas what’s needed is a coordinated multi-state effort similar to the one launched against drugs or tax evasion,” Kantor said.
Fear was a factor also for many Jews in Ukraine, where a revolution that erupted in November brought with it a number of violent assaults by unidentified assailants who appeared to target Jews. The attacks ceased after the ousting in February of President Viktor Yanukovych, but they were replaced in the country’s east by an arguably worse fear — being caught in the crossfire between government troops and pro-Russian rebels.
Despite some disagreements about the political situation, Jews in Ukraine and Russia responded with a coordinated effort. In Ukraine, it included assistance to thousands of Jews affected by the war. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Agency and local Jewish communities and philanthropists all pitched in to help evacuate thousands of Jews from the battle zones.
In total, some 15 Jews died in the fighting, according to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which along with local Chabad officials helped set up a refugee camp for the internally displaced.
And as in France and Belgium, the crisis in Ukraine also resulted in substantial growth in emigration, with 3,252 newcomers leaving for Israel in 2014 compared to 1,270 in the corresponding period last year.
Taken together, the crises prompted a sense that something fundamental had shifted for Europe’s Jews. Over the summer, Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident who as chief of the Jewish Agency is the top Israeli official responsible for aliyah, suggested that the current period “may be the beginning of the end for European Jewry.”