international affairs

5 European Jews on the Wave of Anti-Semitic Attacks, and What It Means for Their Future

People gathered outside the Jewish supermarket Hyper Cacher as Benjamin Netanyahu pays his respects to the victims of the recent terrorist attacks on January 12, 2015 in Paris. Photo: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

Anti-Semitism appears to be rearing its head across Europe yet again. The perpetrators of the recent terror attacks in Paris and Copenhagen both targeted Jews, at least in part. Reports of anti-Semitic incidents have risen in the U.K. as well as in France, where the most European Jews live. Hours after the attack in Copenhagen, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election on March 17, announced a package of $46 million to help Jews in Europe emigrate to Israel, and urged them to make the move.

As a whole, the Jewish population in Europe has been in decline for the past seven decades, but last year more Jews left France for Israel than ever before, according to the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental Israeli organization that facilitates the process. As Avi Mayer, spokesperson for the agency, put it, “Every single young Jewish person I spoke to [on a recent trip to France] told me they were planning on leaving France, and an overwhelming majority said they wanted to come to Israel. Which was really pretty shocking to me.”

We caught up with five European Jews to get their thoughts on the recent attacks, whether they’ve considered moving to Israel, and anti-Semitism on the continent.

Mette Bentow, whose daughter’s bat mitzvah at the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen was interrupted on February 15 when a gunman shot and killed Dan Uzan, a Jewish security guard, and injured two police officers.

What went through your mind during the attack on the synagogue?
One minute we’re dancing for my daughter’s bat mitzvah, and five minutes later we were in a basement knowing nothing. We didn’t actually know what had happened. And my husband was then briefed by the security guard, and he shared that information with me. Besides being really afraid … and trying to keep the 15 children safe and calm, and trying to not freak them out, my thoughts were really with Dan’s parents and his sister.

After the attack, you told Algemeiner [a New York–based Jewish newspaper] that “I don’t know if there will be a Danish Jewish life” for your children. What does that mean?
I don’t know if there will be a Danish Jewish life for my kids to live. But I could have said that one week ago. They have already banned ritual Jewish slaughtering in Denmark. I am sure, had this not happened, within the next six months they would have banned circumcision of boys. That might now be a year away but that will surely come. The foundation of living a Jewish life is disappearing. And now, even more than before, we have a security issue 

So if Jewish life is fading in Denmark, what do you think about things like Benjamin Netanyahu calling for European Jews to move to Israel?
First of all, I am extremely grateful. I am grateful that there is an Israel that I can go to. I’ve lived in Israel. I actually hold an Israeli citizenship. I love Israel. My sons all want to do army service in Israel. There’s no doubt in my mind that Israel is a place where I can seek refuge and I can go there anytime I want to. That’s one thing. But I don’t think that Israel should be populated by European Jews who are afraid to live in Europe. It should be populated by proud Jews who want to live in the Jewish homeland. And I don’t think that it’s necessarily the right move to make. I mean, Europe wouldn’t be Europe without its Jews. European history is very much formed and shaped by European Jewry. So I don’t think that’s the solution.

Are you considering, personally, moving to Israel?
There has always been that in the back of our minds. We, on a monthly basis, discuss whether or not to move to Israel. But I have my family here. We, from time to time, talk about moving to Israel. We, for the main time, have decided that our life is in Denmark. I’m opposed to the idea that it should not be possible for me to live in Denmark with democracy, freedom of religion. Why should I not be able to live my Jewish life in Denmark? I’m opposed to that whole idea. When Danish journalists ask me if we’re emigrating, I think it’s absurd. It’s an absurdity that they ask me why I, a fellow Dane, should move away from here. Why? They should do their utmost to protect me.

What would you say to a Danish Jew who was considering moving to Israel because of the attacks?
I would ask them if they’re moving only because of this attack. Because I’m quite sure that Dan would not have wanted us to mass emigrate as a consequence of this. He would want us to stay here as a symbol of the importance of Jews in Denmark … I would question their motives for moving, but I could certain understand if they would want to.

What does the future hold for Jews in Denmark?
The future for Jews in Denmark is totally in the hands of the Danish politicians now. They want us here? They need to protect us. They don’t want us here? Well, then we’ll find somewhere they will protect us. And as far as I see it, that’s only in Israel. Obviously, if you had an apartment for me in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I’d go there too.

Esther Benbassa, French Green Party senator from the Paris suburb of Val-de-Marne and professor of modern Jewish history at the Sorbonne.

What is the situation facing Jews in Europe today?
All of us, we are facing terrorism. Anti-Semitism. In France, we have, now, since January, a genuine problem of terrorism … For the Jews, it’s also very difficult, because these radical religious people are taught on anti-Semitism and so on. Since 2000, the second Intifada, the anti-Semitism began in Muslim and Arab countries but [is now present] among French people, because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because Jewish institutions in France support openly the politics of Netanyahu. [On February 15] Netanyahu asked French people to come to Israel. [Former Israel prime minister Ariel] Sharon did it also, some years ago, at the time of the Intifada. He asked French Jews to come to Israel.

Why did Netanyahu do that?
He’s doing his politics. Elections will be held on the 23rd of March, and he’s showing himself as the hero of the demography of Israel, because he’s asking Jews to come to Israel, and Jews are going to Israel, are leaving France. We have problems, of course, but we are first of all French Jews. And France is our country. The Danish Jews, when Netanyahu asked them to come to Israel, they said no, our country is Denmark. But our French institutions are not like that. [The French] support Israel. Because French Jews are originated from North Africa and they have many problems with … their past in Muslim lands. The Danish, they don’t have this problem. Also in France, the French Jews are living in the suburbs where Muslim people are living. We have 600,000 Jews and 5 million Arabs, Muslims or not. This is mainly the problem. Among these populations coming from Arab countries — Muslim people — they support Palestinian people … It’s a very complicated situation.

Does that mean that, right now, France isn’t safe for Jews?
Oh no … you think that Jews are safer in Israel? Are you sure? They are safer than in France? … I can understand Canada, the United States, but not Israel. You can be attacked by a bomb every day in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem.

You studied in Israel. Do you ever think of moving back permanently?
No, I left Israel because I came to France to continue my studies at the university. I feel, myself, French, I am a professor at the Sorbonne, I am a French senator, I am from French culture, I grew up among French culture in Istanbul, in Turkey. I am very attached to France. I will not leave. Of course, I go to Israel one, two, three times a year. I have a big family there, but I am a French citizen. And I will resist. I will stay in France and I will resist against anti-Semitism. We have to resist, and we have to not leave. Israel has no jobs for 300,000 French people. Israel is not able to find jobs for these people. Old people going to Israel, I can understand that, they can live easier in Israel with their French pension. But for the young people, it’s not a solution. And the religious people, who want to move to Israel so they can do their religious studies and live in harmony with their religious sentiments, they can go to Israel, okay, no problem. But to leave because of anti-Semitism is not to resist. France is our country and we’ll resist.

Martin Krasnik of Copenhagen, host of the Danish news program Deadline.

Were you surprised by the attack in Copenhagen?
Of course not. It was totally expected. Sadly expected. At the funeral, listening to the speeches and reactions from Danish politicians, it’s been like everything was written beforehand. There has been … not even real surprise, just sadness.

Do you think it’s safe to be Jewish in Denmark?
Yes, it’s safe for Jews to live in Denmark. But it’s definitely less safe now than it was five years ago. The real question that Danish politicians and the Danish society have to ask themselves is, is it at all possible to have a Jewish school in Copenhagen? Is it at all possible to have a synagogue with open access? Obviously this is going to happen again. Or at least someone will try to make it happen again. And they will succeed if someone doesn’t stop them from doing it.

[There’s] one really depressing thing, and that’s that violent anti-Semitism among certain parts of the Muslim minority in Europe and now in Denmark has been ignored, has not been talked about by the authorities and politicians and the media. It’s been neglected. I don’t know what the reasons could be, I mean — fear of stigmatizing Muslim minorities and so on, but it’s real and it’s really bad. And I think it’s really, really important to say that Europe has not, in general, become much more anti-Semitic in the last few years as many in the American media, and in Israel, are saying these days, but the anti-Semitism among radicalized, young Muslims is really, really bad. And really, really dangerous. And people have not reacted to this.

In Denmark, since the attack on a French school in 2012 where a gunman killed three kids and their teacher, the Danish Jewish community has repeatedly asked the authorities here to increase security around Jewish institutions. And authorities have repeatedly reacted slowly; they have almost ignored it.

So you don’t think the Danish government is doing enough to protect Jews at home?
I hope they will do it now. The last few years they have done way too little. And this is reflected by the fact that, Saturday night, just as everybody knew that a lunatic Islamic gunman was loose in the streets of Copenhagen, this society permitted a civilian Jewish guard to stand in front of the synagogue and take the bullet. Of course the authorities should have closed the bar mitzvah party, closed the street, and put their own heavily armed guards in front of the synagogue. And this is just a part of a bigger pattern where they have ignored pleas from the Jewish community for help.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after the attack this weekend, called for a “mass migration” to Israel, where he said Jews can be safe. What do you think about that?
I think it’s such a blatantly obvious politicization of a very, very sad situation. Netanyahu is doing everything to present himself as the representative of all Jews in the world. And obviously he’s not even representing all of Israel. So I really don’t like it. I mean, there have been Jews in Denmark for 350 years. My great-great-great-great grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Copenhagen. The Jews of Denmark survived the Second World War, the only Jewish community — almost in total — in Europe. Of course, they should not make the Jewish community pack and leave. I just hope the Danes will wake up and take care of the Jewish community.

You said in a 2013 interview with Tablet magazine that Copenhagen is the safest European capital city to be Jewish. Do you still think this is true?
No. Unfortunately not. And it probably was a bit naïve to say that a few years ago … I mean, most of Copenhagen, you can walk around with a yarmulke if you want, you can even wave an Israeli flag if you want. I’m saying, in most of Copenhagen. But there are certain pockets where you can’t, and you shouldn’t, and that’s just a fact of life. Copenhagen has woken up and we’re part of the global world now. You can’t do that in most of the world, in certain areas, and you can’t do it in Copenhagen. But the other side of it is that there are elements in the Danish society, people who have been born here, people who have been raised here, who want to kill Jews. And we simply have to get a grip on that. We have to accept that. Just like the rest of Europe has to accept that, you know? Wake up, and do what’s necessary to protect the Jewish community. We really have to accept that this is a watershed in the modern history of Jews, of the postwar history of Jews in Europe. It’s a feeling of insecurity that I haven’t seen at all, ever. But it’s here now, and people are afraid.

So you’ve thought about moving to Israel?
Yes, but not because of that. Because I love Israel. But not because I’m afraid to live in Denmark. To leave Denmark, because of this, because of a recent Muslim immigrant, to leave Denmark because of a threat from very small elements in the Muslim community here, after 350 years of survival, after surviving the Nazis and their occupation in Denmark it would be such a historic, catastrophic defeat, and it would be wrong. The right answer is to stay and fight and remind the rest of the society about their responsibility to protect not Jews, but citizens.

James Schuldenfrei of London, an Orthodox Jew who works for a large media company.

In light of the attacks in Paris and in Copenhagen, is Europe a safe place to be Jewish right now?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t see why it’s more or less safe than anywhere else. As far as physical safety and being Jewish is concerned, the most dangerous place is undoubtedly Israel. Because the risk of being blown up there is much greater than being blown up here, frankly, with the continued barrage of rockets from Gaza and suicide bombings from the West Bank and rockets from Lebanon. I think the odd, isolated attack — which, let’s face it, a total of five Jewish lives now have been claimed in Europe — don’t get me wrong, it’s quite frightening, you know? I’m an orthodox Jewish guy, I go to synagogue each week, I shop in kosher shops. So from that perspective … It doesn’t make me think twice about going to synagogue or going to shops. I take the view that American people, after 9/11, a lot of American people were scared to fly. And I think in Europe we have a different view of that sort of thing and we just carry on.

In that context, what do you think when you hear Benjamin Netanyahu calling for a “mass migration” of Jews to Israel?
It doesn’t surprise me. I and a lot of our contemporaries have been brought up as Zionists first and foremost. You have to understand Zionist ideology. It’s not as simple as getting out. Netanyahu, he’s sort of seizing on, most people have this deep-seated desire anyway to move to Israel. My friends and I were all brought up with moving to Israel, for good reasons and not for bad, as an ideal.

Recent events haven’t made you consider it one way or the other?
Yeah, I’m not going to lie, I’ve thought about it, in light of recent events. I and many of my friends would tell you that it might bring forth the inevitable. Lots of my friends have already moved to Israel because that’s where they want to be.

Are you planning to move to Israel?
Yes, absolutely! But let’s face it: Making a living there is not easy. But you know, if the conditions are right and the stars are lined up correctly in the material sense, then definitely. I sure hope to retire there, at least.

What keeps you in the U.K. for now?
Well, I’ve grown up here, I feel British as well. I hold a British passport, I don’t hold an Israeli passport. I like living in London. I don’t know, what keeps you in the United States? England is also my home.

Have you noticed a change of attitudes among the Jewish community in the U.K. in recent years?
I think people are security-conscious and everything, and there have been a couple of stories in the papers about people upping sticks and moving because of the recent attacks, because I think it’s newsworthy. I think for the vast majority of people, nobody’s going anywhere fast … Nobody I know is considering moving because of the attacks. They might be moving anyway and be happier to be going, but nobody’s moving because of the attacks.

What do you think the future holds for Jews who remain in Europe?
We hope this is just a blip. We hope that some governments will start seeing sense and start giving this problem the attention this deserves. I think Jewish people have a long history of having [inchoate] lives wherever we are in the world. And don’t get me wrong, in the United States, there’s a lot of anti-Semitism around, I don’t know where you’re based, I don’t know if you ever go down South … because a lot of these Bible Belt Christians are very hostile to Jewish people. In a different way, I mean, I think they’re probably hostile to the British as well.

Simone Rodan Benzaquen, Paris director for the American Jewish Committee.

Is Europe a safe place to be Jewish right now?
If I had an easy answer for this one! It is a difficult place for Jews in Europe, that’s for certain. What is also for certain is that most Jews ask themselves the question of whether Europe is a safe place for them and whether they have a future in Europe. The physical threat is there, the psychological threat, certainly. And to some extent, I know this is the case in France, the threat to our identity. Meaning that many Jews feel that in the future they might have to choose between their Jewish and their European identity … France, for example, was a place where, as in the U.S., your individual identity — say, your Jewish identity — and your national identity could coexist with any problem. People felt Jewish, felt French, felt French-Jewish. And with the mounting threat they feel that Jews are now facing, they fear that maybe not now, but two, five, ten years from now, because of the threat they are facing they will have to make a choice.

Do you know anyone in France who is currently planning to move to Israel?
I know people who have left, I know people who are planning to leave. Probably most of the Jews I know in France definitely ask themselves the question.

Have you ever thought about it?
Of course! I’m a mother of two children. I probably wouldn’t be responsible if I didn’t think about it.

What about leaving behind your family in France, the risks and uncertainties about going to Israel?
From a personal point of view, I’m not sure I would be going anywhere. It’s just that I’m asking myself the question. Emigrating is always a very, very difficult step. And it’s heartbreaking. Jews in France are extremely attached to the country, the values. Jews have lived in France for hundreds, thousands of years. They don’t want to leave France. It’s just that at some point the situation for some gets so grave that they’re taking the steps. From my personal perspective I prefer to stay and to fight and to make sure the situation improves, so a future for Jews can continue. First of all, because leaving would mean that we were losing the battle. And as terrible as it is, it’s about the future of the minorities in Europe, it’s about our values, it’s about the values Europe stands for, it’s about democracy. What kind of signal does it send out to any Western democracy if a country like France can’t protect its minority anymore?

5 European Jews on the Anti-Semitic Attacks