How European Jews Are Building a Future and Standing Up to anti-Semitism, Not Running Away

Is it time for the Jews to leave Europe? Since the Paris and Copenhagen terror attacks, many have asked that question. Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer traveled the continent to ask European Jews themselves. He found vibrant and engaged communities largely unafraid to be openly Jewish, and who aren't going anywhere.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A sign is placed among flowers near the cultural center where Finn Nørgaard was shot and killed in Denmark, February 14, 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

'The Cossacks aren't coming' - a series of dispatches from Jewish communities across Europe - was born from a feeling that the true story of Jewish life in Europe is not being told.

It is obscured in both Israeli and international media due to a, perhaps understandable, focus on terror attacks and perception of a rising tide of washing over the continent. The narrative which has emerged in recent years, to an increasing degree since last summer's conflict in Gaza and in the wake of the Paris killings in January, has been one of fearful and endangered Jews on the brink of tragedy - that can only be averted by mass emigration to safer shores.

Much of the reporting on European Jewry in recent months has been tinged with disbelief: Who are these foolhardy Jews that have failed to learn the lesson of the and are once again ignoring the coming storm in this cursed continent?

It fails to take into account that for a million and a half Jews across Europe, this is home. They are part of the social fabric and national identity of the countries where they were born and continue choosing to live their lives. While thousands of communities were wiped out in the Holocaust and many others have since drastically dwindled in numbers, Jews still live openly throughout Europe, both carrying on traditions and creatively innovating new and fascinating Jewish experiences.

Very little of this has been reported, and the complex challenges the Jews do face, are routinely reduced to the simplistic formulations of physical threat from the new Islamization and a resurgence of old anti-Semitism. Most of the coverage has also disregarded how in the wider upheaval occurring now in Europe, the Jews are not victims of change, but also have a key role to play in the continent’s future.

Ten features cannot provide a broad picture of such a wide range of communities, each facing its own particular set of circumstances and carving out a unique place in wider national identities. It is intended to present a series of snapshots, illustrating how the Jews of Europe are not only responding to tragedy and intimidation, but also busy building a future. In addition to my research in five countries, chosen to give a cross-section of regions and Jewish populations of different size and temperament, the insights are informed by my reporting for Haaretz over the last eight years from all the major Jewish communities in Europe and many of the smaller ones as well.

The Jewish cemetary in Krakow. Credit: Moshe Gilad

It is an attempt at a clear-eyed appraisal of the dangers facing Europe’s Jews but also an optimistic view of their future; which is why my journey began down the road from Auschwitz, at the bright and new Jewish Community Center in Krakow.

From the ruins of the worst Jewish destruction in Krakow, just down the road from the notorious Nazi death camp of them all, a Jewish community center hums with activity.

A new generation – many whose families have only recently emerged from the shadows – must grapple with Polish-Jewish identity and their country’s legacy of hatred and horror.

A new generation of Hungarian Jews is eager to rejuvenate their community. The problem: radically different ideas of how best to do so.

Unafraid following February’s deadly synagogue attack, Jews in Copenhagen say they are more determined than ever to emphasize their identity in their home country.

Hungary still has difficulty dealing with its collaboration with the Nazis and the anti-Semitic Jobbick Party isn’t making that any easier. The Jews, however, are still more worried by an illiberal government than to threats aimed at them.

In the wake of the terror attacks in Paris and Toulouse, the Jews of France are reassessing their place in a republic which is undergoing a rude reawakening of its own.

The number of Jews moving from France to Israel is on the rise but not for the reasons you might think – and many French Jews still have no intention of packing their bags.

A mob of Muslim demonstrators violently attacked the Jewish community of Sarcelles after a pro-Gaza protest last summer. But local Jews say they won’t be driven out so easily.

A spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the wake of last summer’s Gaza war rocked the sense of security of British Jews.

Never before so successful and well integrated, the Jews of Britain now seem uncertain of where they belong in their society. Is Israel the reason?

For Jews in Europe, moving to Israel has never been easier. But while most love and embrace the Jewish state, they refuse to abandon the communities they have fought to build and where they feel most at home.