Anti-Semitism in Europe: Jews Are Outsiders, Not Equals

Testifying at the U.S. House subcommittee hearing I described how, even after 2000 years, Europe has never really accepted the place either of individual Jews or of Judaism as a religion in its midst, leading to a deeply rooted tolerance for acts of violence against the Jewish community.

Last week I testified at the House Foreign Affairs and Human Rights subcommittee, which was holding a hearing on European anti-Semitism. I arrived in Washington with mixed feelings. If I was certainly honoured to bring my contribution to a congressional hearing, I quickly felt the burden of responsibility on my shoulders.

Anti-Semitism is certainly not a minor issue in Europe today. But I was also slightly worried, as I knew I did not want to be the voice that would simply run the various cliches about the unspeakable dangers of living as a Jew in Europe, or even about the uncompromising hate of Jews of some of Europe's Muslims citizens. As a rabbi based in Brussels, at the heart of Europe, having served Jewish communities in both the United Kingdom and Belgium, and currently a professor of Rabbinic Literature in Rome as well as in Belgium, I felt I had the necessary background and experience to bring a more nuanced view on this issue. But would my subtle remarks be heard?

Over the years, my encounters with anti-Semitism have been many and varied. From witnessing first hand, at the age of thirteen, a deadly terrorist attack against my synagogue in Paris, in which four people perished, to subtler and more recent forms of Jewish hatred, often dressed in a cloak of respectability. My dual citizenship and my patriotism for both France and Israel has been questioned and denounced. I have been told to return to my country during one particularly heated lecture during a military session in the French Senate. In a similar vein, a high official in England also kindly reminded me several years ago during, ironically, a meeting on interfaith dialogue, that I should not forget that my place was as a tolerated minority. In both of these instances, I was clearly the outsider and not an equal.

Yet, my experiences of anti-Semitism pale in comparison to the renewed forms of violence against the Jewish community in Europe. How not to think of the sheer horror and panic that was inflicted on a small Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012? There, a radical young French Muslim killed, in cold blood, three children aged 3, 6 and 8 as well as a rabbi, who was both a father and teacher at the school. As a father, how can I not look at my two daughters without a mix of fear and apprehension about what Jewish life in Europe will be for them?

I am of course well aware that many leaders in Europe are committed to fighting this renewal of anti-Semitic violence. Their words, in this respect, have been right; their speeches moving. But anti-Semitism remains on the rise. So why are the political words and the policies put in place not enough? The uncomfortable answer is that there is a level of tolerance to acts of violence against the Jewish community that is deeply rooted in the European mentality and which is, in my view, more worrisome in the long run than even the radical Islamist brand of Jew-hatred. Europe has never really accepted the place of not only Jews as individuals, but also of Judaism as a religion in its midst.

To some, my words might sound excessive. Yet it is with great anxiety that over the last decade we have witnessed how this old European feeling of anti-Semitism has morphed into a new form of expression of the rejection of Jews and Judaism. It has taken the form of proposed legislations that tend to outlaw Jewish practices and rituals. Ritual slaughtering and circumcision have recently taken centre stage in Europe. In Germany, a court attempted to ban circumcision as a barbaric practice, claiming it to be contrary to European understanding of human rights, insinuating that such a Jewish practice is not equal to proper European customs. It is not pleasant to live with the knowledge that behind these various attempts at undermining the legality of Jewish practices lies the widely held view that even after 2,000 years we are still perceived as a foreign tribe newly landed on the Continent, with a very questionable set of practices and rituals.

What Europe needs to do in order to truly fight anti-Semitism, I told the American lawmakers, is to accept and value, rather than just tolerate, its Jewish populations. By that I meant not simply to respect us because we are remnants from the past that once contributed to the make-up of Europe and its culture. Not just protect us because of what Europe did to us sixty years ago. No, valuing Jews and Judaism would mean for Europe to accept to be ethically and philosophically questioned by the teachings of Judaism. To recognize that circumcision, to name but this one example, is not to be treated as a barbaric, insignificant ritual to be eradicated, but rather as an act that, as unsettling as it may appear, can also help Europe question its own understanding of what true universal human rights should be.

Valuing Judaism means exchanging and debating with Judaism. It is about questioning and being questioned. Not about deciding in a court of law what is right and what is wrong. It is in that kind of fruitful exchange that Europe could finally defeat the beast of Jewish hate that still sleeps in its midst. But more daunting than wondering if Congress in Washington D.C. would hear my voice, I am unsure how willing Europe itself is to engage in such a respectful dialogue with the teachings of Judaism.

David Meyer is a rabbi based in Brussels, Belgium, and Professor of Rabbinic Literature and contemporary Jewish thought at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome as well as at the University of Louvain. He is a regular visiting professor to universities in Peru and in China, teaching Judaism and rabbinics.  

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