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Where are Jews safest in Europe?
Historically the West has been a place of sanctuary. Perhaps no longer
Many years ago, I interviewed an elderly Hungarian man who had spent months as a child being sheltered and hidden by Catholic priests, an act of humanity that saved his life. As the country’s Jews were rounded up over the last year of the Second World War to be murdered at Auschwitz, the boy had been moved from safe house to safe house by well-wishers acting at great personal risk.
Eventually living out in the woods in eastern Hungary, he remembered the wondrous day when he saw his first Red Army soldier and knew that the Nazis were gone. Greeting the young Soviet fighter, he smiled and said something to the effect of ‘I am on your side, I am a Jew.’ The man looked at him, sneered, and said: ‘Jew? I am Ukrainian. I hate Jews.’
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He told me the story with a slight smile because, well, you have to laugh, don’t you? After taking part in the 1956 uprising as a teenager, this man, whose family had been in Hungary since leaving Spain in 1492, fled to the safety of England (where he had turned his north London home into a shrine to the fallen Habsburgs).
Since the time of Cromwell, at least, it has been a fairly good rule that, the further west you lived in the European world, the safer you were as a Jew. America was the place to be, but failing that London and Amsterdam were your best bet, followed by France and Germany.
Vienna was the centre of your world, but troubled by anti-Semitic politics, yet this was still far better than tsarist Russia, the prison of peoples for which Jews were marked out for special punishment, with over 1,400 laws targeting them. Here the blood libel was alive and well even into the reign of the last tsar, who believed and promoted it; popular hostility, too, tended to become worse the further east you got, and indeed the pogroms in Russia were widely popular among the population.
Today, after two centuries of westward movement towards the historical centres of liberalism, most of the Jewish diaspora lives in the English-speaking world, although France has the largest community in Europe. The country lost a quarter of its Jewish population in the Holocaust, but after the Algerian War of Independence many more came over from North Africa. Meanwhile the former lands of the Russian and Austrian empires are home to a far diminished Jewish population; Hungary, birthplace of Theodor Herzl, has somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, depending on definitions, and Poland, with its pre-war total of 3 million, barely 5,000. The old Jewish quarters of Kraków and Prague are haunted places that serve to shame European civilisation for its greatest crime.
The Holocaust, and the guilt it inspired not just among Germans but across an entire culture that served to enable it, has come to form the modern West’s origin story. This genocide haunts the European mind, a tale of such intense evil that we have used it to guide our moral compass. In particular it motivates our openness to outsiders, even a hostility to divisions between people. But the effects are strange, unintended, and often horrific.
As a result, in 2023, we have the irony that Jews are often safer in the eastern half of the continent, where this sense of moral shame is weakest, than in the more liberal west, a historical reverse that is largely uncommented on.
Anyone who has walked past a synagogue in Paris, Berlin or Vienna will have grown used to the sight of soldiers with machine guns standing outside; even in London synagogues and Jewish centres as a rule have volunteer security to protect from violence. But that is not the case everywhere in Europe.
In France the situation is the most precarious. Following last month’s riots, the country’s Jewish community was put on high alert for possible attacks. A Holocaust memorial was defaced in Nanterre, the suburb of Paris where the trouble began, with ‘Police scum, from Sainte-Soline to Nanterre, neither forgotten nor forgiven’ spray-painted on it. Kosher shops and restaurants were also set on fire in Paris, alongside various other (non-Jewish) businesses.
The Telegraph quoted Yonathan Arfi, President of the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France, saying that ‘Because Jews are often associated as being an ally of the government, and accused of being given special privileges by the state, our fear is that these post-colonial speeches could designate us as a target as well.’
That has certainly been the case so far. The first modern outrage came with the 1982 assault on the Chez Jo Goldenberg deli in the Marais district of Paris, when Arab gunmen killed six diners.
While that was overtly political, carried out by a Palestinian militant group, France has also become wearily used to everyday violence against Jews, often of an extreme nature. The 2006 murder of Ilan Halimi was notable not just for the inhumanity, but for the way it showed how anti-Semitism was so widespread in the banlieues. Since Halimi’s killing there have been 11 anti-Semitic murders in France including, last year, that of Eyal Haddad, who had his skull crushed in Longperrier, north-east of Paris.
Jews are disproportionately victims of hate crime there, suffering over a third of anti-religious acts despite accounting for just 1 per cent of the population. There have been frequent acts of overtly anti-Semitic public disorder, such as in 2014 when a pro-Palestinian protest in Sarcelles in the northern suburb of Paris turned into a riot in which a synagogue was attacked and crowds chanted ‘Death to the Jews.’
In 2015, days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, four people were shot dead at a kosher supermarket in the 12th arrondissement of Paris. That year, the height of the French Intifada, 8,000 French Jews left for Israel.
Jewish representatives recently suggested that there had been a ‘point of friction’ in multicultural working-class neighbourhoods where Jewish and Muslim communities met, but there has also been a well-documented Jewish flight from many urban areas.
Christophe Guilluy wrote in Twilight of the Elites how ‘In Europe today, as in Muslim countries, Jews form a structurally minority community that depends on the goodwill of the majority … The political scientist Jerome Fourquet and the geographer Sylvain Manternach have analysed the flight of Jews during the past fifteen years from banlieues in Seine-Saint-Denis (including Saint-Denis, La Courneuve, Aubervilliers, Stains, Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, Trappes, Aulnay-sou-Boi, and Le Blanc-Mesnil). Culturally mixed middle schools, particularly to the east of Paris, have witnessed an exodus of Jewish pupils.’
In recent years emigration to Israel has also increased, and ‘according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, 55,000 French Jews have left the country since the year 2000.’
Those who stay often learn martial arts.
France’s political Right has a long history of anti-Semitism, the country producing some of the most extreme writers of the late 19th and early 20th century, and today Right-wing nationalists are still a source of worry. Just last month four men from a neo-Nazi group were convicted of plots to attack mosques and synagogues.
Yet no one would deny that this danger overwhelmingly comes from immigrant communities, in particular from the Arab world – even the accusation of ‘special privileges’ stems from the days of colonial Algeria, when Jews enjoyed citizenship denied to Muslims.
So it is perhaps not surprising that so many of France’s most high-profile critics of immigration are of Jewish origin themselves. Éric Zemmour, the historian and intellectual whose parents were Berber Jews, is the most famous example after standing as a presidential candidate in the 2022 election as a more high-brow alternative to Marine Le Pen. Zemmour is an articulate opponent of mass immigration, even if this Frenchest of Frenchmen carries a burning love of the homeland which perhaps only an immigrant’s child can feel.
There is also Alain Finkielkraut, who similarly expresses a form of intellectually serious conservatism that would almost be unimaginable in Britain, where right-wing thinkers retreat to less controversial but more trivial issues. When Finkielkraut said some years ago that rioters weren’t protesting social injustice but rising up against France, many on the Left claimed that his Jewish background made him anti-Arab.
Yet Britain is hardly the promised land. Earlier this year Home Secretary Suella Braverman promised more money for a task force looking at anti-Semitic hate crimes, of which there are many. There have been attacks on Jewish children in Stamford Hill. Jewish teenagers have been attacked in Oxford Street on Chanukah. On the day of a march to protest the Palestinian situation people were filmed on the Finchley Road openly calling for rape against Jews.
When, a few months back, British Labour MP Diane Abbott wrote a bizarre letter to The Observer explaining that Jews had only suffered from prejudice, not racism, some critics observed that Abbott’s own constituency in Hackney has seen a number of incidents, such as a 14-year-old boy attacked after synagogue, a 12-year-old attacked on the bus, pregnant women being abused or Jews having their doors knocked at 6 am by people shouting about Israel – all part of a trend of rising hate crime.
Home Office figures show that, despite making up about half a per cent of the UK population, Jews are the victims of nearly a quarter of all hate crimes. Britain experiences around 1,500 anti-Semitic incidents a year.
I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression about life in Britain; these incidents are relatively rare, most people get on fine, and by most standards London is a safe city. Yet security at religious buildings is a visual sign of societal failure, and it’s not just synagogues, either; the mosques of ‘heretical’ Muslim groups in Britain have metal detectors to protect from attack by Islamic extremists, and with good reason.
Back in March, Archbishop Justin Welby lamented that it was: ‘Deeply shocking and saddening to hear that even in a welcoming, multicultural city like Brighton, synagogues still have to have security on their sabbath because of antisemitism. We must work towards a situation where Jewish people can worship without fear of abuse or violence.’
I share the archbishop’s sadness, but perhaps the heightened security found across synagogues in Britain is not despite us being welcoming and multicultural but because of it. After all, if you don’t have external borders, you end up with lots of internal ones instead.
In reality, there is a place in Europe where Jewish people can worship without fear of abuse or violence, and pray without security, and it’s the EU country most loathed by liberals – indeed the same country where my elderly interviewee had fled from.
Canadian writer Ari Blaff observed last year the paradox that the continent’s less liberal democracies seem better at protecting minorities than the hyper-liberal western variety:
As I learnt during my recent travels across a dozen European countries, the securitization of Jewish life across the continent is the norm, not the exception. Every Shabbat service I attended, whether it was in Prague or London or Majorca, required submitting passport photos, documentation of my connection to the Jewish community, and sometimes even a rabbinical reference. Today, European Jews can effectively only practice their religion behind a defensive fortress. I call it Stockade Judaism.
A 16-year-old Syrian migrant and three accomplices planned to attack the Jewish community in Hagen, Germany, on Yom Kippur. Sarah Halimi, a 65-year-old Frenchwoman, was thrown from her Paris flat to her death to shouts of “Allahu Akbar.” The courts ruled that the assailant “was not responsible for his actions because his consumption of marijuana had induced a psychotic episode.” British authorities dropped charges against men driving through London screaming “Fuck the Jews,” “Kill the Jews,” and “Rape their daughters.” To be a Jew in Europe these days looks rather grim.
Blaff also cited the bombing of Swedish synagogues, part of a pattern of anti-Semitic attacks in Sweden, to such an extent that the Jewish-Danish star of The Bridge refused to go back to Malmo. In 2020, the Jewish Community of Umea in northern Sweden dissolved itself ‘primarily over threats by neo-Nazis, but also in connection with harassment by radical Muslims’.
In contrast, a 2018 European Union report showed that Hungarian Jews reported the lowest levels of fear about verbal or physical abuse, with less than 30 per cent worrying that a family member would be a victim, compared to more than 60 per cent for those in Germany and 70 per cent for the French. Indeed all available polls show that Jews in central Europe feel much physically safer, and also feel there is less hostility to Israel, than those further west.
Blaff quoted Hungarian Holocaust researcher László Bernát Veszprémy who wrote in Newsweek that, while anti-Semitic incidents were rising in western Europe, in Hungary ‘Different organizations measure different numbers, but they all agree that in 2020 no more than 70 such events happened, of which only one was physical’ – a tiny number compared to Britain, France or Germany. It is hardly surprising that ‘Jews Feel Safer in Europe’s Conservative East Than Its Liberal West’ when, in one year, Hungary’s Jews ‘didn’t report a single physical attack, while Britain’s 250,000 Jews reported 145.’
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary may be the bête noire of Europe’s liberals, both for its opposition to western-style multiculturalism and gender issues, but the country’s Jews are obviously safer than those in the West. You can look at the statistics, or you can just walk past a synagogue in Budapest, where you will see no guards standing outside and no guns on display, a site that appears almost jarring after visiting western Europe.
For historical reasons that hardly need explaining, European and American Jews often feel uncomfortable about nationalist and populist politics; for some, no doubt, Fidesz gives off bad vibes, especially as the Hungarian government’s hostility to Orbán’s former mentor George Soros is frequently portrayed as anti-Semitism.
The relationship between Soros and Orbán, two of the most interesting people in modern European politics, is actually far more complex than these kind of lazy mental shortcuts suggest. As Christopher Caldwell put it, the loudest accusations of anti-Semitism usually come ‘from western Europe – the very place where, since the turn of the century, in the wake of heavy Muslim immigration, anti-Semitism had risen more sharply than any place on the planet’. In reality, ‘Hungary’s 100,000 or so Jews probably had as much to fear from Soros’s plan of open borders as from Orbán’s plan to limit the influence of NGOs.’
Maybe Fidesz’s brand of national conservatism is not what central European Jews would prefer in an ideal world, but this isn’t an ideal world, and the alternative is not especially rosy.
I’m a great believer in people’s willingness to accept almost any misery if it justifies their belief system, and citizens across the West have come to accept huge impediments on their daily life out of a helpless feeling that there is no alternative. It’s all just ‘part and parcel’ of big city life, as London’s mayor once put it, something we just passively accept. But these things are all the result of choices people make.
France’s recent trouble came amid the background of an EU debate about migration, and the Polish prime minister used the opportunity to tweet a video which quite effectively compared the tranquil life of central Europe with the nervous tension of the continent’s western half.
Many would view that tension as a price worth paying to uphold truly liberal principles, but the price we pay is indeed high, and not evenly paid across society. I felt great pride speaking to the elderly Hungarian who had found safety in my country, able to enjoy the sort of freedoms that less happier lands could not offer. But, if I’m honest, I couldn’t say for certain that he or his family were now safer here than in the land of his birth.
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