Europe Day should serve as a stark reminder: Europe’s Jewish minority is under threat

, by Johannes Börmann

Europe Day should serve as a stark reminder: Europe's Jewish minority is under threat
Six memorial candles are lit during a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. Source: US Navy.

Europe’s diversity is Europe’s strength. Where this diversity is challenged by ultra-nationalist and populist worldviews, minorities are the first ones to suffer. Pro-Europeans have the duty to stand in solidarity with European minorities.

Rooted in the atrocities of the Holocaust and World War II, the European project was meant to be the antithesis of this past. It placed the protection of human rights and the equal value of each and every citizen at its core. European integration has tried to forge a European identity to complement national identities, which has succeeded both practically - through European Union citizenship - and also in the self-perception of Europeans, with 47% identifying as European as much as their specific nationality.

Former European Commission President Romano Prodi called the European Union “a union of minorities”. European integration, he argued, created conditions for minorities to thrive and be treated equally without being suspected of “dual loyalties” for preserving their multiple identities (community, national, European). Empowering minorities and honouring their contribution to society is important not only to strengthen their position within Europe - it also consolidates Europe’s very foundations.

Yet Prodi’s vision of the “union of minorities” is under attack, and the backlash is felt across the continent. Rising antisemitism - and hatred of all sorts - seek to turn back the clock, and confine us to narrow national identities. Europe Day is an important moment to recognise this threat and take action to counter it.

Six months ago, a far-right extremist attempted to storm the synagogue in Halle, Germany. He deliberately chose Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, when the service is particularly packed. The wooden entrance door was what saved the 80 people in the congregation. Enraged, the terrorist turned on passers-by, killing two people. This antisemitic attack should be a wake-up call for pro-Europeans - not only are Jews targeted in our society; this hatred strikes at the heart of the European project.

The attack was the product of a growing movement bound together by antisemitic conspiracies and hatred of every person perceived to be different. In this distorted worldview, Jews are blamed for everything that is supposedly “wrong” in the world, be it feminism, immigration or COVID-19. This movement feeds off hatred against multiple groups and views Jews as the “puppet masters” in the background, illustrated by conspiracies about George Soros or “Zionist-occupied governments”.

The Halle attack is but one part of a rising tide of antisemitism. In 2018, Germany registered 1799 antisemitic hate crimes, with France totalling 541. The biggest ever survey of European Jewish people offers unprecedented insights into experiences of antisemitism: 9 in 10 Jewish Europeans consider that antisemitism has increased in their country in the last five years. Most Jews around Europe, in fact, rate antisemitism as the biggest social or political problem where they live. Over 1 in 4 have experienced antisemitic harassment at least once in the last 5 years, and most shockingly, over one third has at some point considered emigration because, 75 years after the end of the Shoah, they do not feel safe as Jews in the country where they live.

Such attacks also have a secondary effect: they make diversity invisible by suppressing it. An expression of difference can lead to lethal repercussion. Wearing a Star of David necklace or a kippa, the traditional Jewish skullcap - has been enough for Jews to suffer verbal abuse and even violent attacks on the street, at work, in school.

The Halle synagogue attack triggered a wave of compassion and solidarity. A dignified vigil in the courtyard of a diplomatic mission in Brussels highlighted the fundamental impact the attack has on us all, but also how we can show solidarity. Several attendees wore kippas, but when leaving the venue, were asked by security guards to remove them, explaining that it is too dangerous. Jewish symbols, and with them, Jewish identity, are disappearing from public view.

If one in of three Jewish Europeans avoid visiting Jewish events or sites; and if over two thirds avoid wearing items that could identify them as Jewish, Jewish Europeans are excluded from fully enjoying their rights as citizens of their country and as Europeans. Jews feeling safe in displaying their identity is a litmus test for European society.

This cannot stand, but what can pro-Europeans do to protect and empower Jewish communities? As allies, we must defend Jewish communities, as an integral part of our vision of a federal Europe. Three weeks after Halle, the Young European Federalists (JEF) adopted their first-ever resolution on the threat of antisemitism and standing in solidarity with the Jewish community. Most importantly, it stressed that “JEF Europe, founded on the principles of equality and fundamental rights, fully embraces and defends Europe’s diversity and stands firmly at the side of Jewish communities in Europe and globally to fight back.” [1]

There are three key ways in which pro-Europeans can contribute. The first avenue is solidarity, each and every day. At a time of rising antisemitism and discrimination, what more can we do to reach out and build coalitions with Jewish actors, organisations, communities and youth clubs? Acknowledging and learning from Jewish experiences and perspectives is crucial, particularly about the societal threat of antisemitism.

Promoting European federalism goes hand-in-hand with promoting European diversity. Advocating for Jewish concerns and countering antisemitism thus form the second avenue for action each of us can engage in. We can create space for Jewish cultural and religious traditions in the midst of our societies and see Jewish concerns as our concerns. Jewish students are often obliged to take exams on their High Holidays. Who would write exams on Christmas Eve? We can support Jewish voices in calling out antisemitism wherever we encounter it - left or right, among progressives or conservatives, among friends or family, online or offline. Understanding is the basis for effective advocacy. Only 3% of Europeans claim to have good knowledge about Jewish communities. Educating oneself is thus the starting point, also to avoid knowledge gaps being filled by stereotypes.

Thirdly, we must recognise and highlight the Jewish contribution to the European continent, its culture, history and integration. For instance, Simone Veil, the first president of the European Parliament - a feminist champion and a survivor of the Holocaust who brought together so many European identities that she herself became a symbol. In recognition of her immense contribution, the agora in front of the European Parliament was named after her. Every country, even regions has its own Jewish giants, only waiting to be recognised and celebrated.

Europe day is not only an occasion to celebrate our unity, but also our diversity, and the mosaic of minorities that have shaped European history and culture. Let us celebrate their contribution.

[1] JEF European Congress 2019: Resolution: After the Halle synagogue attack - Never again far-right extremism and antisemitism, Solidarity with Jewish communities (8 November 2019)

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