An overture of support from European leaders for Jews across the continent rang out in the wake of the deadly attack on a Paris kosher market last week, but it's unlikely the emotional speeches and slogans will soften decades of anti-Semitism in Europe and mend longstanding divisions in European societies, Jewish scholars said Friday. That means that just because Europeans are now embracing “Je Suis Juif,” or “I Am Jewish,” on social media, Europe's prejudices against Jews won't disappear anytime soon, the experts say.
“If the events of World War II and the Holocaust didn’t make Europeans more sensitive to the realities of anti-Semitism, the attack on the kosher market probably isn’t going to do much to change things in a significant way,” said Barry Trachtenberg, director of the Judaic studies program at the University at Albany, SUNY, in New York.
French President François Hollande called the kosher market shootings an “appalling anti-Semitic act” and promised protection for French Jews, amid mounting anti-Semitic violence across Europe in recent years. Demonstrators in Paris on Sunday expressed solidarity with Jewish communities, seen as being caught in the crosshairs of Islamist extremists, with signs that read “Je Suis Juif” carried alongside signs reading “Je Suis Charlie,” a reference to last week’s deadly shooting at the headquarters of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
The perception that the Paris attacks will have little effect on making life easier for Jews in Europe was underscored by All Alabama writer Jonathan Miller this week. “Je suis Juif, Je suis Charlie, what wonderful sentiments!” Miller wrote Thursday. “We are all Jews, we are all Parisians, at least for this moment.”
The roots of anti-Semitism in Europe run deep, including in France. Governments remained relatively silent – and even complicit – in Jewish racial prejudice during much of the 20th century, according to Jewish scholar Deborah Lipstadt.
“Anti-Semitism has been a part of the European fabric for hundreds of years,” said Paul Goldenberg, national director of the homeland security initiative for the Jewish Federations of North America. “Many people thought post-Holocaust, we didn’t think anti-Semitism would raise its head again like it had. This is unprecedented.”
Gunmen entered the Hyper Cacher market in the eastern Paris suburb of Porte de Vincennes and opened fire on customers there on Jan. 9. The market was crowded with people buying groceries for the Sabbath.
At about 500,000 people, France’s Jewish community is the largest in Europe and the third-largest worldwide. Following the kosher market attack, some 5,000 French police and soldiers were deployed to protect hundreds of Jewish institutions in and around Paris. Synagogue services across the county closed for the first time since the Holocaust.
The fallout from that attack wasn’t limited to France. In Belgium and the Netherlands, Jewish centers and institutions were shuttered Friday over fears of similar attacks being carried out against Jewish communities there. “For armies to be surrounding Jewish schools and … houses of worship, it’s unbelievable,” Goldenberg said.
Anti-Semitism in France is far from a 20th century problem. Today, half of all racist attacks in France are targeted at Jews, even though Jews make up less than 1 percent of the country’s population. The number of anti-Semitic attacks in the country has increased seven-fold since the 1990s, according to the France-based Service de Protection de la Communauté Juive. It’s not uncommon to see a police guard outside Jewish synagogues across Europe. In the U.K., children being dropped off at Jewish schools are familiar with heightened security measures at their campuses – steel doors, security guards, high fences. Many synagogues are like “fortresses,” said Jonathan Sacerdoti, a spokesperson for U.K.-based Campaign Against Anti-Semitism.
Much of the anti-Semitism plaguing Europe today is born from the conflicts in the Middle East. The steep rise in violence against European Jews is intrinsically tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, experts have said. A spate of attacks on Jewish communities in 2000 was closely linked to the Second Intifada, a violent conflict between Israel and Palestine whose death toll reached into the thousands. Subsequent rises in violence against European Jews occurred in 2009, 2012 and 2014, all of which coincided with wars in the Middle East.
The majority of European Jews – 75 percent – think the situation has gotten worse in recent years, according to a 2012 report for the London-based European Jewish Association that looked at modern anti-Semitism in eight European countries, including France. One in five respondents to the survey said they had experienced at least one incident of anti-Semitic verbal or physical harassment within the previous year. Over one-quarter of respondents said they had considered emigrating because of concerns about safety. In July 2014, marches in France, Germany and Italy saw demonstrators screaming “kill the Jews” during apparent anti-Israel protests.
Similarly, last year saw the highest number of reported attacks on Jews in Britain since recordkeeping began, according to Sacerdoti. “There is a growing awareness that Jews are a target in the same way that Charlie Hebdo editors were a target,” Sacerdoti said. Whether that awareness could translate into a safer future for European Jews is “something we’ll see in the coming months and years, not immediately,” he said.
Jews in France often do not feel that the government has done enough to protect them against rising anti-Semitic attacks. The unease has led to thousands of Jews in recent years leaving France. In 2014, some 7,000 French Jews moved to Israel, more than double from the previous year. Some have blamed French media for the antagonism against French Jews by painting Israel in an unfavorable light.
“I don’t see this having a huge change” on the status quo, said Jess Olson, associate professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University in New York City, of the recent attacks against Jews in Europe. “I don’t see how people who have sympathy [toward Jewish communities] are going to have more or less” of it, he said.
If anything, the recent violence in Paris is certain to reinvigorate conversations about violence against European Jewish communities, experts said. They also hope that conservation will be part of a much larger one about race and difference in French society, including growing anti-Muslim sentiments there. “How many of these incidents do you need before that awakening is complete?” Sacerdoti asked.