Is European anti-Semitism different today or is there a feeling that we’ve been here before?
The term déjà vu brings to mind the English expression, been there, done that. The odd sensation of reliving something for the second time unnerves us precisely because it’s so convincingly familiar.
Over the course of 2 months, I visited Jewish communities in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, Belgium and the UK and interviewed dozens of Jewish leaders as well as “laymen” – both Jews and non-Jews. While attempting to determine the seriousness of contemporary European Anti-Semitism, I experienced what I would term “déjà Jew” – the peculiar sense that we, the members of Jewish people, are reliving an experience from the past; that we have somehow time-traveled and are now re-experiencing occurrences that are all too familiar.
From the mid-1930s to early 1940s, Jews who recognized that they were no longer safe in Europe anxiously sought refuge abroad. Sylvain Zenouda, the co-founder and current vice president of the Bureau National de Vigilance Contre l »Antisèmitism—an organization which monitors and documents anti-Semitism in France—told me that educated young Jews in France with the financial means to do so have either fled the country or are making plans to flee. Again?
80 years ago, our people were being verbally abused and brutally assaulted in public places. And now it seems to be happening all over again. Viviane Teitelbaum, a minister in the Brussels Regional Parliament, related an incident that occurred this past November involving a 13-year old Jewish girl in Brussels. The girl was brutally assaulted at her school, resulting in her hospitalization for multiple injuries including a concussion. The attackers were not members of the Third Reich’s SS, but a group of female Muslim students at the same school. The ringleader pronounced her to be a “filthy Jew!” Apparently, in the weeks prior to the attack, the girl’s father had approached the authorities and the school with complaints that there had been threats made by fellow classmates against his daughter. Upon hearing that his concerns were simply brushed aside, I immediately thought of Yogi Berra’s famous gaff: “This is like déjà vu all over again!”
2 generations ago, some Jews sought to protect themselves by masquerading as Aryans. In an interview conducted in November, a Parisian mother related how the fear of being physically attacked by Muslim extremist thugs means that it is “not rare at all today” for French Jewish students to attempt to pass themselves off as Muslim – with some even going as far as to fast on Ramadan. One case in point was a Jewish girl of North African descent who for years was successful in this deception, until finally she was “exposed” when Muslim girls caught her eating matzah in the bathroom during Pesah. After her classmates beat her viciously, they invited their male Muslim friends to their school to participate in a gang rape.
Wait…didn’t this happen to us already?
In a perverse twist, historically such horrific violence against Jews has often been blamed on the alleged “crimes” of the victims themselves. This was particularly true of the pre and post-Holocaust era. Yet the remarks of the current US Ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman, seems to indicate that not much has changed in that regard. Gutman explains away the irrational hatred of Jews by Muslims in Europe as an outcome of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Yes, Gutman is the child of a survivor; and yes, he too sought to “balance” his statement by acknowledging that terrorist attacks against Israel are, and I quote, “also not helpful.”
But Gutman’s remarks did not stem so much from malice as naïveté. Like the administration he represents, Gutman sadly suffers from another disorder, not déjà vu this time, but its opposite – jamais vu, or the illusion of the familiar being encountered for the first time. It is when that which should be familiar – in this case long standing Muslim hostility towards Jews and a Jewish State – is thought to be a novel development created only after June 1967. Such memory impairment and historical “misfacts”—especially when applied to areas like foreign policy—constitutes an extremely dangerous disorder that can have dire repercussions.
In the precursory period to the Holocaust, no one knew how bad things might get; the eternal hope was that things couldn’t possibly get worse. While enabling some with the strength to endure, such wishful yearnings ultimately proved tragically fatal. Likewise, in Europe today, to borrow Al Jolson’s words, we just “ain’t seen nothing yet.” In another interview with the president of France-Israel Association, Gilles-William Goldnadel asserted that if there will be a new provocation by the Arabs against Israel, with Israel subsequently defending itself, not only will huge demonstrations in Paris and other European capitals be inevitable, they will also likely be accompanied by en masse “organized physical violence.”
Joël Rubinfeld, the well-liked former-president of the Comité de Coordination des Organisations Juives de Belgique, echoes the above sentiment and suspects that in Belgium too “there is definitely a potential of physical violence coming against Jews.” He recalls an anti-Israel demonstration in Antwerp in April 2002 that was organized by the European-Arab League in which the throngs were shouting “Death to the Jews.” Rubinfeld describes how, immediately after the rally, “demonstrators walked in the direction of the Jewish neighborhood and broke diamond shop windows.” 2 months later at another anti-Israel rally, the crowd burned the effigy of a religious Jew.
Yet, just as there existed righteous gentiles during the Nazi era whose courage and moral decency led them to risk their lives in the battle against anti-Semitism, so too do there exist equally brave non-Jewish individuals today. One such person is Guy Millière, a professor at the University of Paris who, when asked on a televised debate to publicly acknowledge the reality of a « Palestinian Holocaust, » responded by saying: « It is surely the strangest holocaust in human history when, during the so-called period of ‘genocide,’ the population of a people so dramatically increases. » As a result of his steadfast defense of Israel, Millière is perpetually the recipient of death threats. As well as being denounced as « a filthy Jew, » a bookstore in Paris that was carrying his latest book discovered that all its copies had been defaced with a swastika emblazoned on the front pages.
It is critical to keep in mind that in the end, déjà-vu is a delusion of the mind and as such the events that we are living through today are not synonymous with what went on before, during, and after the Holocaust. Yet, that being said, some things have not changed: anti-Semitism in the world is as real now as it was in the 30s and 40s; the lust for Jewish blood by our enemies is as ravenous today as it has ever been; even “passive” Europeans are, once again, the silent collaborators. However, today we thankfully have a State of Israel in which Jews from the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Sweden, the UK and elsewhere will always be welcomed. Perhaps then, it’s time to say goodbye to “déjà-Jew.”
The writer is the Senior Rabbi of Congregation Ohev Shalom in Maitland, Fl (www.ohevshalom.org). In addition to being an activist working on behalf of Israel, he also championed the cause of refuseniks in the former USSR. Rubinger was one of 21 rabbis arrested in NYC protesting outside the UN against Iran’s nuclear development on April 18, 2007 and was also one of 15 American rabbis invited to the White House to discuss “US-Israel Relations” with then-chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and ambassador to the Middle East, Dennis Ross.