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18 February 2015

Leader: Europe and the new anti-Semitism

In recent months, there has been a series of fatal attacks by Islamist militants on Jewish people and institutions, as well as innumerable other instances of violence.

By New Statesman

The number of Jewish people living in Denmark is small – there are perhaps as few as 10,000. There were fewer still in the country at the start of the Second World War. Denmark was invaded and occupied by the Nazis, yet the majority of Jews there survived the horror of Hitler’s genocidal mania because of the Danish resistance movement, which supervised their evacuation to “neutral” Sweden.

Yet today in Denmark, and across Europe, Jewish people are once again living in fear. In recent months, there has been a series of fatal attacks by Islamist militants on Jewish people and institutions, as well as innumerable other instances of violence, intimidation and aggression, most of which pass largely unreported, from the desecration of cemeteries to the verbal abuse of children outside schools.

On 24 May 2014, a French-Algerian jihadist recently returned from Syria launched an attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels, killing four people. On 9 January, two days after the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine by the French-Algerian Kouachi brothers, four hostages were murdered during a siege at a kosher supermarket in Paris. The gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, was a friend and associate of the Kouachis. Most recently, on 15 February in Copenhagen, a Jewish man was shot and murdered as he stood guard outside a synagogue where a bat mitzvah was taking place. The killer was a Danish-born Islamist named Omar el-Hussein, who a few hours earlier had killed another man by shooting through the windows of a café. Inside the café the notorious Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who received death threats for depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog in 2007, was speaking at an event on free speech.

Wars in the Middle East, the rise of Islamic State, the collapse of order in Libya, where 21 Coptic migrant workers from Egypt were beheaded on a beach by IS affiliates on 15 February – all have contributed to a mounting sense of unease. The present darkness provides a backdrop to the intensification of anti-Semitism in Europe, where more Jews are openly questioning whether there is a future for them anywhere in the world outside Israel or the United States. Even in the United Kingdom, where we are proud of our tolerance of and respect for minorities, attacks on Jewish people and institutions – schools, synagogues, community centres – are increasing.

Binyamin Netanyahu, who will go to the polls in March in an attempt to carry on as prime minister of Israel, has urged European Jews to immigrate en masse to Israel. “This wave of terror attacks can be expected to continue, including these murderous anti-Semitic attacks,” he said, combining his usual belligerence with opportunism. “We say to the Jews, to our brothers and sisters, ‘Israel is your home . . . and that of every Jew . . . Israel is waiting for you with open arms.’”

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Of course, all Jews, wherever they happen to be in the world, should be free to move to Israel if they so wish. But they should not be forced to leave the countries in which they were born or that they call home because they feel vulnerable and intimidated. “People from Denmark move to Israel because they love Israel, because of Zionism, but not because of terrorism. If the way we deal with terror is to run somewhere else, we should all run to a deserted island,” said Denmark’s chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, in a judicious intervention.

Manuel Valls, the prime minister of France, is correct, too, when he says that anti-Semitism is not only an attack on Jews, but an assault on Europe and its values. National governments unilaterally, and in concert in the European Union, must do everything they can to address the menace of anti-Semitism while also doing much more to protect Jewish people and institutions.

The Jewish story is one of relentless persecution, yet it is also a testimony of extraordinary resilience and ultimate triumph, as evidenced by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and by the return of Jews to live even in Germany. The United Kingdom and the rest of Europe would be hugely diminished if Jews were to feel that they could no longer live safely here. This moment has not yet come to pass. But vigilance is all. 

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