Jews in Europe try to balance security with openness

rome  |  In an age of terrorism and fears of mounting anti-Semitism, Jewish communities in Europe are facing a dilemma: how to protect synagogues and other Jewish institutions without turning them into fortresses that repel the very people they seek to attract.

At many European Jewish institutions, police patrols and metal detectors are routine, as are identification and bag checks.

“The big question is how to balance security needs with an open, welcoming community,” said an official with a global Jewish organization. Like many people discussing security issues, he did not want to be quoted by name.

“It is very complicated,” the official said. “Security can be a metaphor for something deeper. It can be used as an excuse not to be open.”

Some say the challenge is to prevent protection from crossing into paranoia. Security concerns, they say, must not set the agenda for Jewish life.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of International Jewish Affairs, said the dilemma is not only one of balancing the need for security with conveying a welcoming presence to members and guests. It is also one of prioritizing limited resources.

Police stand guard in the historic Venice Ghetto, the site of several Jewish institutions and a big tourist attraction. photo/jta/ruth ellen gruber

In Stockholm, said Baker, who is also the representative on combating anti-Semitism for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Jewish institutions appear “more visibly protected” than government buildings, and the Jewish community allocates as much as 25 percent of its annual revenues on security.

“This is money that would otherwise be available for religious or cultural programs,” he said.

Particularly in major cities, the trend seems to be to err on the side of caution.

Guards in Vienna once tried to prevent Rabbi Elia Richetti, the chief rabbi of Venice, from entering the main synagogue there for Saturday morning services; Richetti doesn’t carry things on Shabbat and could not produce an ID.

“However off-putting security measures are, it pales before what the reaction would be if there were a successful attack,” said one European Jewish security official.

In some cities, heavy security at Jewish sites has been in place for decades, ever since a spate of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks in the 1970s and 1980s that targeted synagogues, Israeli institutions and even a Jewish restaurant in Paris.

Security has been tightened in recent years with the emergence of al Qaida and other terrorist groups, emboldened anti-Zionism among both immigrant Arab and local European communities, and the rise of neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists in some countries.

Still, scores of European synagogues, schools and other Jewish sites have been defaced, vandalized or attacked since 2000, amid hundreds of other anti-Semitic incidents. The vast majority of incidents involved nonviolent actions such as hate mail, verbal abuse and graffiti. But synagogues and other Jewish sites in several countries were torched or had windows broken, and al Qaida bombs in 2003 targeted two synagogues in Istanbul.

In an incident last month, Muslim immigrant children and teenagers shouted abuse and threw stones at dancers at a Jewish street festival in Hanover, Germany.

Mark Gardner, the spokesman for Community Security Trust, which provides and coordinates security for the Jewish community across Britain, said community involvement in the security process is essential. CST’s website provides security checklists and tips such as how to shatterproof windows.

“Of course, security carries the unintended risk of scaring off some people from leading their Jewish way of life,” he said. “That is why it is important for our community to not only understand the risks, but to also place them within a wider perspective.”

Security measures are by no means uniform and vary from place to place. In Zurich, for example, the Jewish community asks visitors who want to attend synagogue services to call ahead of time. In Budapest, visitors must pass through an airport-style metal detector to enter the main Dohany Street Synagogue, but other synagogues in the city allow relatively open access.

In Rome, where a Palestinian attack in 1982 killed a child and left about 100 injured, armed police are stationed outside the main synagogue and Jewish school. But visible security is much less obvious at synagogues in some provincial Italian towns.

Even in countries where synagogues and other Jewish buildings are heavily guarded, security may be low-key or even absent at Jewish culture festivals, street fairs and other public events.

Some local Jews, and in particular outsiders, say high-profile security measures are intimidating. Guards can be notoriously heavy-handed with people they do not know. But many Jews regard security as the lesser of two evils.

“No one likes passing through the police to get to a JCC or synagogue,” said Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow, Poland. “Sometimes a drawbridge is needed to protect the village.”

In Brussels, community member Tom Furstenberg said he would like to see even more protection, regardless of the cost. Parking is barred outside the city’s main synagogue, and police patrol the neighborhood and put police cars there during services.

“You can’t neglect security because of what it costs,” Furstenberg said. “If it is made known that security will be less because of budget concerns, that could lead to trouble.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.