Rabbi Andrew Baker believes the Jews of Europe today are experiencing a level of discrimination they could not have imagined 20 years ago.
An expert on European anti-Semitism and the director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, Baker addressed the topic at a forum held June 11 at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.
Notwithstanding some “pockets of Holocaust denial,” Baker said most Jews had “thought anti-Semitism was receding into history. Things are very different. It has re-emerged. And we have to be really clear-eyed, really focused, in understanding its sources, and how it presents itself.”
The forum, titled “The Rise of Anti-Semitism in America vs. Europe,” was organized and moderated by Gunda Trepp, a synagogue member and coordinator of an Emanu-El program that stages forums like this one. It included two short presentations by Baker, who is also a representative on anti-Semitism to the global NGO the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and Seth Brysk, S.F.-based regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Brysk used a slide presentation to reveal a number of harrowing statistics, among them that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. have increased 48 percent since 2016. While the number has decreased over the past 40 years, 14 percent of Americans still hold anti-Semitic views, according to an ADL survey. Globally, the figure is 26 percent, or about 1 billion people.
“Jesus,” a woman gasped from the second row.
Baker identified three ideological sources of European anti-Semitism today: the far right, Islamists, and the far left. On the right, it’s the populist, xenophobic and nationalist political parties, such as neo-Nazis and skinheads. On the left, Baker described anti-Semitism “wrapped in anti-Zionism,” and among immigrant Arab populations, some European cities like Paris and Brussels see strong anti-Israel sentiment.
In a survey of Jews who live in the European Union, 30 percent said they were afraid of going to synagogue for fear of “having an anti-Semitic encounter” on the way there, Baker said. “The problem is a severe one. It has impacted the way Jews live their day-to-day lives.”
In his work, Baker lobbies European governments to take the threat of anti-Semitism seriously, either by providing funding and manpower for security at Jewish centers, or by securing religious freedoms through legislation. It doesn’t always work.
He said lobbying officials in Copenhagen in 2014 for greater police presence in front of Jewish schools and synagogues was a challenge. “They said to me, ‘Rabbi Baker, we have a relaxed approach to security,” he said. “The public would feel uncomfortable if they saw armed guards.
Months later, between February 14-15, 2015, a Muslim extremist attacked a cultural center and a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing two.
Anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe takes many forms, and differs based on region and culture, Baker said. In Scandinavia, for example, it may manifest as strongly secular political parties that place circumcision bans or regulations against Kosher slaughter. In Hungary and Romania, it comes from xenophobic, nationalist political parties that are rising to power.
“Here in America,” Baker said, “we would think the basic principles of religious freedom should protect those rights” of ritual slaughter and circumcision. “But you’re really talking in Europe of societies that are quite secular. That really see [religious freedoms] as only something to be balanced by other rights.”
The ADL has used an “attitudinal” survey since the 1960s, called an Index Score, that measures how many individuals hold anti-Semitic beliefs in a given population. Developed jointly with social scientists at UC Berkeley, the survey takes respondents through 11 questions. If they answer 6 or more in the affirmative, they are considered to hold an anti-Semitic attitude. Prompts include, “Jews have too much power in the business world”; “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind”; or “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the country they live in.”
Brysk said that when the survey was first introduced, about 30 percent of the country held anti-Semitic beliefs. Since then it dropped to between 10-14 percent, which still amounts to “tens of millions of people,” as Brysk noted.
Among anti-Semites, Brysk said, there is a fixation on “Jewish control, Jewish power,” in the Index responses. “It’s part of what we were seeing chanted in Charlottesville – that ‘Jews will not replace us.”
Brysk said anti-Semitism is, “at its heart,” a conspiracy theory based on a lie. “If you think about all of those anti-Semitic tropes, it’s all about a lie that’s being told about Jews, collectively or individually,” Brysk said. “That we control this or control that, or manipulate things in certain ways.”
Despite the bad news, Baker pointed out that across Europe, Jewish communities are thriving.
“There’s an irony,” he said. “In the very places where the problem is real, and where the safety and security concerns have been identified, there’s still a very rich and vibrant Jewish life.”
He mentioned Jewish communities in Hungary and in throughout central Europe, as well as in Germany, where there is now a rabbinical seminary. “If you visit there, it is the most remarkable Jewish community in all of central Europe,” he said of Hungary’s Jewish community.
S.F.-based German Consul General Hans-Ulrich Südbeck was in attendance. He said he attended the event to learn about ways to combat anti-Semitism in Germany. “I think we’re all having a hard time figuring out responses to anti-Semitism,” Südbeck said
“As for the German government,” he added, “we have been showing over the last 60-70 years that part of our raison-d’être is a certain responsibility for the existence of Israel as a home country for Jewish people, given our horrible history. On the other hand, we also have a large population in Germany which is critical of some of the Israeli policies toward the Palestinian people in the region. Therefore it’s always a very difficult enterprise to divide the one from the other, and to criticize something without including anti-Semitic feelings and tendencies. We’re trying to find a good way through.”
Südbeck said he believes the “main cause” of the rise in anti-Semitism has little to do with Israel, but has more to do with xenophobia, and originates mainly from the far right.
“Most European countries have a deep-rooted tradition of anti-Semitism,” he said. “Which obviously can be revived again and again.”