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Mike Ross

Europe’s growing anti-Semitism

I’VE NEVER wanted to visit Germany. It is the country that murdered my aunts, uncles, grandparents, and first cousins when it exterminated two-thirds of European Jewry. My sister and I grew up fast amid the dark shadow of the Holocaust, as our father, who survived for five years in 10 different concentration camps, struggled daily to control the pain and grief that never left him.

But when an invitation was made by the German consul general of Boston, Rolf Schütte — a decent and kind person, who, as an openly gay man, would have also been a target of Hitler’s execution — to join a delegation of regional Jewish leaders to travel to Germany, I decided it was time to go.

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Just two weeks before the trip, I sat in a hotel banquet room listening to Rob Leikind, the Boston director of the American Jewish Committee, talk about escalating anti-Semitism in Europe. He showed the audience recent video footage of hostile rallies throughout the continent, hundreds of people marching with signs calling for Jews to return to the gas chambers.

It’s not uncommon to walk down the street in any European country and see swastikas spray-painted on Jewish landmarks or businesses. Recent targeted acts against Jews include four people fatally shot in a Jewish museum in Brussels as well as the murder of three Jewish children and a rabbi in a Jewish school in France. Violent riots have also erupted outside several Jewish synagogues in Paris, trapping hundreds inside as they waited for police to disperse the angry mob. The attacks do not always make national news.

These acts have led to a growing feeling among Europe’s Jewish communities that it is not safe to live there. A recent report released by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, known as FRA, found that 76 percent of those surveyed perceived that anti-Semitism has worsened over the past five years in the country where they live.

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The effect is a Jewish exodus from Europe. Leikind said that number of European Jews emigrating to Israel is up steeply. France, which is home to the third-largest Jewish population in the world after Israel and the United States, is seeing waves of its Jewish citizens leave.

Ironically, the Jewish community in Germany grows, even while numbers plunge across the rest of the continent. Since the end of the Holocaust, the German Jewish population has steadily increased to approximately 119,000 people, the third-largest in Europe, but still only a fraction of the overall population that existed before the war. Nonetheless, this growing population is more optimistic of their own outlook. The FRA report suggests that the German perception of anti-Semitism to be well below the average of the other European countries.

Feeling slightly less threatened than others is nothing to celebrate — prominent German rabbis still report covering their heads with hats to disguise their yarmulkes so as not to become a victim of targeted violence against Jews. Yet, amid this reemergence of fear, a growing community chooses to stay in Germany. I plan to meet with this community during my visit, and I want to ask what they believe their future — and their children’s future — will become.

The harder question is why is anti-Semitism making its comeback today? In some part this question is existential. Leikind points to the historical vilification of the Jewish people. He says that Jews are vilified today for the same reason that Shakespeare could so easily invent the grotesquely stereotyped money-lending character Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” even though Jews had been expelled from Italy more than 300 years before its writing.

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Still, other factors feed into its reemergence. The New York Times reported that, “Jewish groups. . . have long warned that Europe’s economic crisis, lingering prejudice, and a surge of Muslim immigrants often hostile to Israel have stoked a revival of hostility toward Jews.” In addition, the increasing distance of the Holocaust, now approaching the 70th anniversary of its end, is lifting the prophylactic effect that once insulated Jews from bigotry.

These events now conspire to “allow” some tolerable level of anti-Semitism to subsist at the surface even in the best of circumstances — and, in the worst, to strike out to deadly consequence with regularity. What local governments and communities are doing to stop it will be my next inquiry. Their acts today may portend whether European Jewry will even continue to exist. And whether the acceleration and tolerance of these brutal acts build into something far more dangerous.

Next: Jewish life in Germany and France — while one community thrives, another prepares to leave.


Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.