By Bojan Pancevski, Matthew Dalton, David Luhnow and Karolina Jeznach – Oct. 30, 2023 12:06 pm ET
BERLIN—A Star of David crudely daubed on the doors of Jewish homes in Berlin. An Orthodox Jewish man punched in the face on a London bus. Threatening letters sent to a prominent Jewish politician in France.
Across Europe, where centuries of pogroms and the Holocaust nearly wiped out Jews, those who remain have taken a double blow. The first is the grief and shock from the Hamas attack on Israel that shattered an assumption that at least there, Jews were safe from the kinds of attacks that mark their history in Europe.
The second blow is a rise in antisemitic incidents following the attack and amid Israel’s military campaign against Islamist militant group Hamas. The U.K., which harbored Jews fleeing continental Europe during World War II, has recorded at least 805 antisemitic incidents since the Hamas attacks, the highest ever across a 21-day period and more than the total for the first six months of the year, according to the Community Security Trust, a Jewish group that has been tracking antisemitism since 1984.
France, Germany and other countries have also recorded a jump in incidents, including Molotov cocktails thrown at a Jewish center with a synagogue and school in Berlin. On Oct. 24, German police arrested a former Islamic State fighter who served a prison sentence for membership of the militant group on suspicion of planning to drive a truck into a pro-Israel rally, prosecutors said.
On Sunday, a mob stormed an airport in the Russian republic of Dagestan, which is majority Muslim. Hundreds of people, some chanting antisemitic slogans and waving Palestinian flags, rushed onto the landing field to seek passengers on a flight arriving from Tel Aviv. There were about 15 Israelis on the flight, and none was harmed, Israeli officials said. Muslim leaders in Dagestan condemned the incident. A Jewish center in a neighboring republic was set on fire.
The Hamas attack and the subsequent rise in antisemitic incidents have some European Jews wondering if they will ever be safe, either in Israel or Europe, a continent that was the center of Jewish life for centuries until World War II. Jews in Europe say they now face a combination of far-right antisemitism as well as growing antagonism due to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians from both the far left as well as Europe’s growing Muslim populations, which unlike in the U.S. far outnumber Jewish communities.
“I have not left my home in days and my daughter is not going to school,” says Mirna Funk, 42, an author and mother of an 8-year-old from Berlin. Many of her peers are considering emigrating, she says, but now there is a sense that not even Israel is safe. “Where should we go?” she says.
Funk says she was disheartened by rallies denouncing Israel around the world that often included antisemitic chants, from those at college campuses in the U.S. to one in Australia. She says she was terrified about what she feels is mounting antisemitic sentiment in Germany, some coming from its Muslim population of 5.5 million. Germany’s Jewish community, by contrast, numbers around 118,000 people, most of them Jews from the former Soviet Union who emigrated after the end of the Cold War.
Anna Staroselski, head of the German Union of Jewish Students, says she changed the name she uses on Uber and other apps to avoid being identified by drivers from the Middle East. “I have never been so afraid in my life,” says the 27-year-old, referring to recent days.
Many Muslims also face prejudice. Incidents targeting Muslims in Europe and elsewhere also typically increase during troubles in the Middle East or following Islamist terrorist attacks. There were 400 incidents of anti-Muslim prejudice in the U.K., for instance, between Oct. 7 and 24, according to Tell MAMA, a group that measures anti-Muslim attacks.
The Muslim Council of Britain, which represents British Muslims, says that while Muslims and Jews may hold differing views on events in the Middle East, both communities share common values. A spokesperson rejected the idea that Muslims hold more antisemitic attitudes than the general public.
“Just as there are many tropes used to fuel antisemitism, so too are there many negative and generalized assertions of Muslims that fuel Islamophobia. One such trope is that Muslims are somehow inherently antisemitic,” the spokesperson said.
It is difficult to overstate the level of historical trauma among European Jews, says Ben Judah, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Of the roughly nine million Jews in Europe in the late 1930s, there are now just 1.3 million, or 0.1% of Europe’s total population, according to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, a U.K.-based organization. That compares with some six million Jews in the U.S., or some 2% of the population—a share that is some 20 times as large relative to the total population.
While many U.S. Jews migrated before World War I, European Jews lost even greater numbers of relatives to the Holocaust and have closer family ties to Israel, says Judah. A higher proportion of them are Orthodox, meaning they wear clothes that highlight their religion, increasing the risk of harassment.
“There’s a sense the community has to stick together, while U.S. Jews don’t have to or need to do that to the same extent,” Judah says.
In France, which has Europe’s largest community of Jews at some 440,000, there is widespread apprehension. As of Oct. 29, French authorities have registered more than 819 antisemitic acts and arrested 414 people since the Hamas attack, according to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. The incidents include swastikas sprayed next to Jewish institutions and students harassed outside Jewish schools.
Yaël Braun-Pivet, president of the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, filed a police complaint after receiving a letter with a threat to decapitate her. A student was arrested this month at a high school in the French Alps for allegedly shouting death threats against Jews during an homage to a teacher killed recently by an Islamist radical.
“We know that it’s only a matter of days before we have a situation of people being attacked because they are Jewish,” says Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, or CRIF, an umbrella group of Jewish associations. “That’s always the case when we have war in the Middle East.”
The resurgent threat has cast a pall over the daily life of France’s Jews. Daniel Marburger, who runs a kosher pizzeria in Paris, says business has fallen since the attack as customers avoid going out. Even when violence isn’t flaring in Israel, Marburger doesn’t wear his yarmulke on the street, fearing antisemitism. “It is also not worth it to provoke,” he says.
France’s Jews have long been the target of attacks, ranging from a bombing of a synagogue in 1980 allegedly by pro-Palestinian militants to the killing of three children and a rabbi at a Jewish school near Toulouse in 2012. In 2015, an Islamist militant gunman held people hostage at a kosher supermarket east of Paris and killed four of them.
Around nine synagogues and Jewish schools in the Paris region received bomb threats on Monday, said Benjamin Allouche, a member of the executive office of the CRIF. Some students were sent home for the day but no explosive device was found, he said.
A 2019 report by the European Union Agency on Fundamental Rights found that 89% of European Jewish people say antisemitism had grown in their countries in the past five years. Nearly four in 10 say they were considering leaving Europe because of it.
The U.S. has also seen a steady increase in antisemitic incidents, to 3,697 in 2022 from 751 in 2013, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil-rights organization.
In both the U.S. and Europe, much of the current hostility comes from a rare combination of radical Islamism and the far left, both of whom view Jews as white, colonial oppressors of Palestinians, says Charles Small, director of the Miami-based Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.
“Both reactionary Islam and the radical left in the West are both opposed to Western hegemony and they see the Jewish state in this region as the quintessential expression of Western domination. It is a toxic combination,” he says.
In the U.S., the population of Jews is nearly double the size of the Muslim community of 3.5 million. Europe’s Muslim population numbered 26 million in 2016, or some 5% of the total—at least 20 times as large as the Jewish community. There are a similar number of Muslims in Greater London to Jews in all of Europe, according to census data.
A 2017 survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that 12% of people in the U.K. harbor “deep ideological hatred” toward Israel, and 30% hold at least one view that Jews would find antisemitic, a proportion that was double among Muslims. A 2022 survey in Germany by the American Jewish Committee found roughly a third of Germans hold at least some antisemitic views, rising to roughly half of Muslims in Germany.
But current concerns among some Jews in Europe go beyond antisemitic beliefs among some Muslims, many of whom become increasingly secular the longer they live in Europe. Many European Jews are just as concerned about the lack of support following the attacks from non-Jews, including secular or Christian Europeans.
Hadley Freeman, an American-British newspaper columnist, went to a vigil outside the U.K. prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street after the Israel attacks. It was difficult to find a non-Jew at the event of a few hundred people, she says. Days later, a far more diverse crowd of tens of thousands gathered for pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests, she adds. A follow-up pro-Palestinian protest drew 100,000.
In her liberal north London neighborhood, Freeman says residents were quick to put up posters in support of other causes, from Black Lives Matter to Ukraine, in years past. She says she saw no Israeli flags in the area or on social-media profiles following Hamas’s recent attacks. It feels like “Jews really are on their own,” she says.
—Jon Kamp in Boston contributed to this article.
Write to Bojan Pancevski at [email protected], Matthew Dalton at [email protected] and David Luhnow at [email protected]