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Central Europe a much better place for Jews than Western Europe

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By Olivier Bault.

This article was originally published in March on by the Felczak Institute of Polish–Hungarian Cooperation.

Central Europe – A popular view in Western Europe is that anti-Semitism is still rife in Central European countries, and that Poland and Hungary in particular, being now ruled by conservative governments, are witnessing a new surge in anti-Jewish sentiment. This view has been strengthened by Viktor Orbán’s repeated attacks directed at George Soros, an American billionaire of Hungarian Jewish origin, and also by Poland’s historical disputes with Israel in 2018 after Warsaw amended its memory law to make it punishable to assert that the Polish state or the Polish nation as a whole had some responsibility in the genocide perpetrated on its soil by Nazi Germany against Jews during World War II. The amendment was later revoked and a joint declaration signed by Polish PM Morawiecki and Israeli PM Netanyahu, butthe dispute did indeed show that prejudice between Jews and Poles still exists on both sides.However, do Jews not still feel much better and safer in both Poland and Hungary, and indeed in the whole of Central Europe, than in Western European countries? A Europe-wide study published last November by the Jewish American organisation International Center for Community Development seems to say just that, thus confirming the words of Breitbart’s Matthew Tyrmand, an American columnist whose father Leopold was a renowned Polish–Jewish novelist, writer and editor who emigrated to the United States in 1966, who stated in a piece he wrote in 2016 that “Despite the Western narrative that suggests Polish anti-Semitism is rampant, Poland is one of the best – if not the best – nations in Europe in which to be Jewish today.

There may be two main reasons for this situation. First, 21st-century anti-Semitism in Western Europe is mainly linked to the growing presence of a Muslim population, among whom anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are rife. Indeed, anti-Semitic attacks on the streets of countries such as Germany, France, Sweden or the United Kingdom nowadays very rarely, if ever, have links to the far-right. Most of the perpetrators are Muslims or come from a Muslim, immigrant background. Second, Central Europeans are usually much more supportive of Israel and much less pro-Palestinian than Western Europeans, and unlike the rest of Europe,their governments often take a pro-Israeli stance in international organisations. Countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have actually been Israel’s best supporters in Europe since the fall of the communist regimes. Many anti-Semitic incidents in Western Europe are the deeds of activists linked to the anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian far-left, and these have even become mainstream in the British Labour Party under the leadership of the extreme leftist Jeremy Corbyn.

Thus, although Jews are much less numerous in Central Europe today than in Western Europe, they seem to be a growing population in Poland, although their total number, usually estimated at somewhere between a few thousand and tens of thousands, is unknown – because of a lack of statistics and because it is often difficult to state whether Poles of Jewish descent should be counted as Jews or not.One indication of the possible rise of the Jewish population is the number of Israelis being granted Polish passports. This number reached 10,820 in the three years between 2015 and 2017 – almost as many as in the six years from 2009 to 2014, and more than in the nine years between 2002 and 2010. Between 2002 and 2017 a total of 28,736 passports were issued to Israeli citizens who acquired Polish citizenship. In Hungary, however, the Jewish population, whose exact number is also unknown, seems to be slowly but steadily decreasing at a rate of 1,500–2,000 every five years, because of an ageing population and economic emigration. The overall number of Jews was estimated at somewhere between 60,000 and 110,000 in 2015.


10% of French Jews have already fled the country since the year 2000

France is the European country with the largest Jewish population,estimated at 500 to 600 thousand. However, this population is shrinking fast, as many Jews choose to make Aliyah – to emigrate to the Land of Israel –while some emigrate to other countries such as the United States. The number of French Jews who emigrated to Israel between 2000 and 2017 is estimated at around 55,000, which means that since the beginning of the century – in less than two decades – roughly 10% of French citizens of Jewish descent have moved to Israel! There was a sharp rise in these numbers starting in 2013, and 2015 was a peak year, with almost 7,900 Jews leaving France in just one year. Since 2016 the numbers have been decreasing, to reach some 2,600 in 2018 (compared with 1,917 in 2012, before the rise). French Jews are sometimes publicly encouraged to immigrate to Israel by top Israeli government officials. This was seen last February, when Yoav Galant, the Israeli minister for immigration, condemned anti-Semitic acts in France after 80 graves had been profaned in a Jewish cemetery in Alsace, and called for Jews to seek refuge from growing anti-Semitism by moving to Israel. His words were criticised by the French government, much as when Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu had caused outrage while on a visit to Paris after the January 2015 attacks by Islamic terrorists against the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a kosher supermarket. Netanyahu then called for French Jews to move to Israel for their own sake.

Several people brutally murdered in recent years just for being Jews

And indeed, the latest terrorist attacks were not the only tragic events to have shocked France recently.In 2006 a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, was abducted by a gang calling themselves The Barbarians and led by Youssouf Fofana, a young man whose Muslim family had immigrated to France from the Ivory Coast and who has since turned to radical Islam in prison. The gang members were convinced that they could obtain a large ransom from Ilan’s family because Jews were in their minds supposed all to be very wealthy. Ilan was brutally tortured for three weeks before he died from his injuries. In another case of a brutal anti-Semitic attack, a group of three young men from Muslim backgrounds robbed a flat belonging to a young Jewish couple in Créteil near Paris in December 2014. The couple were brutally beaten, and the young woman was raped by all three attackers in front of her husband. Ladji, Yacine and Omar later explained to the police that they had chosen to rob that particular flat because they knew that the family living there was Jewish, and in their eyes also all Jews were supposed to be rich. In April 2017, another young man from a Muslim family, Kobili Traoré, tortured and killed a retired Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, in her Parisian flat. The man lived in the same building as his victim and she knew him. Before he threw Mrs Halimi from her balcony, police who had been called to the rescue by neighbours heard the attacker shouting “Allah Akbar”. In March 2018, Jewish Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was stabbed with a knife on her medical bed in her flat on Avenue Philippe-Auguste in Paris (in the same 11th district where Sarah Halimi had been murdered one year earlier). According to his accomplice Alex Carrimbacus, before stabbing their victim Yacine Mihoub condemned her for being a Jew and shouted “Allah Akbar”. These are just a few cases of anti-Semitic attacks which have gained most attention from the media, and the French authorities have often been reluctant to recognise the anti-Semitic character of attacks against Jews for fear of showing that immigration and Islam can indeed lead to renewed anti-Semitism. Despite this fact, official data for 2018 show a further rise in anti-Semitic incidents in France, up by 74% compared with 2017: there were 541 incidents in total, including 81 where Jews were the victims of physical assaults, and in some cases attempted murder. Because of several past terrorist attacks by Islamists targeting Jews (like Mohamed Merah’s shooting of a teacher and three children, aged 3 to 15, in the Ozar Hatorah Jewish school in the southern city of Toulouse in 2012, and French citizen Mehdi Nemmouche’s killing of four visitors at the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014), 824 sites in France linked to the Jewish community (including synagogues and schools) are guarded at all times by armed soldiers. It is noteworthy that there is no need for such measures in Central European countries, such as those of the Visegrád Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary).

Hardly any Jews remain in the predominantly Muslim Paris suburbs

The lack of safety felt by French Jews also leads them to flee whole districts in the Parisian suburbs where most inhabitants come from a Muslim background, and also to desert public schools even in areas where Jews are still able to live, preferring private schools where their children will not be harassed by fellow pupils from Muslim families and where they will not be the target of such words as “F… Jew” or “Death to the Jews”, two expressions which have become common in schools according to several reports published by the French Ministry of Education.

Apart from the traditional Islamic intolerant and discriminatory approach to non-Muslims, the reason for this new kind of anti-Semitism in France as in other Western European countries is that they have imported the Israeli–Palestinian conflict together with mass immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.A blatant example of this was seen when a leftist pro-Palestinian protest was organised in Paris in July 2014 just after Israel had dropped bombs in Gaza. During that protest, where some left-wing French MPs were present, the “Death to the Jews” slogan was also heard and eight synagogues were attacked. More recently, when French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was insulted in a Paris street last February by a group of “yellow vest” protesters, not so much as a Jew but as a supposed Zionist, it later turned out that the leader of the aggressive anti-Zionist group was in fact known to the police as a radical Muslim. The French philosopher later explained that today’s aggressors against Jews “no longer look like Fascists or Nazis” and that “this is worrying because it is linked to France’s new demographic landscape and this is going to last”. “A happy parenthesis for Jews in France is being closed”, he concluded.A few years ago, Roger Cukierman, the usually very politically correct leader of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), also shocked mainstream media and politicians with his blunt statement: “The perpetrators of nearly all anti-Semitic acts are young people with an immigrant background, mainly Muslims.”

Rising anti-Semitic attacks in Germany linked to the recent mass arrival of migrants

Unfortunately, France is no exception in Western Europe. The situation has also deteriorated in several other countries with smaller Jewish populations, including in Germany,where in early October 2015, a month after Germany had opened its border to illegal immigrants on the Balkan route (with particularly favourable treatment of self-declared Syrians), Josef Schuster, chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, expressed to Chancellor Angela Merkel his worries concerning the mass arrival of people with a culture of intolerance, anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel. Both he and the chairman of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (Vienna Israelite Community) in neighbouring Austria, Oskar Deutsch, then called on their respective governments to place a restrictive ceiling on the number of immigrants allowed to arrive each year. Today Josef Schuster recommends that Jews not wear a kippah in the streets of German cities, after in April 2018 two Jews – a 24-year-old German citizen and a 21-year-old Israeli man – were brutally beaten in Berlin, causing outrage all over the country and beyond. One of their three attackers, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, was filmed yelling “Yahudi”, which means “Jew” in Arabic, while beating their victims. And this was not an isolated act. In 2017, 21 cases of anti-Semitic abuse in Berlin schools were reported to police, while the capital witnessed 288 anti-Semitic attacks in total during that year. The anti-Semitic abuse in Berlin schools included the shocking case of a 14-year-old Jewish boy who had to quit his school in the Friedenau neighbourhood because of persecution by other pupils, who would choke him and threaten they were going to kill him. The total number of 288 anti-Semitic attacks in Berlin in 2017 was about twice the level seen before the massive immigration wave of 2015–16. In Germany, every Jewish school and every synagogue now requires direct police protection. As regards schools throughout the country, in early 2018 Heinz-Peter Meidinger, the President of the German Teachers’ Association, identified a clear link between the rise in anti-Semitic incidents and the high number of migrants.

There are some 250,000 Jews living in Germany, most of them (some 215,000) having emigrated from the former Soviet Union after 1991. Germany also has a rising number of Israeli expatriates living on its soil, and is host to a new wave of immigration of British Jews from families who emigrated during the Nazi years, as German law allows such people to reclaim German citizenship. One of the main reasons for emigration from the UK seems to be the similarly rising anti-Semitism in the UK, where according to a poll conducted by The Jewish Chronicle almost 40% of the some 290,000 Jews would “seriously consider emigrating” if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were to become prime minister. Some seem to prefer Germany, in spite of its Nazi past and the rise in anti-Semitic acts. These numbered 1,646 in 2018 (including 62 cases of physical violence against Jews, leading to 43 being injured), up 9.4% from the previous year, when there were “only” 37 cases of physical abuse with an anti-Semitic motive inflicted upon Jews. In Berlin, as in Paris, one can now hear crowds shouting “Death to the Jews” at some pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

In Central Europe, Jews see anti-Semitism as a problem too, but feel much safer

By way of comparison, in 2017 there were 73 anti-Semitic incidents recorded in Poland (down from 101 in 2016), most being cases of online hate speech or graffiti of an anti-Semitic nature. Among those incidents there were only 12 recorded cases of insults or threats against Jews and three physical attacks, including two which caused material damage to the victim, with no injuries.

This does not mean that anti-Semitism is not seen as a problem by many Jews in Poland and other Central European countries – as was shown by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency 2018 survey in which more than 16,000 Jews were polled in 12 European countries: 77% of Hungarian Jews and 85% of Polish Jews do see anti-Semitismas a problem in their country. However, it is Germany, Sweden and the UK which have the highest increase in Jews considering emigration, and this shows that the kind of anti-Semitism suffered by Jews in those countries is of a much more serious nature.

This fact is confirmed by the above-mentioned Europe-wide study published last November by the Jewish American organisation International Center for Community Development. This was the Fourth Survey of European Jewish Community Leaders and Professionals, answered in April–May 2018 by 893 respondents from 29 European countries, with the highest rates of response in France, Germany, Hungary, the UK, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Spain, Romania, Turkey, and the Czech Republic. It showed that only 76% of Jews in Western Europe feel safe, while 96% of their counterparts in the countries of the former Eastern bloc share that feeling.

“Jews feel safer in Europe’s conservative East than its liberal West”, concluded Evelyn Gordon in the Jewish American monthly magazine Commentary, going on to say that: “Other studies have found that Jews are much more likely to experience physical violence in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe. In 2017, for instance, Hungary’s 100,000 Jews didn’t report a single physical attack, while Britain’s 250,000 Jews reported 145.”