The Illusion of Belonging for European Jews - Pacific Standard

The Illusion of Belonging for European Jews

On the surface, today’s Jews can go about their lives as proudly, as openly, and as securely as members of the majority. But as the recent attacks in Denmark and France—and Europe’s response in the aftermath—remind us, this is a frighteningly fragile, if not illusory, achievement.
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The dome of the Szeged Synagogue. (Photo: Pataki Márta/Wikimedia Commons)

The dome of the Szeged Synagogue. (Photo: Pataki Márta/Wikimedia Commons)

“Is it Jewish?” my mother, who was visiting from Germany, asked me last fall as we walked past a school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Before I had a chance to respond, she answered her own question: "Oh, it can't be. No policemen!"

I, too, had once seen the world through similar eyes. Growing up in Germany, I had taken for granted that two policemen would inevitably guard any Jewish school, kindergarten, retirement home, or house of worship. This constant reality served as a daily reminder that, being Jewish, our existence in Germany was not entirely natural. Looking back, it was one of many reasons why I would never quite feel at home in the country in which I was born.

On the surface, today’s Jews can go about their lives as proudly, as openly, and as securely as members of the majority. But as the recent attacks in Denmark and France—and Europe’s response in the aftermath—remind us, this is a frighteningly fragile, if not illusory, achievement. Despite the gains of European Jews over the past few decades, it’s difficult to believe that you belong when the presence of a friendly police officer at the entrance to your school or synagogue suggests that your life would be in danger without their help.

It now feels dangerous to shop for meat at a kosher supermarket, as did the victims of January’s shootings in Paris, or to attend a bat mitzvah, as did the victim of the recent shooting in Copenhagen.

The self-conscious expressions of solidarity that are now pouring forth across Europe will only help to reinforce that simultaneous sense of identification and alienation. Angela Merkel’s awkwardly phrased wish to “continue to live together well with the Jews who are in Germany today” is telling: heartfelt as her solidarity may be, her statement betrays a deep sense that Jews are a group apart.

In Germany, Jews have felt this way for a long time. What’s new is that Jews in other Western European countries are starting to feel the same way; all over Europe, Jews’ sense of belonging is rapidly eroding.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, when my mother and I used to drive across the French border for a day-trip to Strasbourg, or take the train up to Denmark or Sweden to visit my grandparents, Jewish life seemed less beleaguered. Synagogues did not stand in need of constant protection. Though their accents instantly marked my grandparents, my aunts and my uncles out as immigrants, they seemed to me to be more self-confident about their place in their adoptive countries. They were no typical Danes or Swedes, but Denmark and Sweden had come to be their home in a way that Germany, to my mother and me, never would.

But in the wake of recent terror attacks, what remains of that sense of normality in is quickly fading. It is being replaced by a state of constant threat. It now feels dangerous to shop for meat at a kosher supermarket, as did the victims of January’s shootings in Paris, or to attend a bat mitzvah, as did the victim of the recent shooting in Copenhagen.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has seized upon this growing unease in his characteristically polarizing way. “Jews were killed on European land just because they were Jewish,” he said. “This wave of attacks will continue. I say to the Jews of Europe—Israel is your home.”

Netanyahu’s comments were meant for home consumption. He is more concerned about upcoming elections in Israel than he is about the safety of European Jews. So it is hardly surprising that, in Europe, Jews and Gentiles alike have greeted his remarks with universal impatience. Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish prime minister, responded that “the Jewish community have been in this country for centuries. They belong in Denmark.” Jair Melchior, Denmark’s chief rabbi, agreed, noting that “terror is not a reason to move to Israel.” Like most Danish Jews, my relatives in Copenhagen seem very concerned about recent developments, but not nearly concerned enough to leave.

Instead of fleeing the continent, Europe’s Jews are more likely to demand that the state do more to protect them. Menachem Margolin, the general director of the European Jewish Association, has already called on politicians to “secure all Jewish institutions 24/7.” By and large, his plea is likely to be heeded. Long resistant to providing the Jewish community with extra security, the Danish authorities have now put Copenhagen’s synagogue under armed guard. France has stepped up security for Jewish sites since the attacks in Paris. Even in Germany, where precautions have long been extensive, top officials have renewed their vow to do whatever it takes to protect the country’s Jews.

Complete safety against terrorism will always remain an illusion. The recent attack will hardly be the last. When the jihadists strike again, Jews will once again rank among their prime targets. More tragedy is but a matter of time. Even so, heightened security should help to keep the threat to European Jews at manageable (if not tolerable) levels. For now, their lives are probably in no more danger in a European synagogue than they would be on an Israeli bus.

But though the new security measures may help to limit how much death the jihadists will visit upon Europe’s Jews, they have already succeeded in transforming their lived reality. Over the past months, Jewish life in Paris and Copenhagen has come to seem as strange, as abnormal and as precarious as it long has in Munich or Berlin. Though there will continue to be Jews in Europe, there will be fewer and fewer European Jews.

This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.

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