The 20th century was the most secular in history, and the bloodiest ever recorded. Two ideologies, national socialism and communism, swept the European continent. National socialism was destroyed by the Allies and communism imploded with the end of the Cold War. But the West remained a post-Christian society, where religion was relegated to the back burner.
With the dawn of the 21st century, religion returned to the forefront of politics: 9/11 brought the struggle of Islamic fundamentalism to the shores of the new world. As a result, everything changed: the United States, which prided itself on its openness and accessibility, became a fortress, eyeing visitors with suspicion, demanding their fingerprints. Private banking and numbered accounts disappeared before our eyes, as the US tried to stem the flow of funds to terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile, wars, struggles and instability in the Middle East forced millions of immigrants to flee to Europe, altering the continent’s religious and electoral landscape. As birth rates plummeted among secular Europeans, the number of immigrants arriving from Muslim countries reached unprecedented levels. Today, in France, there are more Muslims attending mosque on Fridays than Christians going to church on Sundays. One-quarter of the children in school in the Netherlands are Muslim.
Caught in the crossfire
With rising immigration came rising racial tensions. Jihadist groups have targeted planes, trains and subways in England and Spain. In France, in addition to the horrific attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine, terrorists have also targeted the Jewish community – the recent attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris follows another on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and yet another in a Jewish museum in Brussels. This has forced the European Union, which has tried to limit itself to being an economic union, to create a common security policy, and precipitated a wider backlash against religious fundamentalism – in particular, Islamic fundamentalism.
Against this backdrop, European Jews have become “collateral damage”, in the words of journalist Mati Wagner. As anti-Muslim sentiment grows, Jewish ritual is falling under attack. Examples abound: Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party who won 18% of the vote in the 2012 French presidential elections, has endorsed a ban on religious headwear – including the Jewish head-covering, kippot – in public. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has resolved to ban male circumcision altogether. In other countries, the kosher slaughtering of animals has been outlawed.
According to Professor Robert Wistrich, Head of Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Jewish communities in Europe perceive these measures as more dangerous to communal Jewish life than other forms of antisemitism, such as anti-Zionism.
And while the rise of the far right in France, Holland and Scandinavia is borne mainly of a backlash against Islamic extremism, the corollary has been a growing number of people supporting immigration quotas and laws that limit religious expression in architecture, clothing and diet. In other countries, too, the rise of political antisemitism can be seen in neo-fascist parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary.
The rise of antisemitism
The situation in modern Europe can be likened to two trains on a collision course. At one end of the track, there’s the growing number of Jewish synagogues and young people who find themselves under attack from extremists. In a survey of Jews from nine European countries, one-quarter of the respondents said they avoided visiting places and wearing symbols that identify them as Jewish, for fear of antisemitism. In France, 40% of approximately 1,200 Jews said they avoided wearing such items in public, followed by Belgium with 36%, according to preliminary results from the survey. In total, 22% of respondents said they avoided “Jewish events or sites” because of safety concerns. Thousands of French Jews have emigrated from France and thousands more are in the process.
At the other end of the track, there’s another train: old Europe is manifesting relatively new forms of the disguised, “politically correct” antisemitic expressions that have remained largely latent since before the Holocaust.
I would like to stop these trains before it is too late. As the representative of one of the oldest European minority faiths in this continent, I want to reach out to the diverse Christian communities, the diverse Muslim communities, and the secular groups, governments and parliamentarians, to help us stop this brewing antagonism and conflict, which might be the greatest threat to the unity and safety of Europe in the years to come. I believe that we have a responsibility to recreate an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect between the secular modern state and the religious movements, in order to make sure that the experiment we call Europe does not fail.
This is why we propose that the EU and all its member countries implement a new programme, the Manifesto for Combating Religious Extremism, recently published by the Conference of European Rabbis. The manifesto outlines ways to handle extremism in Europe, and suggests measures such as formal training for religious leaders, transparency in funding and the creation of a national register of religious organizations.
Faith in the future
We, the Jewish people of Europe, are again in the eye of a brewing storm. We are experts when it comes to surviving and thriving as a minority in a different society and culture. We are the people standing on the tracks, watching the trains hurtling towards each other. We ask all Europeans to reset the equilibrium between different parts of our society.
For thousands of years, we have fought for the right to think differently and eat differently, to rest on a different day and to speak a different language. This is our message and we address it to all Europeans. There is no hope for humanity if we cannot tolerate one another, and if we do not respect our differences.
Europe is not going to be saved if its countries and institutions adopt practices of intolerance towards minority groups; the only hope is to introduce the incoming flow of new Europeans to the values of pluralism and mutual respect, expelling from our midst those voices, whether religious or secular, which call to destroy the common home we are trying to build.
But there is another voice, equally dangerous to the future of Europe: that which calls for an end to freedom of religion. Let us stop both trains and invite the passengers to step out, to see one another, speak to one another and respect one another.
Author: Pinchas Goldschmidt is Chief Rabbi, Russian Federation and President, Conference of European Rabbis.
Image: The Christian crosses of a Beirut cathedral surround a minaret of al Amin mosque in Beirut November 28, 2006. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard