In the Belgian capital of Brussels, as in most other parts of Western Europe, very few people carry guns. But everyone has a finger to point.
The power of this observation was made especially clear to me one Saturday morning last fall as I walked several of my host family’s children to synagogue. It was cloudy and drizzling, as most autumn days in Brussels are. As I waited at a street corner hand-in-hand with my charges, ages 6 and 8, I saw an Arab man. Just a few years older than myself, he was riding shotgun in a car stopped just before the crosswalk. He was looking at me, pointing at me. With his forefinger and thumb cocked in the shape of a gun.
I glanced away and then back again to make sure I had seen correctly. Yes, the man was still there, as was his pretend gun aimed at the center of my forehead. The windows of his car were rolled up, but I could still hear him bellowing laughter as he pulled his imaginary trigger, bending his forefinger at the joint, then quickly jerking his arm upwards. Had the kids seen? I hoped not, and so I kept walking, silently. But they had seen, and I had no answer to give when 6-year-old Yossi tearfully asked why the man had pointed his “gun” at him.
I am not Israeli, and neither was my host family in Belgium. But dressed in Shabbat clothes that morning, skipping over puddles in our Shabbat shoes on the way to synagogue, we were unmistakably Jews. And even 3,000 miles from the epicenter of Arab-Israeli tension, we were still targeted, albeit sarcastically, by an Arab with a grudge to bear.
This incident is only one of several encounters with antisemitism I experienced while living and working in Europe last year. And even these take a backseat to the many more violent assaults endured with increasing frequency by Jews living in Europe today: By a teenage girl walking down the sidewalk in Paris who is suddenly cornered by three Arab teenage boys and forced to swallow the gold Star of David she had been wearing on her neck; by a Jewish man wearing a black hat who is beaten over the head with a glass bottle outside a synagogue in Antwerp. Though it is hard to imagine, the same hatred propagandized by the Nazis in central Europe less than 60 years ago is once again on the rise.
Maybe it is a backlash of younger generations against the decades of guilt imposed upon their parents and grandparents in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Maybe the “European street” has been radicalized by the influx of large numbers of young Arab immigrants. Maybe it is an indirect consequence of the increasingly controversial politics in the Middle East. None of these hypotheses are easy to discount. In a post-Cold War Europe where the enemy is no longer a shadow looming in the East, cynical eyes seem to have turned to the West, in particular to Washington, a city also known among Europeans as “Jewish-owned Washington.”
Some have asserted that the gathering wave of European discontent is in fact part of a well-justified anti-American, anti-colonial movement. With a Texas cowboy holding the reins of the single largest superpower in the world, such an explanation offers a seductive hint of reality. Yet it should not go unnoticed that these broad-based political ideologies also lend themselves quite conveniently to a growing anti-Israel movement, itself entangled with anti-Jewish sentiments.
So while the distinction between Jew and Israeli may be clear cut to those of us raised in metropolitan New York and Los Angeles, the semantics become little more than, well, semantics, when it comes to certain European perspectives. In an age of pop-culture politics, everyone has a finger to point. And in Europe it’s practically open season.
Lauren Gottlieb is a writer living in Washington, D.C.