Anti-Semitism in Europe is, once again, making headlines. In Paris, crowds sang, “Jews, France is not yours” at an anti-government protest last month. In Rome, a right-wing extremist mailed three pig heads to major Jewish sites, and Italy had its own anti-government protest — complete with anti-Semitic slogans — a couple of months ago. Plus, a recently released survey conducted in seven EU countries suggests that the perception of anti-Semitism is on the rise among European Jews.
As anti-Jewish hatred gains ground, some Jewish communities are growing more insular in response. In certain Jewish circles, there’s a growing perception of living “under attack” — a siege mentality that results at times in self-segregation. But resorting to self-segregation may just be another way of falling victim to anti-Semitism.
Let’s get the facts straight: Anti-Semitism is a real issue and European Jews have good reason to being concerned, as the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights survey confirms. Although the polling focuses mostly on the perception of anti-Semitism, rather than on actual hate crime data, it also shows a direct correlation between fear and actual experience: For instance, in France, where 21% of Jews have experienced instances of racism, 70% say that they fear anti-Semitism; by contrast, in Italy, where “only” 16% of Jews have experienced anti-Semitism first-hand, less than half say they fear being attacked or insulted.
Basically, what these data show is that the perception of anti-Semitism among Jews is rational and based on real experiences — but it surpasses the actual threat of falling victim to an instance of racism. In other words, anti-Semitism in Europe is disseminating fear at a much higher rate than it is creating physical victims.
This reality was underscored for me recently by a conversation I had with a female college student, who worked as a youth organizer in the Italian Jewish community. “Some people are living like we are under attack,” she told me, on condition of anonymity.
She said that following the recent wave of anti-Semitic episodes in Paris and Rome, community leaders have issued warnings that sound “more or less like a call to arms,” as if “there’s some kind of imminent attack.”
She also noted that some people have come to see heavily Jewish neighborhoods (especially Rome’s old Ghetto) as their own private territory. In mid-January, three young non-Jewish men were beaten with baseball bats by what appeared to be a group of Jewish youngsters, after the men attempted to tear down a poster commemorating Ariel Sharon in Rome’s Ghetto. While the identity of the attackers has yet to be ascertained, the reactions in online forums by some Roman Jews have been quite telling: Many expressed support for the attacks, while others compared the Ghetto to the stronghold of hooligans or extremists.
“If I shout slogans against Lazio [soccer team] inside their stadium, I can’t expect to come out of it alive,” wrote a young man, suggesting that the same logic applies to the Jewish neighborhood. A national newspaper even quoted a senior community leader making a similar comparison: “If I had taken a flag down from Casapound [the headquarters of Rome’s neo-fascist movement], wouldn’t the same thing have happened?”
“They’re basically saying, ‘it’s our territory, we make the rules,’” the college student explained. She said that she was harassed for having posted the article online: “I was called a sellout and told that dirty clothes should be washed in the family” — an old saying suggesting that a close-knit group should make unpleasant information inaccessible to outsiders. “You see where are we going?”
In the meantime, the survey mentioned above also reports that many avoid wearing religious symbols in public places: On average, almost 70% of European Jews say they avoid doing so at least occasionally. Their efforts not to be identified as Jews are partially explainable as rational reactions to anti-Semitic episodes, whether those episodes were experienced firsthand or relayed by family and friends.
But, on the other hand, one also has to wonder if the desire not to be identified as Jewish is a sign of a growing generalized distrust towards non-Jews. If so, what negative impact might that have on the European Jewish community itself?
“In the end it’s a matter of choosing whether you want to live in the shadow of prejudice, feeding your own fear,” the college student said, “or giving society a chance and taking the risk of letting outsiders know you.”