Middle East Refugees, Anti-Semitism, and the Challenge to Europe’s Democratic Values

Rabbi Abraham  Cooper
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Posted: Oct 29, 2015 11:42 AM
Middle East Refugees, Anti-Semitism, and the Challenge to Europe’s Democratic Values

Editor’s note: This column was co-authored by Manfred Gerstenfeld,emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

At the beginning of the emotional debate sparked by the huge influx of refugees, leaders of the small vulnerable Jewish communities in Europe did not dare express their fears, lest they be painted as racists or Islamophobes. At that point the dominant voices in Western Europe not only favored the intake of all refugees, but bullied many early critics into silence.

Nor did Jews dare ask an obvious question: do European leaders have a responsibility to incorporate concerns of Jewish communities already reeling from anti-Semitic threats and attacks often emanating from radicalized Muslims?

Now, as European leaders seek to recalibrate their policies toward the continuing huge influx from the Middle East, several Jewish leaders have begun to speak out.

Oskar Deutsch, chairman of the Jewish community in Vienna, wrote in the Austrian dailyKurier that his community has helped many refugees over the years. However, the arrival of 20 million Muslims in Europe over recent decades has led to increased physical anti-Semitic attacks and migration of Jews. Deutsch added that refugees arriving now from Syria and Afghanistan come from societies where anti-Semitism is a staple in their schoolbooks, media and social networks. Terror against Israelis, Muslim attacks on Jewish schools, synagogues, museums and other institutions are often glorified in these countries.

A coalition of Dutch Jewish groups reacted with alarm as hundreds of refugees are being housed next to a Jewish neighborhood in the Amsterdam suburb of Amstelveen. It is the only place in the Netherlands with a visible Jewish community with multiple synagogues, Jewish schools, kosher restaurants and shops.

Their fears are based in reality.

A newly published report by the Fundamental Rights Agency elaborates on the sizable increase of anti-Semitism in Europe A Jewish defense organization in France reported that almost all attacks on Jews are carried out by Muslims. In the Netherlands this is true for over 60% of all anti-Semitic attacks. There are strong indications that many anti-Semitic incidents go unreported. All this has led the Vice-President of The European Commission (EC), Frans Timmermans, to assign separate coordinators to track anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Germany is the key player in this unfolding drama, because of the sheer number of new refugees taken in from Arab and Muslim countries. There are other reasons as well. After the Nazi Holocaust, Germany's Jewish community remained small until Germany welcomed sizeable Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. Russian Jews make up the great majority of the 230,000 Jews currently living in Germany.

In a country which committed the ultimate crime against Jews in the previous century, the presence of a large number of Jews is a psychological indicator that German democracy is functioning. Chancellor Angela Merkel's government underscored its sensitivity to Jewish concerns when it intervened rapidly with corrective legislation after a Cologne judge banned the core Judaic (and Muslim) practice of circumcision in 2012, a prohibition which had wide public support.

Now, Josef Schuster, President of Germany's Central Council of Jews, has expressed his worries during a meeting with Chancellor Merkel that many now seeking refuge in Germany come from countries where Israel is considered the prime enemy. He remarked that these people grew up with a very hostile image of Israel and frequently transfer these negative feelings to all Jews.

It is also likely that the massive refugee influx will lead to greater support of the extreme right wing, whose ideology poses yet another danger to Jewish communities.

Jews are left to wonder whether anyone else will express concerns that Germany could be welcoming some among the new arrivals who take the Koran literally and believe that Jews are pigs and monkeys. In the 20th Century, dehumanization of Jews was a centerpiece of German Nazi ideologies, which classified Jews as vermin or bacteria and paved the way for the Holocaust.

The German constitution has been translated into Arabic so it could be read by new immigrants. This is a beginning, but far from adequate. In view of what has happened in the past, all newcomers should be asked to sign a declaration accepting Democratic Values.

Just as it has lead the way in opening its borders and hearts to refugees, Germany will do itself, the rest of the continent and the new class of refugee/migrants a great service by demanding each new immigrant to commit to democratic values of peace, justice, non-discrimination and mutual respect.

Failure to require refugees to embrace civil society will likely lead to Jewish emigration, as is already has in France. It will also generate further mainstream support for xenophobic political parties and see a moral decline of a society that with much effort built a new democracy on the ruins of the Nazi Third Reich.