On My Mind: European Body Bags
By Kenneth Bandler, AJC Director of Media Relations
25 May 2015
How many body bags must be filled with murdered Jews before European leaders grasp the enormity of the situation? How many body bags must be filled with murdered Jews before European leaders grasp the enormity of the situation? That question, posed by a young Danish Jewish leader over dinner in Brussels, reverberated throughout the sessions and coffee-break hallway conversations at a conference the next day on what can and should be done to effectively address the dramatic rise in European anti-Semitism, much of it violent.
The murder of four people, including an Israeli couple, whose teenage children are now orphans, at the Jewish museum in Brussels a year ago was a wake-up call to Belgium, deputy prime minister Jan Jambon declared in a keynote address opening the AJC conference “A Defining Moment for Europe” on May 5. Belgian authorities stepped up security at Jewish schools and synagogues, but only in the last days of April, 11 months after the museum attack, did Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel announce that his government would provide sufficient funding for security at Jewish sites. For how long is the next question. See the latest opinion pieces on our Opinion & Blogs Facebook page Denmark got its wake-up call in February, with twin terrorist attacks on a free speech event in Copenhagen followed by the murder of a volunteer Jewish security guard at a local synagogue.
The Danish government soon thereafter overcame its resistance to providing security and having police officers assigned to Jewish installations. For Jonathan Fischer, vice president of Denmark’s Jewish community, stationing law enforcement after a deadly attack is “completely irrelevant.” His bitter frustration is evident as he speaks about the death of Dan Uzan, who had stood alone outside the building where a bat mitzvah celebration was underway.
What is so needed, said Fischer, is preemptive action by police that could help prevent such attacks. Visible security at certain buildings in Copenhagen would unsettle Danish citizens, Fischer and my AJC colleague Rabbi Andrew Baker were told last September when they met with government officials. Baker, who also serves as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) point man on combating anti-Semitism, regularly meets with local Jewish community leaders and government officials across Europe.
In recent months those meetings have focused on public recognition of escalating anti-Semitism, and how best to respond. Preventive measures are not automatically activated, even when terrorist threats may be very close. Just as the fatal January terrorist attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo offices and the kosher supermarket did not jolt Denmark out of its idyllic comfort zone, so, too, Sweden did not institute new security measures.
But the carnage a month later in Copenhagen did alarm Lena Posner-Korosi, president of Sweden’s Jewish community. “It could have happened in Sweden. Denmark is just a doorstep away,” she said. Sweden now has around-the-clock police protection for Jewish community institutions. “This is not sustainable,” said Posner-Korosi. In the end, the Jewish community still is responsible for its own security, and it is costly, accounting for some 25 to 30 percent of membership fees. In Denmark security accounts for 25% of the Jewish community’s annual budget.
That reality, said Fischer, is “obviously not sustainable.” French Jews, in contrast, have long received government support for security, and such cooperation has only deepened since January. “The cost is so high that there is no chance our community would get this level of security if not financed by the government,” said Ron Azogui, former director of the Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ).
In France more than 80% of the Jewish community’s security costs, providing protection for more than 700 community buildings, including 160 schools, are financed by the government, he said. Effectively combating anti-Semitism will require a multi-pronged approach that, of course, deals with security, but, importantly, also launches educational programs in schools, addresses the dangers of prisoner radicalization and penalizes those who use the Internet and social media to spread vile hatred of Jews.
AJC presented its “Call to Action” comprehensive plan at its Brussels conference, and follow-up with governments and key EU officials is underway. A first priority, in addition to ensuring the security of Jewish communities, is pressing European governments to make clear from the highest levels that anti-Semitism is a high priority.
Only France so far has established a high-level position dedicated to combating anti-Semitism. Gilles Chevraeul, who began last December as the inter-ministerial delegate on racism and anti-Semitism, reports to Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who himself has been consistently outspoken, decrying the assaults on Jews as attacks on France itself. For French Jews, who experienced more than 800 anti-Semitic incidents, about three a day, in 2014 alone, the government response has been real and comforting. Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and other countries across Europe must take similar steps and more.
Jewish communities, meanwhile, remain on edge, wondering not if, but where the next major attack will occur. “I’m afraid that something will happen in two months, in two years, another terrible wake-up call,” said Fischer.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.