When I was a child, my mother used to tell me how when he was only 11 years old, my grandfather left his hometown of Danzig (now Gdansk, in Poland), and traveled alone on a boat to England. My grandfather is Jewish and the trip saved his life.
I listened to that story from the safety of the 1990s. It was a long time ago, I thought. It won’t happen again.
And yet, here we are, in 2015. Over the past few days and weeks, we have seen too much evidence that far from being a painful memory of the past, anti-Semitism is still very much alive in Europe. In January, four Jewish men were killed in a kosher supermarket in Paris, two days after the brutal attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead. Last week, a man attacked a synagogue in Copenhagen, killing a Jewish man as he guarded the building during a Bat Mitzvah celebration. Hours earlier, the same man attacked a cultural centre where a debate on blasphemy and freedom of expression was taking place, killing a man and injuring three police officers. Investigations are still underway, but the events are disturbingly similar to the attacks in Paris in January.
Only last weekend, hundreds of Jewish graves were desecrated in a cemetery near Strasbourg, France. In its 2014 report, the Community Security Trust in the UK reported the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents it had ever recorded. In London, the Metropolitan police recorded a 120% rise in anti-Semitic crime in 2014. With hate crimes generally underreported, the real figures are likely to be much higher.
And the list goes on. Last May, a man shot four people dead in a Jewish museum in Brussels. In 2012, a man and three children were shot dead at a Jewish school in Toulouse. In a 2013 survey on experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism, the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that three quarters of respondents living in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and the UK felt anti-Semitism had increased in the country where they lived over the previous five years. Almost half worried about being insulted or harassed in public because they were Jewish, and a third feared being physically attacked for the same reason.
In a continent where Jews have been victims of violence, hostility, and discrimination for centuries, these latest attacks are a reminder that while Europe has come a long way since the Second World War, it still has a long way to go.
Security around Jewish schools and synagogues has rightly been increased in France, the UK, and Denmark, and other countries should also take adequate measures in the face of these threats—including through the criminal justice system. Leaders in many European countries have spoken out forcefully against the recent attacks and wider anti-Semitism. But beyond words of solidarity and upping security, European leaders and societies as a whole need to grapple with identifying why, 70 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, people are being shot simply because they are Jewish, and why hostility towards Jews is still so pervasive. The root causes and triggers of violence may not be the same in every country, but there are surely common threads.
Both the horrific attacks like the ones we have seen over the past few months and the daily discrimination Jews suffer are fuelled by prejudice and stereotypes, and in some cases dialogue and open debate can help. But the factors which drive some to commit violence are complex too; some attackers may have been exploited and coerced, while others may have acted more out of frustration than deep-seated hatred. These issues need to be identified and tackled too, and Jewish communities and leaders can play an important role in this.
Europe’s governments and its citizens need to address this rise in anti-Semitism urgently so that 70 years on, we can say that we have not forgotten the past, but we have learned from it.
Izza Leghtas is Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.