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Fighting Spirit

Binyamin Rose, Vienna

After an extreme right-wing party candidate narrowly missed being elected Austria’s president recently, rabbis from all over the continent gathered in Vienna to strategize and set priorities.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

spirit

While Jewish existence in Europe has always been precarious, the massive Muslim immigration of the last five years and concurrent rise of extreme right-wing political parties have compounded Jewish insecurity. Just two weeks after the candidate from an extreme right-wing party narrowly missed being elected Austria’s president, rabbis from all over the continent gathered in Vienna to strategize and set priorities for what they know will be a bumpy road ahead.

Vienna, Austria

Security is state-of-the-art at the Vienna Jewish Community’s sprawling campus. It has to be. Some 600 Jewish children ages 18 months to 18 years learn and play there each day. The campus also houses sports facilities and Europe’s largest and most modern Jewish home for the elderly. 

An electric fence surrounds the complex. So does a concrete wall that’s both eight feet high and dug eight feet deep. Glass windows and doors are reinforced to withstand the most devastating of bomb blasts. The elevated train that rolls along the perimeter of the playground is also walled off by concrete topped by corrugated metal, rendering the campus invisible and inaccessible from the tracks. 

Not every Jewish institution in Vienna has, or requires, that level of security. Rabbis and reporters walked freely and without incident from one venue to the next at last week’s meeting of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in Austria’s capital. Kosher restaurants, bakeries, and even some shuls and yeshivos in Vienna’s Second District seem to get by without much security at all. 

But you have to keep your antennae up. “Everyone in Europe is a potential terror victim, and the Jews are on the front lines,” said Dr. Ariel Muzicant, the former head of Vienna’s 7,700 member Jewish community. In cooperation with the European Jewish Congress, Dr. Muzicant initiated the Security and Crisis Centre (SACC), an organization that is currently mapping the security needs of Europe’s Jewish communities, and is providing training to prepare and apply crisis management plans. 

“Our shock was the vast majority of communities haven’t even made a budget or filed for government subsidies,” Muzicant says. “And 80 percent of the Jewish communities in Europe don’t have a crisis management team.” 

Currently, only eight of the 28 EU nations provide a measure of security funding to their Jewish communities. It was those vital security needs that dominated discussion at the opening session of the CER conference. 

The risks are high, and growing. 

Nearly 2 million illegal immigrants entered Europe last year, mainly from war-torn Middle Eastern countries. The continent is bracing for a new flow of refugees this summer. The migrant crisis has created a backlash among native Europeans, and is strengthening the standing of Europe’s extreme right-wing parties, largely dormant since World War II. 

“This is a fight for the existential survival of Europe,” says Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, reelected at last week’s conference to a second five-year term as CER president. “If radical Islam wins the battle in Europe, it will not be due to its strengths but because of the weaknesses of the European Union.”

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