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Targeted from Both Sides

Binyamin Rose, Amsterdam

Europe’s Jews need all the help they can get as they find themselves hemmed in by the twin forces of ill political winds and civilization clash

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

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CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE Europe’s Jews are feeling increasing discomfort over the rising forces against them. “This is not 1933 all over again, but we’re seeing a clash of civilizations. We Jews find ourselves in the middle, and we’re getting shot at from both sides,” says Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the CER (Photos: Eli Itkin, Binyamin Rose)

D inner speeches aren’t always well received, especially late at night, when an open ear faces stiff competition from an empty stomach, but this night posed an exception to the rule.

The speaker was Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission. Timmermans reminisced over his June 2014 state visit to Poland with the Dutch royal family, which included a stop at a Warsaw museum.

One exhibit stopped him in his tracks.

“I saw a picture of a boy that reminded me of my son Max,” Timmermans said. “I looked again and saw it was a Dutch boy. The nameplate was in Polish, and it said the boy’s name was Deddie Zak. I recognized the address, which is 20 minutes away from where we now live in Amsterdam.”

“Deddie could have been here at this dinner tonight as an 82-year-old grandfather.”

But he wasn’t.

Deddie was born in February 1935 in Amsterdam as David Jacob Zak. When he was eight years old, the Nazis whisked him away on the infamous children’s transport to the Sobibor death camp on June 6 and 7, 1943. Five days later, Deddie was no longer among the living.

“The danger we all live in today,” Timmermans added, “is the process of seeing a boy who could potentially be your own son, and justifying or explaining away his murder. We must be vigilant and stand up to anti-Semitism.”

Timmerman’s words fell on receptive ears before this audience of more than 300 rabbanim and community leaders from 34 countries at a dinner marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER). He enjoys warm relations with Europe’s Orthodox Jewish leaders, and is not the only mainstream European politician to warn of far-reaching consequences over the identity politics consuming the European street. But even though most European voters in countries such as Austria, Holland, and France have rejected voting far-right parties with Nazi or fascist roots into power in the past year, the politics of fear is infecting the continent to the detriment of its Jewish population.

Despite her loss to Emanuel Macron in the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, still won almost 34% of the vote.

In Hungary, even though the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban enjoys warm relations with Israel, Hungary’s recent billboard campaign against George Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew, for his financing of left-wing NGOs smacked of anti-Semitic overtones and almost derailed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent visit to Budapest.

Two key regions in Belgium have passed laws this year to ban shechitah, while in Norway, leaders of the Progress Party, a coalition partner, have passed a resolution urging the government to ban circumcision until a boy reaches age 16 and can give his consent.

Europe’s Jews are feeling increasing discomfort over the rising forces against them. “This is not 1933 all over again, but we’re seeing a clash of civilizations. We Jews find ourselves in the middle, and we’re getting shot at from both sides,” says Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the CER.

Making Jews Feel at Home

Amsterdam’s quaint charm, polite citizenry, and international flavor provided a welcome break from the dreary political climate. Amsterdam’s diversity is palpable, with its array of ethnic restaurants, including the halal shawarma shop serving the Muslim community, which coexists peacefully with its next-door neighbor, a pub prominently advertising the locally brewed Heineken beer. My kippah and appearance did not attract any special attention as I walked some of the streets in the city center with another chareidi colleague.

As in most major European cities, getting around is easy. Bicycles are more numerous than cars at some points during the day. The main streets in the city center have specially marked lanes to accommodate vehicular traffic, bikes, pedestrians, and trains.

Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag toiled for years to make Amsterdam’s eiruv operational again

The light rail in town sounds squeaky as it winds along curvy, treelined streets, but stays on track. One novelty is that passengers exit and enter from alternate railcars, which means boarding and departure is not a contact sport.

Most buildings along the route consist of four- to six-story brown or red brick homes, with white frame windows, and Dutch tulips in flowerpots. Private homes in the posh suburban neighborhoods are situated along the banks of the city’s ubiquitous canals.

As the city is both surrounded by water and built within a ring of canals, it’s always presented an unusual challenge for the community eiruv, which has become a symbol of cooperation between the city and its small Jewish community of some 2,000 families.

Spread out over more than 30 miles, the eiruv spans 64 crossings, 51 of which are bridges. The eiruv became operational in the 17th century, under the supervision of Rav Yaakov Sasportas (1610-1698), best known for his fierce opposition to the messianic cult of Shabbetai Tzvi. In those days, Amsterdam’s bridges were drawbridges that were left in their upright position overnight. Rav Sasportas ruled that such bridges had the halachic status of doors that could be opened and shut, and therefore, did not constitute a breach in the eiruv.

The halachic status of the bridges changed when Amsterdam expanded outside the ring of canals and some of the drawbridges became permanent. At that point, they could have been considered a breach in the eiruv.

Enter Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, who arrived in Amsterdam from the US in 1972 as a dayan. His first attempt at resolving the problem was not successful, but he made it his top priority when he returned in 2005 as rosh beis din and chief rabbi. By 2008, he had devised a solution that won the approval of gedolim such as Rav Yaakov Yisrael Fisher ztz”l and Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner ztz”l: he manufactured boxes with chains of rope that could be installed on the bridges and serve the same function as a door, replicating the status of the old drawbridges.

But it still requires cooperation of the local authorities as the halachah requires that you have the capability of “closing the doors” of the area covered by the eiruv.

“So twice a year, the police will stop all traffic, including the trains, in both directions on a Sunday morning at 5 a.m. for about ten or fifteen minutes, so we can close off the roads,” Rabbi Ralbag says. “It’s really quite a scene.”

Especially since eiruvim have often proven to be political flashpoints in many cities around the world. But not in Amsterdam.

“If you’re really a democracy, you prove it by how you treat your minorities, not by how the majority rule,” says Simone Kukenheim, deputy mayor of Amsterdam, who was among several city officials who accepted an award from the Amsterdam Jewish community and its rabbis on the opening day of the CER conference. “Amsterdam has always cherished its diversity,” she added. “The Jewish community has a long and rich history in the city, and this how we make them feel at home.”

Heights of Hypocrisy

An eiruv is also emblematic of achdus, said Rabbi Haim Korsia, France’s chief rabbi at a news conference arranged for the Israeli and European press who arrived in Amsterdam to cover the three-day event. “An eiruv means it’s everyone’s place. The same applies to all the problems of Jewish communal life in the individual countries of Europe. They become everyone’s problems.”

That being the case, moves underfoot to ban shechitah in Belgium are also a joint concern, and one that Frans Timmermans related to in his dinner address.

“Shechitah, if done according to the rules by people trained to do it, shouldn’t be a problem in any society,” he said.

But not every European politician agrees.

A growing number of European countries either ban shechitah outright, or require animals to be stunned before or immediately after slaughter, a procedure that renders an animal treif.

In May, the Wallonia region of Belgium imposed a total ban, and the Flanders region, home to Antwerp and Brussels, where most Belgian Jews reside, followed suit in June.

Interviewed on the sidelines of the conference, Brussels Chief Rabbi Albert Guigui, a member of the CER’s standing committee, shared an alarming backstory with me. When Wallonia’s agricultural committee debated its schechitah ban, Rabbi Guigui, along with Rabbi Pinchas Kornfeld (president of the Machzikei Hadas kashrus authority in Antwerp) and Philippe Markiewicz (president of the Consistoire, Belgium’s leading lay Jewish organization) met with the parliamentarians.

“We brought them proofs from scientists and learned professors, who are completely neutral and have no connection to Judaism, that shechitah causes less pain to animals than any other form of slaughter,” Rabbi Guigui says.

The lawmakers remained unconvinced.

The next step was to educate them about the process. “Not one lawmaker who was set to vote against it had ever witnessed a live shechitah,” Rabbi Guigui says.

Eventually, committee members agreed to see a video. However, the Jewish leaders soon discovered that animal rights activists sabotaged the viewing, substituting a video of Muslim halal slaughter. “And the whole idea of that video was to show how much animals suffer from ritual slaughter,” Rabbi Guigui says, adding that the entire episode is the epitome of hypocrisy, for at least two reasons.

One, stunning the animal before slaughter, as required in many European countries, is ineffective in as many as 16% of the attempts, meaning that 20,000 cows are cruelly slaughtered each year in Belgium alone. “But what irks them is the 1,000 cows we slaughter each year in Wallonia?” says Rabbi Guigui.

He adds that the law is also hypocritical from another aspect. “We can’t slaughter a cow in Belgium because it’s cruel to animals, but we can import a slaughtered cow from Holland,” Rabbi Guigui says. “If the intent of the law is to prevent cruelty to animals, does a cow in Holland have less rights than a cow in Belgium? If they let us import from another land, it’s proof that cruelty to animals is not the issue.”

Word Power

Jews often tend to blame anti-Semitism for such legislation, but sometimes other biases — and even ignorance of Jewish traditions — are at fault.

Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission’s coordinator on combatting anti-Semitism, who delivered the opening greetings at dinner on the first night of the conference, spoke with me the next morning about a July 2014 case in which three Palestinians threw Molotov cocktails into a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany. The courts convicted the perpetrators of a criminal act, but said it was not anti-Semitic because their act was an expression of their political convictions.

“This is a synagogue that was burned in 1938 [on Kristallnacht],” Mrs. Von Schnurbein says. “Biases can be overcome, but they need to be addressed. There is a clear need of education for judges.”

Mrs. von Schnurbein has become an ally of note for the European Jewish community. “I’m not Jewish, but I grew up in a home where we discussed and were very aware of the Shoah, the need for reconciliation, and the responsibility that Germany has and we as Germans have.”

She visited Israel with her parents for the first time about 30 years ago when she was 14. Her most vivid memory is of Masada, and the orange juice stand at the bottom of the fortress where she could quench her thirst in the hot desert sun. Her family met many Israelis on their holidays, and hosted reciprocal visits in their home in Bavaria. “Some of them were musicians, and we sang Hebrew songs together, even though we didn’t understand a word,” she says.

But in her current position, she very much understands the power of words, especially when it comes to stopping illegal hate speech online. “We know that, often, concrete physical attacks start in the virtual world,” Mrs. Von Schnurbein says, adding that one of the projects she is working on would train prosecutors, police, and judges to recognize an anti-Semitic crime and use the laws of the various EU countries to haul the perpetrators into court.

“You can knock on the door and say, ‘You have posted this, it is illegal, and we are prosecuting you.’ This is European-wide legislation, but not all member states have properly implemented it,” she says.

While combating negative speech falls into the political and legal domains, utilizing speech as a positive force has been a key element for those who hold a rabbinical pulpit.

A think tank known as Hulya conducts such formal training on an ongoing basis, and includes workshops on dealing with the news media, especially social media. Hulya unites community activists and rabbis throughout Europe, and is funded by the Matanel Foundation, founded by Joelle Aflalo of Luxembourg.

In some ways, the training resembles that given to members of the diplomatic corps: “How to be careful in their language, and in doing so, you don’t give your own opinion; you give the Jewish position in a way that can be understood by others,” Mrs. Aflalo says.

This is paramount in Europe, where the official representatives of some 90% of Europe’s Jewish communities are Orthodox rabbis. As such, they are often invited to represent Jewish interests at civic and interfaith events.

The training is vitally important to combat two new trends: the lack of a rising, young lay leadership in dwindling Jewish communities, as well as the ascension of some lay Jewish leaders who sympathize with the far-right.

“Some members of the Jewish community are voting for far-right parties with the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, forgetting that voting for racist parties 72 years after the Holocaust is not the greatest idea,” Rabbi Goldschmidt says. “We hope to make sure the Jewish community will not lose its small high ground and not be embarrassed by leaders who are racist.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 672)

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