It is no secret that Europe hasn’t been the friendliest place for Jews over the centuries. Exile, persecution, inquisition, and Holocaust against the Jews have filled the pages of European history books.
It is also no secret that over the last few years, and the last year in particular, that lack of safety and friendship has made a comeback throughout the continent. Anti-Semitic attacks, anti-Israel demonstrations turned anti-Semitic riots, and comments from government leaders that are less than friendly to the Jewish people have begun to plague the nations of Europe once again. Due to this, the Jewish populations of several European countries are emigrating en masse, to make Aliyah or move to the more welcoming cities of the US and Canada.
This is a phenomenon in history that one usually only sees on the news or reads about in essays and books. But this week, I was able to gain a better personal understanding of the issue. A friend and I decided to use the two week winter break that our gap year program in Israel gives us to travel to Rome and Florence. During this last week, seeing the sites old and older, we were able to grow our understanding of the fear and paranoia that the rising anti-Semitism is causing in Europe’s Jews.
Right from the start of the trip, we were able to see the signs of Europe’s rising dangers for Jews. Boarding the plane late at night at Ben Gurion airport, there was the constant sense of excitement and ruach that is found throughout Israel. The flight was a full one, and from the second that the captain turned off the fasten seat belts sign, Israelis and Italian Jews alike were standing in the aisles, wearing their kippot, loudly debating Israeli politics, Talmud, and an assortment of other Jewish topics.
But as soon as the wheels of our plane touched the runway in Rome, the atmosphere changed. Everyone began to accept that we were no longer in Israel, in the Jewish home. The passengers adapted to their new environment of 21st century European anti-Semitism. No more was the loud, enthusiastic debate about Jewish topics. No longer were the men wearing their kippot: one look around the cabin and you could see hands reaching for heads to remove kippot, including mine.
It was an act so simple, removing a kippah, yet it was so much more. Perhaps I am over-dramatizing it, but this was a plane full of Jews that were removing the most basic of physical signs of their Jewishness. To me, that was a major sign of just what kind of problem is arising in Europe. That Jews cannot safely be Jews is scary, disgusting, and wrong. That was when it became clear to me that we have a major problem at hand.
When we saw a man at the Colosseum wearing his kippah, my first reaction was to comment on how brave and daring he must be. Brave and daring? For what? For being himself? For doing what he would do with almost no worry in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York, or Toronto? When that was my first reaction to a man simply wearing his kippah, it became clear that we have a major problem at hand.
When we were walking to Chabad in Rome on Friday night, I was able to tell which street we had to turn up to get to the synagogue, because it was the one with an Italian Army jeep and half a dozen Italian soldiers with machine guns guarding it. When we went to visit the Great Synagogue of Florence (which every person should visit if they ever go to Italy), we had to leave all of our belongings, even our phones, behind and be cleared by full body airport scanners, for fear of anti-Semites smuggling in something to do harm to the synagogue or the people inside. When it takes these security measures usually associated with army bases and airline travel to navigate to or enter a synagogue, it became clear that we have a major problem at hand.
Despite all this, I am not trying to say that there is absolutely no good at all for Jews in Europe. There were several moments throughout our week in Italy when we felt safe, when we felt at home, when we felt Jewish. When we visited the Great Synagogue of Florence, we felt at home, as we discussed our Jewish communities with a couple of Jewish college students from New York we had just met. When we went to Shabbat dinner at Chabad in Rome, where we spoke in Hebrew, made new friends, and played an inter-continental round of everyone’s favorite past time, Jewish Geography, we felt at home. When the non-Jewish Italian soldier checking our passports to let us into dinner on Friday, who was wearing an IDF ski hat, greeted us with “Shalom Aleichem” and “Shabbat Shalom,” we felt at home.
These few small moments that made us feel at home showed that there is still hope for renewed acceptance, hope for renewed coexistence, and hope for renewed European Jewry. However, it also showed that the hope found cannot be turned into results alone; it requires action from all of us to sculpt this blank piece of hope filled marble into a beautiful sculpture of peace and friendship.
As I write this sitting on an El Al plane, 30,000 feet above some Greek Islands, I know that when I land at Ben Gurion Airport in a few hours, that I will return to not having to hide my Judaism. But now when I publicly embrace my Judaism, I will do so not only knowing that our brothers and sisters across Europe cannot do so safely, I will truly understand the hiding they must do. They must hide themselves from the rest of the world, for they know not who it is safe to share their Judaism with.
As my jet soars through the sky, I know that the cause of this hiding and this fear is wrong. It is wrong that any Jew must hide their Judaism, it is wrong that any person must hide who they are proud to be. And when something is wrong, we must stand up against it. When our fellow Jews are living in fear, some even in terror, it is up to the rest of the Jewish world to stand up and call out to the world, “Do you not see this? Why do you sit idly by and let this hate happen?” If we rise up and ask the world this and are part of the solution, we can make positive change. But if we don’t, if we allow it to continue, then us Jews free from daily anti-Semitism are only part of the problem. So what will you do? Join us and bring an end to this hate, or stand idly by on the wrong side of history?