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Antisemitism and Europe’s God problem

When a Kristallnacht commemoration documented the rising violence against Jews in Europe but didn't explain it, I had no choice but to figure it out myself
In the courtyard of Synagogue Hekhal Haness in Geneva, last night, November 8, 2022. (photo by the author)
In the courtyard of Synagogue Hekhal Haness in Geneva, last night, November 8, 2022. (photo by the author)

Through an old-time community email chain, I was alerted to a commemoration of Kristallnacht taking place here in Geneva last night. I’m told it’s an annual event.

I walked from my side of town to the neighboring borough to discover, on a curving backstreet, Synagogue Hekhal Haness. It’s a complex of buildings erected in the ’70s by the Sephardic community that is the largest shul in town.

In 2007, the place was partly wrecked by a mysterious fire. Last night, everything seemed quiet and elegant.

Perhaps a better word is groovy: the walls of our meeting room were paneled in what looked like walnut. There were bronze-toned railings and chandeliers that recalled the era of Steve McQueen and Oriana Fallaci. If the Bradys had been Jewish, this is where Jan would have prayed.

On the menu for the evening were El Malei Rachamim and a Kaddish, sung brilliantly by Rabbis Toledano and Gabbaï. But first some music on the violin, played by an adolescent, who was, along with my middle-aged self, one of the few in the room not eligible for a pension. The melody? It was John Williams. You know the one.

After several introductory speakers made what the program called “allocutions,” it was time for the main event: a slide presentation.

There to flip the slides was an associate professor from a celebrated institution in Paris where I myself studied years ago. He has a Silver Medal of the City of Paris, has been “decorated with” the Legion of Honor, as the French say it, and is a reserve officer in a parachute regiment. Very impressive.

His presentation, which went on a bit, was full of numbers. A slideshow of grids and graphics generated by a bouquet of French think tanks with names like IFOP and FIP. The whole thing was leavened by a breezy manner, but it seemed to me that something was missing.

This was an exercise in midcentury French sociology. It vibed with the groove of the hall. The man gave us facts: poll results, mostly (“Jews control the government: yay or nay?”) that covered most of Europe.

There were grim statistics like the number of Jews killed in France over the last two decades. He did take the time to name each victim, which was appropriate and appreciated.

But how much can you learn from statistics? Behind me there was an older lady whom I’ve met before at community gatherings, this time in her francophone avatar, sitting close to her mild-mannered husband. She loved statistics, and she helped us understand their import by stage-whispering her reactions to each new slide (“Thirty-nine percent! In Denmark! My God!”).

But, except for perhaps a queasy ripple of unsafety, the presentation seemed to leave most of the audience flat, emotionally. Intellectually, too.

Why? Because there was no why.

The professor gave us a morphological description of the symptoms without a diagnosis of the cause, except perhaps to allude to Twitter and Facebook. His prescription, pre-announced on the poster, was more education. Especially in public schools. That’s fine and even admirable, for those who do it, but is it new, even in France?

Antisemitism in Europe is up. It is up on the Communist left and on the identitarian right. Some Muslims are deeply antisemitic, and we are building minarets on this continent at a fair clip, even as steeples come down. People are saying things aloud that, even 10 years ago, would have earned lasting public censure.

So why all this hatred of Jews? And why is it, seemingly, growing? A table won’t tell you.

But I live in this city and I ride its trams and shuffle down its narrow sidewalks in a hoi polloi of worldly citizens and citizens of the world. I have my ideas.

So here’s my why:

We’re suicidal. We’re doing this because we want to die.

A Minnesota newspaper editor, who is Catholic, put it this way last week: in the French Revolution, the wearers of the Phrygian cap formed mobs and pushed the enemies of the state up the platform to the guillotine. Now it’s our own necks that we bare for the chopping block.

Childbearing is down. Family formation is down. Deaths of despair are up. Literal suicide is up. In Switzerland, there’s even a service you can call to come and take your life for you. (All the obliteration with none of the muss.) We’re miserable and we’d be glad to go. But damned if we’re going to let you live another story in peace.

But again, why? As the Christian-born wife of a prominent rabbi — herself a Frenchwoman — told me last month, as we walked over the Rhone, there’s no soul here. And that’s exactly right.

People in Europe are still comfortable, on the whole, even if this week the mayor of Rome is forbidding his citizens to turn on the heat. They have what to live from. But do they have what to live for?

Increasingly, “no” is the answer. There’s a cross-shaped void at the heart of Europe, as I wrote in my last post in this space, which I published the morning after Notre Dame burned. The void is not sterile and safe and well-lit, as moderns might prefer. Instead, like the trench left in place of the cathedral, the empty space is dark and stinking. It is partially shrouded in smoke. And it makes people awfully uncomfortable.

They are taking it out on the Jews. Is it right? Not in the least. It is happening, though, and I suspect it’s because of God.

Jewish people, too, may have an ambiguous relationship with the Almighty. Surely they’re allowed. But others intuit — or such is my hunch — that the Jewish people is connected to God all the same. Europe’s God problem thus becomes a Jewish problem. And it’s not enough to denounce “antisemitism and other forms of racism,” or (in a turn still more banal) “hate.” The Jewish people is special, and, in a self-mutilating Europe that has come to hate its God, especially at risk.

Might it be helpful to reconcile the Europeans to the God who made them; to the Church that made them Europe?

That is what logic suggests.

As some readers know, for my sins, I am a priest. I’ll do what I can, with God’s help.

About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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