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A bad joke: The sad reality of Jews in Europe

Any celebration of Jewish culture must acknowledge that what makes Jews what they are, ultimately, is not their jokes or their movies, but the mark in their flesh

On Sunday, 27 countries across Europe will celebrate the annual European Day of Jewish Culture 2012.

What begun in 1996, near Strasbourg, France, as a local effort to open abandoned and decaying synagogues to the public, with the ultimate goal of raising enough funds to restore them, has today developed into a continent-wide one-day cultural event focused on a theme – and its ultimate goal is to celebrate and divulge Jewish culture across Europe.

No doubt, every EU country will have put money and efforts, alongside local Jewish communities and institutions, to celebrate Jewish culture and showcase its support for continuous Jewish revival as a sign that despite history, in today’s Europe, Jews are truly at home.

Not fully welcome. Tisha B'Av in the French Jewish Community in Paris, 2012 (photo credit: Attal/Flash 90)
Not fully welcome. Tisha B’Av in the French Jewish Community in Paris, 2012 (photo credit: Attal/Flash 90)

Anti-Semitism, on and off, has been a growing and disconcerting phenomenon in Europe during the last decade and a half, and there is no better evidence of its marginal nature — Sunday’s speakers will no doubt remark — than the impressive display of public participation in Sunday’s activities. To be fair, the European Day of Jewish Culture is but one of many publicly funded or sponsored cultural activities that showcase Jewish culture, life and history in Europe. Museums, film festivals, book weeks, cultural exhibits, public funds for synagogue restoration, Holocaust education, property restitution, school visits to Auschwitz — all are but a few of the thousands of events, activities, and recurrences that engage Europe in its steady course towards reclaiming its Jewish past proudly as its own.

Yet, we should not mistake an enthusiastic embrace of dead Jews and their artefacts, or of living Jews and their active participation in Western culture, as a sign that Jews are fully welcome. At least, not on their own terms.

Consider this year’s theme for Sunday’s celebrations – Jewish humor. Jokes will be in abundance, as if to suggest that self-irony is what makes Jews what they are.

Jewish humor is very distinctive and very real – and there is something both redeeming and philosophically intriguing in the phenomenon of a people making fun of itself for the better part of a history that was not always that funny. Yet, Jewish existence is not a joke. Nor is making a good Jewish joke all there is to being Jewish. Jews should know better – especially because, as of Monday, the harsh realities of affirming Jewish identity in Europe will return to haunt Jews who define their identity through so much more than Jewish humor.

When Jews wish to pray regularly in their European synagogues – the same places that will open their doors to the European Day of Jewish Culture on Sunday – they can only do so at their peril or under heavy security.

Jews who wish to publicly display the outward paraphernalia of their faith do so at their peril as well — chances are they will be beaten up here and there. It has happened before. It will happen again. It rarely gets more than the perfunctory condemnation of a society that, deep down, still feels uncomfortable when Jews dress, eat, and pray, like Jews.

Jews who wish to impart their children with a Jewish education know their little ones will grow sheltered in the golden cage of a caring Jewish school – happy islands with no anti-Semitism inside, thanks to the barbed wire and high walls plus round-the-clock security service outside. They also know that metal detectors and police patrols will not always deter those who thirst for Jewish blood — ask Jews in Toulouse and ask no further – though plenty of others could tell you stories late into the night of how Jewish toddlers grow accustomed to cops with sniffer dogs and machine guns outside their kindergartens.

Nor are Jews at liberty to express open, unabashed, and unconditional support for Israel — sooner or later that invites scorn and the occasional abuse (both verbal and physical). Jews get to laugh about themselves at official events – but what’s funny about facing criminal charges for circumcising your newborn sons and explosive charges when going to synagogue?

A European day of Jewish Culture can no longer hide the fact of a widening assault on the most fundamental facets of Jewish identity in today’s Europe – the concerted efforts, from all corners of the political spectrum, to ban circumcision of newborn Jewish boys and the ritual slaughter of animals, according to Jewish dietary laws.

All this is done in the name of liberal values – ritual slaughter becomes cruelty to animals; circumcision becomes an assault on free choice for toddlers to keep their foreskins intact; and the proverbial demonization of Israel as the 21st century version of apartheid has become the backdoor access for anti-Semites to join the liberal bandwagon of one standard for Jews and a different one for all other nations.

What makes Jews what they are, ultimately, is not their jokes or their movies or their occasional literary and artistic contributions to Western culture. It is the mark in their flesh that solemnly and permanently affirms their commitment to the laws of their forefathers; the head covers and prayer shawls they wear – daily for the pious, occasionally for everyone else – to remind themselves of their Creator and the covenant that binds them to His laws; that which they can and cannot eat for so He commanded; and their love for the land and the people of Israel, with the attendant dream of restoring Zion, in both the mundane and the messianic sense, which pervades their daily prayers, the rhythm of their holidays and their rites of passage from cradle to grave.

What makes Jews what they are, ultimately, is not their jokes or their movies, but the mark in their flesh. Mel Brooks in 'Robin Hood: Men in Tights'
What makes Jews what they are, ultimately, is not their jokes or their movies, but the mark in their flesh. Mel Brooks in ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’

And yet, to fearlessly walk the streets of Europe, the parents of a 21st century-born Jewish child must henceforth forgo his circumcision, make him renounce the outward signs of Jewish devotion, raise him as a vegetarian lest he break his ancestors’ dietary laws, deny him a Jewish education to increase his chances to live to adult age, and let him become imbued with a hatred for the country where half his coreligionists live and his ancestors came from or yearned to return to.

This is not a joke. It is what Europe, increasingly, has become for Jews.

About the Author
Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies