Australia/Israel Review

Europa Europa: Janus in Brussels

Sep 23, 2021 | Alex Benjamin

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So, how was your 5781? 

Jews marked their new year on Sept. 7, and went from year 5781 in the Jewish calendar to 5782. 

Most of us spent 5781 under lockdowns, but as we move from the toilet paper hoarding to a new phase, the new year offers a chance to look both backwards and forwards at the same time. There’s a Roman God called Janus who does that – more on him a bit later. 

So what was it like being a Jew in 5781? 

Here in Europe, being Jewish currently presents its own particular set of challenges. 

Go grab an atlas. With a pencil draw a line where the border between west and east Europe was. To the right you will find what I refer to as “deep south” antisemitism, that old fecund kind that has been around for millennia.

To the left of the pencil line, in the more “enlightened” west, the antisemitism is much more ‘imported’. It has travelled primarily with migrants from Arab lands and has a much more anti-Zionist tinge.

That’s without even touching on the COVID-related antisemitism, a modern incarnation of the old trope of well-poisoning: the claims that the Rothschilds are making a killing from COVID; the yellow stars being worn by anti-vaxxers.

A recent Eurobarometer survey found that 36% of the general public think that antisemitism is increasing, while another found that almost 90% of Jewish respondents have this view.

And the response from the European political leadership? Throw eyewatering amounts of cash at the issue, commission surveys such as the ones above, make statements that antisemitism is a cancer on the European body-politic, pressure social media companies, appoint special envoys to combat antisemitism, improve educational provision and increase security at our Jewish centres, synagogues and schools. 

I really cannot find fault in this shared commitment on the part of the political establishment. But the numbers don’t lie. How can it be that less than half of the population as a whole feel that antisemitism is growing, but around 90% of Jews here do. Are we naturally pessimistic? Are we overly sensitive? Or is there something else going on entirely? 

I’m going to say all three – but especially and particularly the last. It is time to bring Janus back into this story. 

Let’s take a single country in isolation – Belgium. Ask the Prime Minister, or the regional heads of Wallonia and Flanders, about antisemitism and they will earnestly and full-heartedly tell you that they are intent on wiping it out and that Belgium would not be Belgium without the Jews. Whenever an antisemitic incident takes place, they are first on the scene offering support and words of condolence. It is genuine concern, a genuine statement, a genuine commitment.

The problem is that at both the national and EU institutional level, these people are nowhere to be found when legislation that fundamentally affects Jewish life and practice are introduced. Whether it is bans on kosher slaughter (“shechita”) or bans on circumcision, both fundamental pillars of our faith – and Belgium has forbidden the former and legislation on the latter is being considered – their silence is deafening. 

So, it seems the arms around the Jewish community attitude are conditional – or Janus-faced, if you will. On the one hand, when it concerns explicit antisemitism, every and all means are available. On the other, when it comes to protecting our freedom of religion from the animal rights lobby, or the children’s rights lobby (both of whom seek to paint us as archaic barbarians taking scimitars to animals and our male infants’ genitalia), well, that’s politics. We just gotta get with the times. 

And this isn’t just a Belgian issue. You know that game whack-a-mole? That is the “game” that we at the European Jewish Association are constantly playing in responding to anti-Jewish laws. Whether it be in Poland, Cyprus, Denmark or Iceland, these laws keep popping up. Some are passed, some not. 

But make no mistake, if the entire continent gets around to passing laws forbidding shechita and circumcision, the only people laughing will be the antisemitic minority on either side of that pencil line. Because the Jews will be gone. It won’t be because of overt antisemitism, but because the same, well-meaning politicians turned a blind eye as our faith was legislated out of existence. 

It doesn’t get more Janus-faced than that. And that, antipodean friends, is our shared task in 5782. Combatting antisemitism is important – very important. But equally important is getting the politicians to push back against the well-organised lobbies that seek to outlaw our faith, for the sake of “progress” and “modernity”.

If the politicians want to understand the huge discrepancy between 36% and the 90%, they need to look in the mirror, end the two faces, and support our freedom to practise as well as our freedom from direct hate.

Alex Benjamin is the Director of the European Jewish Association, a pro-Jewish, pro-Israel advocacy group based in Brussels:


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