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Europe’s Jew-Free Zones



"I never knew we were Jewish." I'll never forget the day my mother's best friend - a brilliant doctor, educated in France and Israel, and now practicing medicine in Chicago - told me about her childhood. She was such a poised, worldly woman, it seemed impossible that she never knew this central fact about her identity.

Her family lived in Romania, she explained, and even after the horrors of the Holocaust had come to light, Romania's remaining Jews still lived in fear. For her safety, her parents had never mentioned their Jewish heritage. One day in the 1950s, they finally confided in their children they were Jews, and - like the vast majority of Romanian Jews who had survived the Holocaust - were about to immigrate to Israel.

For the few thousand remaining Jews who continue to call Romania home, a new survey has brought a painful reminder that, for many Romanians, Jews remain unwelcome. In August 2015, the Elie Wiesel National Institute for Holocaust Studies in Romania (where Mr. Wiesel grew up) released the results of a survey showing nearly a quarter of Romanians today would prefer no Jews to call their country home.

Fully 11% of Romanians characterize Jews as "a problem" for the nation, and 22% would like to see Jews as tourists - not citizens.

These negative opinions coincide with ignorance of or indifference to the Holocaust: while nearly three quarters of Romanians have heard of the Holocaust (a 12% rise since a previous survey in 2007), only about a third believed it happened in Romania (despite the fact that half of Romania's then Jewish population of 750,000 were murdered in the Holocaust). A majority of Romanians surveyed characterize their wartime leader as a "patriot" today.

The survey's shocking result - and the hostility towards Jewish citizens - made headlines around the world, but sadly, Romanians aren't the only ones calling for countries or towns to become Jew-free.

Some nations' anti-Jewish stances are well-known. In January 2015, for example, Saudi Arabian officials scrambled to deny media reports that they would begin allowing Jews to enter the country as guest workers. (The purported policy would only extend to non-Israeli Jews, initial reports speculated; it was always clear that Israeli Jews would never be allowed to work in the kingdom.) When the non-story broke, Saudi Arabia - which already forbids the building of houses of worship other than mosques on its soil - explained: official policy remained. No Jew can legally enter as a guest worker, and Saudi Arabia remains a virtually Jew-free zone.

Yet this poisonous attitude seems to be creeping into some European attitudes as well.

A landmark 2011 survey in Ireland found that 20% of Irish people would be in favor of banning Israelis from becoming citizens, and 11% would be in favor of stopping all Jews from becoming Irish citizens. (When questioned about their personal relationships, attitudes were even more stark: 46% wouldn't want a Jew in their family, and 52% would be opposed to having an Israeli in their family.) Worryingly, the poll seemed to portend an increase in such anti-Semitic feelings. Anti-Jewish attitudes were highest among the younger generation, with 18-25 year olds holding the most extreme anti-Semitic views.)

Father Michael Mac Greal, the Jesuit priest and sociologist who compiled the survey, explains that hostility to Israel in the Irish press seemed to have contributed to negative feelings about Jews in general. "There's a real danger that the public image of 'Israeli' can lead to an increase in anti-Semitism," he found.

In Britain, by some measures, anti-Semitic attitudes are less; "only" 10% of Britons would be upset to have a Jew in their family, according to one 2015 poll.

Nevertheless, anti-Israel sentiments seem to be pushing ever more extreme bounds of anti-Jewish discourse.

Anti-Israel feelings run very high in Britain. A 2013 global survey found that Israel was the fourth most negatively viewed nation. (Only Iran, Pakistan and North Korea were worse.) Britons led the pack in negative attitudes towards the Jewish state: fully 72% said they felt negatively about Israel. Against this backdrop of relentless criticism, it became acceptable for a major politician to call for part of Britain to be an "Israeli-free" zone. George Galloway, MP for the city of Bradford, declared that
Israelis weren't welcome in his constituency - and then, when he was questioned about his outrageous statement, defended them openly and repeatedly.

"We don't want any Israeli goods, we don't want any Israeli services, we don't want any Israeli academics coming to the university or the college, we don't even want any Israeli tourists to come to Bradford, even if any of them had thought of doing so," the MP declared.

In Belgium, the owner of a Liege cafe who posted a sign that dogs were welcome but Jews were banned was investigated by the police in 2014 - but elsewhere in the country, Belgian schools are increasingly becoming Jew-free zones. When the last Jewish student withdrew from a central Brussels high school - she received hundreds of negative comments and threats after posting a photo of herself with an Israeli flag on facebook - Joel Rubinfeld, President of the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism, warned that the school - and others like it - "had become Judenfrei, there are no more Jews there".

Facing relentless, low-level anti-Semitism, Belgian's Jewish families are leaving the country in ever-increasing numbers to move to Israel or, when they stay, withdrawing their children from public schools where hostility towards Jews is increasingly the norm.

In 2014, the Deputy Speaker of Sweden's Parliament faced criticism when he advised Jews to "leave" their Jewish identity if they wished to become good Swedes, but he was hardly alone. Malmo, Sweden's third largest city, has seen an explosion of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel activity. The city's annual Israel Apartheid Week is housed in a building owned and administered by the town, at no charge, and the municipality has given official support to Isolate Israel, a group that inspects Swedish businesses and "helps" them become Israel-free in their goods and services.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, dozens of anti-Semitic attacks are now reported in the town each year, and the community's already-small Jewish population is shrinking further. A much-viewed 2013 video of a reporter walking Malmo's streets wearing a kippah showed him subject to suspicious stares and negative comments. A 2015 repeat of the same experiment - shown on Swedish Public Television - showed aggressive threats, warnings to leave (both menacing and from bystanders who wished to spare the reporter harm), and - eventually - the reporter fleeing, running for his life.

Seventy years after the Holocaust, it seems incredible that parts of Europe are once again becoming Jew-free zones. While Jewish life is flourishing in many parts of Europe, for much of the continent, it is retreating in the face of relentless anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hatred.

by Yvette Alt Miller via aish.com