European Jews have a right to be free from fear

The horrific rise in antisemitism is the burden of all Europe.

Pro-Palestinian protesters near the Irish Parliament in Dublin at a rally against Israeli air strikes in Gaza in 2009. Credit: William Murphy/Flickr.
Pro-Palestinian protesters near the Irish Parliament in Dublin at a rally against Israeli air strikes in Gaza in 2009. Credit: William Murphy/Flickr.
Saadia Mascarini
Saadia Mascarini is an Italian Jewish and Zionist activist. He is chair of Tamar Italia, the Zionist organization of young Italian Reform Jews.

For almost a month now, we have witnessed a massive rise of antisemitism in Western academia.

Students who believe themselves to be “freedom fighters” are behaving like antisemitic thugs reminiscent of the Nazis’ National Socialist German Students’ League. Jewish students are harassed on campus and forced to lock themselves in a school library to escape enraged mobs shouting pro-Palestinian slogans. Their non-Jewish fellow students spew vile antisemitic rhetoric while tearing down posters of innocent Israelis—including babies, children and the elderly—kidnapped by Hamas.

This is not an expression of support for “decolonization,” “self-determination” or “Palestinian rights.” It is something very like Nazi antisemitism and it must be fought.

Antisemitism on American campuses has made international headlines, but the situation for Jewish students in Europe is equally grim. As a European Jewish student and youth leader myself, I have personally experienced and heard testimonies about ferocious and pervasive hatred in the guise of support for “Palestinian resistance.” This new justification for genocidal antisemitism has become the contemporary substitute for the Final Solution.

In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, we find ourselves in a situation in which we are forced to conceal our identity. The slightest public indication that we are Jews could prompt racist violence. This includes kippot, Star of David necklaces and even our very names. Horrifyingly, some friends have told me they prefer using false names in public.

At the University of Bologna, where I study, the situation for Jewish students is dire. Since Oct. 7, pro-Palestinian demonstrations have taken place regularly in Bologna during which many students have engaged in vile antisemitic chants and displayed racist slogans. One sign, held by a young woman, particularly struck me: “Hitler will see you again in hell.”

Asher, who also attends the University of Bologna, spoke to me at our synagogue during Shabbat services this past weekend about his fear of being on campus.

“I no longer have friends at university,” he said. “People I know, who I sensed even before the war held hostile views towards Jews or Israel, now either make light of the fact that antisemitism exists or instead make overt antisemitic comments. I’m afraid even to go and take an exam.”

Jews who belong to student organizations are also under siege. Ariel, an Italian activist for the rights of LGBTQ+ Jews on campus, recently attended an international conference for LGBTQ+ youths in Eastern Europe. Inside white envelopes meant to contain positive messages, he found the slogans “Free Palestine” and “Free Palestine from murderous Zionism.” When he brought the matter to the organizers’ attention, they ignored him.

Even worse, Ariel told me yesterday that he has received threatening phone calls from an unknown number, something that has become frequent for other members of Italy’s Jewish community.

The Jerusalem Post reported on Sept. 29 that in France, which has now become the epicenter of contemporary European antisemitism, “more than nine in 10 French Jews attending university have had an experience with antisemitism.” The climate is now exponentially worse due to pro-Hamas propaganda disseminated by Islamists and the radical left.

Naomi, an Israeli-German friend of mine who is active in her local Reform Jewish community, attends a university in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. She told me that she has seen many friends turn cold over the past month. Shockingly, at her university, it was campus security—who should be responsible for making the university a safe space—who scratched the faces of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas off of posters.

An even more disturbing incident occurred when Naomi and other Jewish students put up these posters in the city center. While the group was affixing the posters to a lamppost, German police stopped them, asked for their documents and ordered them to stop, accusing them of “vandalizing public property and organizing an unauthorized protest and gathering.”

The Jewish students tried to explain that they had received permission from the city to put up the posters. The police responded brusquely, “We have the final say on your authorization.” When the students told the officers that what the officers were doing was unjust, they replied, “It’s not our job to decide what is right and wrong. We are just the police and must do our job”—a claim eerily reminiscent of the classic “we were just following orders.”

Finally, the police threatened them with punitive action and forced the students to tear down the posters while the police watched.

Naomi told me, “I felt terribly helpless because I knew they were trying to provoke us and find a reason to get us in trouble. I realized it from their attitude and tone of voice. I was so hurt and mad I felt I wanted to cry, to call those police officers out for their behavior, but I knew they were the ones with the power and I couldn’t do anything. It is a disgrace that today in Germany the police order us to tear down photos of kidnapped Israeli children.”

I have always tried to embrace former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s famous saying, “Pessimism is a luxury that a Jew can never allow himself.” Yet it is impossible for me to conclude this sordid tale on a note of optimism. In 2023, Germans in uniform once again have no compunction about intimidating a group of helpless Jewish students. What else need be said?

The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen recently stated, “We have to protect Jewish life in Europe.” I am afraid, however, that “protect” now has an unexpected meaning. For quite some time, we Jews have been living under “protection” while left-wing radicals and Islamists freely express their antisemitic views in street demonstrations. Radical Islamists can freely preach their genocidal hatred in mosques. Even more grotesque, these Islamists have now combined forces with neo-Nazis on social media.

“Protection” alone neither maintains Jewish life nor guarantees that it flourishes, because it denies European Jews an essential right: The “freedom from fear” U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt eloquently described in his 1941 state of the union address.

So, Madame von der Leyen, European Jews may be more “protected” than ever, but once again, we are not free from fear. That is your burden, and the burden of all Europe.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates