(November 13, 2020 / JNS) As Austrians were making the most of their last night in restaurants, cafes and bars on Nov. 2 before the onset of a new lockdown, a 20-year-old Islamic terrorist fired at passersby in Vienna’s historic city center, killing four and injuring 23. Initial reports painted the target as Vienna’s city’s synagogue but, as it turned out, the synagogue might have been in the terrorist’s line of fire by happenstance.
Perhaps that’s symbolic. Threats to the European Jewish community and general society are now perceived as being intermingled, say community leaders. “We are all synagogues now,” might go the refrain, particularly in France, which on Oct. 16 suffered the brutal beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that were published in Charlie Hebdo, and then, two weeks later, the fatal stabbing of three at the Notre Dame church in Nice.
“We always knew we were in the same boat, but Christians are starting to understand that,” says Philippe Karsenty, a former French Jewish elected official credited with exposing the false attribution by French media of Palestinian youth Muhammed al-Dura’s death back in September 2000 by the Israel Defense Forces. That was at the start of the Second Intifada, which last five years and resulted in more than 1,000 Israeli deaths and about 3,000 Palestinian deaths.
“Remember, when the Jews started to be attacked 20 years ago, we said ‘after Saturday, Sunday.’ And now they’re starting to understand that it’s a civilization war.”
He also noticed that French President Emmanuel Macron has amped up his rhetoric against radical Islam. “He’s talking tougher,” says Karsenty. “That’s good. Acting tougher is better.”
‘This gives rise to a double concern’
In Vienna, a city that has been spared the kind of Islamic attacks that have rocked other major European cities, reports were initially confused and inaccurate because Austrian media is inexperienced with covering such incidents, says Samuel Laster, editor of Austria’s online Jewish newspaper, Atar HaYehudi (Die Juedische). Initial coverage erroneously reported armed attackers still on the loose and even a kidnapping scenario. The terrorist was shot dead by police.
“There is a great mourning that’s very deep,” says Laster. “Candles and flowers decorate the line of fire. The story really affects the Austrian soul because many people were out that night, and they were locked wherever they were—at home, in restaurants—because police told them not to go out. It reverberated because everyone shared what they did.”
Austrian Jews were in a special position to offer assistance to the authorities. The Jewish community headquarters, located adjacent to the synagogue, captured surveillance footage of the attack, some of which was mysteriously leaked to Israeli media. The community rabbi, Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister, reported how he witnessed the attacker shooting hundreds of rounds in front of the Jewish building. The synagogue was closed at the time.
The rabbi, who has been in his position since 2008, made the rounds in U.S. news, speaking distinctly about security and the psyche of Jews in Western Europe.
To make matters more tragic for Austrians, the attacker was imprisoned for seeking to join ISIS but had been released on parole after being deemed “de-radicalized,” now prompting Austria authorities to re-examine their handling of Islamic institutions, mosques and individuals.
In France, currently under lockdown through November, military presence has doubled on national territory, says Francis Kalifat, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, in an email. Security will prioritize houses of worship, schools and hospitals.
“While the terrorist threat weighs on French society as a whole, French Jews remain a particular target for Islamist terrorists,” he says, citing the 2012 attacks on a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and the 2015 Hypercacher kosher market siege. “It can be said that they face a double threat: as French and as Jews. This gives rise to a double concern.”
Furthermore, Jews are a particular obsession of Islamic terrorism, even if they’re not targeted outright. “The comments made on social networks by the perpetrators of the latest attacks or on videos of allegiance, references to Jews are constantly present, even systematic,” says Kalifat.
In Germany as well, the spate of attacks have mostly accentuated ever-present Jewish worries, which also surfaced following the 2019 attempted knife attack by a Syrian asylum seeker shouting Allahu Akbar at the prominent New Synagogue in Berlin on Rosh Hashanah and, 10 days later, the attempted shooting spree by a right-wing extremist on Halle’s synagogue on Yom Kippur.
“My feeling is there are probably generally two groups in our community and maybe in the wider Jewish community,” explains Doron Rubin, lay leader of the Kahal Adass Jisroel Orthodox community of Berlin. “One says we’re vulnerable and a target all the time, and the maximum you get from something like the Vienna attack is the awareness back. And then there’s the group that feels it’s much closer. I think at the end of the day, both groups are probably close together because both feel the pressure of the situation. The difference is how you weigh the different factors.”
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called for stricter Schengen border controls, which are now being taken under consideration by the European Union. For the German Jewish community, however, security concerns are regularly reassessed with government officials, no matter what goes on elsewhere.
“These incidents and attacks bring us back to earth,” says Rubin. “Even if there are six months of quiet, you know it’s there and can happen any time.”
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