On May 15 and 16, the annual congress of the European Jewish Association will take place in the Portuguese city of Oporto. Antisemitism will be a major issue discussed by scholars from around the world and members of Jewish communities from Portugal to Ukraine who will gather for the event.
Their approach to the issue must be a pragmatic one because in Europe there is always a massive difference between political discourse and reality.
Antisemitism is not only a skinhead spray-painting a swastika on a wall. It is an idea, a perception of Jewish people as always concerned with their material interests and never with human solidarity and goodwill. Many people, including influential elites, believe Jews are indelibly linked to money and trickery, the worldwide Jewish community is a synonym for omnipotent power, traditional Judaism is totalitarian or retrograde and the State of Israel oppresses the wretched of the earth.
This hatred, moreover, has been decoupled from other forms of racism and discrimination. Groups like black people, Roma, LGBT individuals, migrants and many others are included among minorities that must be protected. But as writer David Baddiel put it, “Jews don’t count.” Since people believe that the Jews are privileged, powerful and control the world, the Jews are not seen as oppressed but as oppressors.
Except when antisemitism comes from the extreme right, political and media establishments in Europe afford the Jews no protection. Moreover, when Jews suffer attacks against their honor, freedom or even their lives, there is no solidarity with Jewish communities from other persecuted groups or associations that supposedly combat discrimination against “all” minorities.
The European Union has adopted a plan to promote Jewish life until 2030, but as expected, many governments confuse Jewish life with Jewish heritage. To them, “Jewish life” is memorials, renovating old Jewish houses, useless celebrations provided with non-kosher snacks and museums managed by municipalities and that are open on the Sabbath. The reality behind the beautiful political pledges is a sad one.
Jews who respect Jewish culture are not wanted, particularly if they are Israeli, observant or businessmen. Traditional Judaism is viewed as anachronistic and Orthodox rabbis are seen as “Zionist” agents. Jewish success is abhorred. Israel is linked to aggression and “illegal occupation.” The Holocaust itself is only mentioned when speaking of minorities in general. It is almost an act of courage to say that the Final Solution was directed solely against the Jews.
It is worth considering a practical example of all this: A European Jewish community that a little over a decade ago was dead and today is one of the strongest on the continent. It is the only Portuguese community arousing enthusiasm among the Jewish rabbinical and secular elites, the only one with a full Jewish ritual life and vibrant Jewish culture. For years, it has distributed Shabbat meals in 14 countries and supported the construction and maintenance of synagogues, mikvaot, teaching establishments, Jewish cemeteries and hospitals. It has also supported the work of Keren Hayesod, the Jerusalem Food Bank, the Israeli embassy in Portugal and others.
That community is the Jewish Community of Oporto. Yet for years, this community saw its positive work silenced by the Lisbon elites. It then became the main target of a campaign designed to suppress Jewish life in Portugal, particularly the influx of Israelis and wealthy Jews from all over the world. Every antisemitic stereotype has been used against the community. There have been attempts on people’s lives, honor and liberties, including sabotaged cars, nocturnal burglaries and the distribution of photographs, names and addresses of community leaders.
Inquisitorial methods have been used, including the “forced conversion” to Christianity of Jewish leaders and media aggression against all community members, from the rabbi to the synagogue doorman. There have been copious conspiracy theories based on alleged “secret files,” “secret flash drives,” “Jewish Freemasons,” the “drafting of laws to make money” and others. The community’s history book, including extensive details, is free and a recommended read.
Under extreme political pressure due to a “Palestine issue” and based exclusively on slanderous anonymous denunciations, Lisbon authorities carried out searches of properties owned by the community. The illegal searches included the community’s synagogue (its religion), museum (its culture), archives (its history), homes (its families) and offices (its work). A court of appeal has ruled that all of this was “based on nothing.” The community demanded an international investigation into the case, which involved media corruption, convicted slanderers, nocturnal thieves, murderers and patients of psychiatric hospitals.
History repeats itself, and often, where there are many Jews, there will be none tomorrow. Thus, the Jewish Community of Oporto has taken legal measures to ensure that should the Jews ever abandon Portugal, their assets will be given to the Jewish Agency.
Some years ago, there was no antisemitism in Portugal, because there were no Jews, except 500 or 600 who had assimilated. The growth of the Portuguese Jewish community corresponded with the growth of antisemitism, social media networks seething with hatred, the return in full force of the old stereotypes, protests from fringes of the population against the construction of Jewish buildings, comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany, stoning of the glazed windows of the largest synagogue on the Iberian Peninsula and the “purification” of the strongest Portuguese Jewish community by antisemitic elites.
Europe must free itself from the dark legacy of antisemitism. Life has times of peace and times of violence. In Europe, when the pendulum swings to the other extreme, which is only a matter of time, the Jews may be relegated to the outskirts of humanity again. Reports on antisemitism that boil down to mere statistics on “incidents” and ignore the collective stereotypes and hatreds that have led to bloody persecutions over two millennia of exile are not helpful.
David Garrett is a criminal defense lawyer and a board member of the Jewish Community of Oporto, Portugal.
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