Inside story'Why should they live where antisemitism is thriving?'

As Jewish leaders debate community’s future in Europe, their kids are already leaving

Antisemitism and the dwindling of European Jewry are eroding the hopes of some devoted activists to raise families in the communities they run

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

A French officer stands guard near a synagogue in Marseille on November 3, 2020. (Christophe SIMON / AFP)
A French officer stands guard near a synagogue in Marseille on November 3, 2020. (Christophe SIMON / AFP)

All but two of Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs’ seven children have left their native Netherlands, raising their own children in Israel and beyond.

This means that the Dutch chief rabbi, whose family has lived in the Netherlands for generations, and his London-born wife Blouma rarely get to bask in the warmth of the large family they have devoted much of their lives to establishing.

But with dangerous echoes of past hatreds rebounding through Europe, the couple does not want their children to return.

“Of course, I would’ve liked to have all my children near me,” Binyomin Jacobs told The Times of Israel. “But why should I want them to live in a country where antisemitism is thriving?”

Shared by many Jews in Europe and beyond, the couple’s circumstances encapsulate the challenges impacting European Jewish communities that are losing members even as their national governments and the European Union increasingly direct resources and efforts to address some of the problems.

These issues were the focus of a conference last week in Porto, Portugal, organized by the European Jewish Association, a Brussels-based lobby group. Several dozen Jewish community leaders from across Europe and government officials attended the conference, titled “Shaping the Future of European Jewry Together,” and co-hosted by the Jewish Community of Porto.

Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs and his wife Blouma Jacobs visit the Holocaust museum of Porto, Portugal on May 16, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Earlier this month, the Jacobs’ experienced three antisemitic incidents in the space of a couple of days: First, two men shouted insults and pro-Palestinian slogans at the rabbi. The following day, the couple experienced a similar incident on the street. Later, the rabbi found multiple swastikas painted at his neighborhood park.

In 2021, the CIDI watchdog group recorded 183 antisemitic incidents in the kingdom, a 36 percent increase over the previous year and the highest tally in over a decade.

“It definitely conveys a sentiment, that Jews are not wanted here,” the rabbi said, though he has stopped short of a blanket advisory against Jews continuing to make a life in the Netherlands, where the Jewish community numbers some 40,000.

He recommends emigration to congregants who consult him on this issue based on their circumstances. “There’s no one size fits all to the question of aliyah,” he said, using the Hebrew-language word for immigration to Israel by Jews.

Blouma Jacobs noted that antisemitism was one of the main factors pushing away young religious Jews, who statistical data show are likelier to be targeted because of their recognizable dress code. When they leave, it weakens the community that remains, she said, “so Jewish life is less robust overall.”

In practical terms, “it means that if you’re devout in a place like Amsterdam, where most Jews are not very observant, your children have few prospective spouses who share her values and worldview,” the rabbi concurred. “Many leave because of that.”

Even those who don’t physically move away may still stunt the community. “Antisemitism means that those who assimilate are less likely to stay attached or strengthen their attachment,” Jacobs said.

Joel Mergui speaks at the Justice for Sarah Halimi rally in Paris, April 25, 2021. (Cnaan Liphshiz/ JTA)

Multiple leaders of European Jewish communities make no secret of the fact that their children have left. Joel Mergui, president of the Paris Consistoire, French Jewry’s organ responsible for religious services, has referenced in speeches the fact that all four of his children have at some point in their lives moved to Israel.

Mergui has often cited his family’s Zionist tradition to explain this. But he has also shared his anguish about how antisemitism is affecting the lives of Jewish children and their parents in France. “In recent years, I have seen children comparing schools not on grades, but on their level of police protection,” he said in one memorable interview from 2015.

Meyer Habib, a French former lawmaker and former vice president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, has said that two of his four children live in Israel. The chief rabbi of Paris, Michel Gugenheim, has eight children, all of them living in Israel.

New laws being passed in European capitals have also resulted in convincing many Jews that even governments that vow to protect Jews physically are not always committed to ensuring Judaism can be exercised freely. Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Slovenia, Estonia, Switzerland and Norway have largely forbidden kosher slaughter, and many countries in Europe have restricted religious circumcision or are considering doing so.

These issues stand out in the Netherlands, whose tolerant reputation contrasts both with an increase in recent years in expressions of antisemitism and repeated initiatives to ban kosher slaughter as well as circumcision.

The Dutch parliament in 2011 effectively banned kosher and halal slaughter in a vote that, not unusually for this type of legislation in Western Europe, was supported both by anti-Muslim politicians on the right and liberal animal welfare-oriented ones on the left. The Senate overturned the ban, citing religious freedoms, but fresh attempts to reimpose the restrictions are underway.

Nonmedical circumcision, which Jews perform on boys when they are eight days old, is also in the authorities’ crosshairs. In 2019, the health ministry said it was investigating two of the country’s best-known mohels, who carry out the religious circumcisions, based on a disputed reading of a law on such procedures.

Similar dynamics are affecting European Jewry as a whole, including in Belgium, the headquarters and perceived symbol of the European Union. Two of its three regions banned kosher and halal slaughter in 2019. Occurring amid a surge in antisemitic incidents and Islamist terror attacks, these events have caused communal leaders to publicly question their communities’ future for the first time in decades.

Immigration to Israel by Jews from Belgium, where about 40,000 of them live, increased by some 20% after 2010. The annual average of arrivals after that year is 170 newcomers, compared to 130 per annum in previous years, according to Israeli government statistics. Thousands more Belgian Jews have left for other destinations, community leaders have said.

The “silent exodus,” as prominent communal activist Joel Rubinfeld termed the trend, has left once-popular synagogues empty and up for sale. 

In Denmark, communal leaders have warned that repeated attempts to add religious circumcision to the ban on kosher slaughter would end Jewish life there.

Even in France, Europe’s largest Jewish community with about 400,000 members, many congregations have been depleted by the departure of at least 50,000 Jews to Israel since 2014, according to Israeli government statistics.

At the conference in Porto, the director of the European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, urged the community leaders who attended to “never give up,” assuring them that the future of European Jewry is “in their hands.” Effective lobbying, bridge building, unity among Jews, and sheer determination can have dramatic results, he argued in several speeches that received enthusiastic applause.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin speaks at the annual European Jewish Association meeting held on May 16 in Porto, Portugal. (EJA)

Margolin also conducted a quick survey on the 100-odd Jewish community leaders in the room in Porto, asking them: “How many of you have been contacted by an official, asking for your input on plans to fight antisemitism and safeguard Jewish life?”

Only one person, Maximillian Marco Katz from Romania, held up his hand.

“This is what we have to change,” Margolin said. “We need to be united and proactive.”

Last stand at Waterloo

Yet on the ground, some Jewish community leaders have more immediate worries than policy-making: They are watching their congregations wither away. One of those leaders is Jacob Benzennou, president of the Jewish Community of Waterloo, a Belgian town near Brussels best known for the defeat that Napoleon Bonaparte’s army suffered there in 1815. Today, it is home to about 250 Jews.

Benzennou is one of hundreds of thousands of North African Jews who, from the 1950s onward, gave a much-needed boost both in numbers and religious observance to European Jewish communities that had been decimated and sometimes annihilated in the Holocaust.

He co-founded the Waterloo Jewish community and a local synagogue about 30 years ago, and it quickly grew into a vibrant congregation. But, due to assimilation and emigration that began in the 1990s,  Waterloo’s synagogue often does not have a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jewish men necessary for some prayer in Orthodox Judaism.

“We don’t have enough people who want to come to synagogue and we’re seeing a very serious development: There is very, very rapid assimilation,” said Benzennou. ”Everybody talks about antisemitism but as the founder of a synagogue, I’m more worried about young people no longer coming or participating: not in religion, not in tradition and not in community life.”

Several countries, including Germany, as well as EU institutions, have in recent years allocated financial resources toward fighting antisemitism through legislation, education, and providing Jewish communities with physical protection. Some of those countries and entities have also launched projects aimed at supporting Jewish culture.

Many Jews appreciate these efforts, which they say offer hope at difficult times. But others doubt their effectiveness when they are led by governments and entities that simultaneously limit Jews’ ability to exercise some of the religion’s most basic rites, or appear to single out Israel for rebuke.

Binyomin Jacobs sees the two issues — antisemitism and assimilation — as intertwined. “The more antisemitism is expressed, the more people leave. The more Jews leave, others follow because of the dwindling of Jewish communities,” he said.

Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs and his wife, Bluma, by the glass window of their home damaged in an attack on July 17, 2014. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

“I don’t need to turn on the news: When I see the police cars opposite our home I know something has happened in Israel,” the rabbi said at the conference, referencing the fact that antisemitic crimes tend to skyrocket across Western Europe whenever violence erupts in or around Israel.

Blouma Jacobs, a longtime teacher, tried unsuccessfully to engage the teenagers. “I called after them: Come back and speak to us instead of running away like cowards,” she recalled.

Later that week, the Jacobs learned that the local rabbi servicing the small Jewish community of Amersfoort is retiring, placing a question mark on the future of the very community where the Jacobs live.

The chief rabbi, whose work includes Holocaust education and outreach to Christian and Muslim allies and to Jews who seek a stronger connection to Judaism, would have liked to live near some of his children abroad, be it in Israel, the United Kingdom, the United States or Canada, he said. But he will stay in the Netherlands, he said, because “a captain does not abandon ship.”

The couple will “for sure live in Amersfoort for as long as there is a need for our presence,” said Blouma Jacobs, who, along with her husband, are preparing for the events celebrating the local synagogue’s 300th anniversary in 2027.

“After that, we will see.”

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