Reporter's notebook'We’re at a point where words are not enough'

Best offense is good self-defense: Fighting antisemitism gets physical at Jewish confab

Emigration projections and gun permit discussions are at the center of an international event held in the Netherlands under the shadow of anti-Jewish violence

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

Rivkah de Reus blocks her husband Ernst de Reus during self-defense training given by an instructor from Belgium at a Jewish conference near Amsterdam on June 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Rivkah de Reus blocks her husband Ernst de Reus during self-defense training given by an instructor from Belgium at a Jewish conference near Amsterdam on June 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

AMSTERDAM — At an international Jewish conference near the Dutch capital, participants wielding butter knives stood across from unarmed counterparts in tense anticipation.

An instructor shouted “go” and the armed participants lunged at the unarmed ones, who hollered “stop” and did their best to block the attack with one arm, punch or scratch with the other — and run away.

This unusual scene Monday was part of a self-defense training session held by the European Jewish Association during its annual meeting of 150-odd delegates from across the continent.

It reflected a sense of the greater need for self-reliance and growing disillusionment regarding the ability or willingness of some countries and EU institutions to protect European Jews, who were already a beleaguered minority before the explosion of antisemitic incidents that followed the October 7 Hamas onslaught on Israel’s south and the ensuing war in Gaza.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association, which co-organized the conference this week, cited record levels of antisemitic incidents reported last year in European countries, including France (a 284 percent increase over 2022), the United Kingdom (146%), the Netherlands (245%) and Germany (36%). He noted the hostility to Israel by some politicians from the EU and its member states, which he said incited antisemitism.

“We’re at a point where words are not enough. We have to take action, and the first action we need to take is to be able to defend ourselves with our own hands from people who wish to harm us,” said Margolin in explaining the decision to teach self-defense at the gathering, where many participants were community leaders over 60.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin speaks at a conference near Amsterdam on June 3, 2024. (Yoav Dudkevitch)

Margolin’s group, he said, is lobbying with European governments for regulations that would allow Jews who feel — or are deemed — at risk from antisemitic attacks to more easily obtain weapons permits.

“There used to be much more resistance by some Jews to this concept, but increasingly there’s greater interest in it by community leaders. Some of them have started carrying a weapon themselves,” Margolin said.

Ernst de Reus, a leader of Dutch Jews in the southern region of Limburg, did the self-defense training with his wife Rivkah, who half-jokingly asked the instructor to “take it easy” on her husband as he borrowed him for a demonstration.

“We had some martial arts experience years ago so it felt natural, but at the same time you realize how much more training you need to get the muscle memory going,” Ernst de Reus told The Times of Israel. “The main takeaway for me is that even in such a situation, which sadly is becoming more likely these days, you’re not helpless. There’s a lot you can do even if you’re a bit on the elderly side like us,” he said.

The self-defense instructor, who works with members of the predominantly Haredi Jewish community in Antwerp, said that he has had 600 trainees join his courses since October 7 — a tenfold increase over the previous year.

An instructor, wearing a baseball cap, shows Rivkah de Reus and her husband Ernstde Reus how to defend against a knife attack at a Jewish conference near Amsterdam on June 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

If you can’t beat ’em, leave ’em

The approach of Jewish community leaders to aliyah — immigration to Israel by Jews — was discussed at length at the conference. Margolin once publicly objected to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s calls on European Jews to move to Israel. But he has changed his tune. Today, Margolin said, “My message to the Israeli prime minister is: We are not there yet, but be ready, get your government agencies ready, because thousands of Jews from Western Europe will be arriving soon.”

The Jewish Agency for Israel expects more than 3,200 immigrants this year from France alone, a tripling of 2023’s tally.

The European Jewish Association is not calling for Jews to immigrate to Israel, Margolin clarified. “It’s an individual choice.”

But he does envisage a scenario of Jewish flight from Europe, he said. “I’m not looking to upset anyone but we have to be realistic. Before people make the move, they need to sell property. When it becomes clear [that this is happening], there could be a knock-on effect: There may be a shortage of buyers, prices may drop, folks might need to sell at a loss, triggering a scare and disordered flight. We are at a time when we really need to foresee such an eventuality,” Margolin said.

Joel Mergui, the president of the Paris Consistoire Jewish Orthodox group, which co-sponsored the event at a hotel adjacent to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, told journalists: “Not since the Holocaust have so many Jews in Europe had to rethink their future.”

Chair of EJA Jewish Leader’s Board and president of Consistoire of Paris Joel Mergui at a rally calling for the liberation of hostages held in Gaza since the Hamas-led October 7 attacks on Israel, Paris, April 7, 2024. (Thomas Samson / AFP)

After October 7, Mergui said, he toured French Jewish communities to tell them “not to be afraid.” But, he added, “As we saw the youth agitating at university campuses, with antisemitic attacks happening all around us, we’re starting to wonder whether we have the right not to be afraid.”

He traced this reality back to “the rise of radical Islamism, which is a new form of totalitarianism like we saw in Nazism 80 years ago.” Jews are only the first victims of this development, he said, “but we have the impression that the world doesn’t quite grasp the gravity of the situation.”

Security concerns were part of the reason that the organizers held the conference at Schiphol instead of in town, Margolin also said.

Jews plan on occupying a European campus

Over snacks near the coffee corner at the conference, a young rabbi and a former leader of a European Jewish community were planning their own action, along with a non-Jewish woman who’s an expert on antisemitism. They are planning the first occupation by Jews of a European university campus sometime in the summer as a response to the dozens of such actions by anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists.

The reasons for such an action are twofold, said the former community leader, speaking anonymously. “First, it’s to show a presence and make our voices heard, obviously,” he said. “More strategically, the minute campus administrations realize that the rioting and disorder are spreading, they will be more inclined to clamp down on it.”

Anti-Israel activists wield wooden planks before using them to hit students at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands on May 6, 2024. (Courtesy)

Universities in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and beyond have seen multiple occupations, some of them ongoing, by students protesting against Israel and accusing it of genocide. In some locales, the campus occupations were accompanied by violence and hate speech, including against Jews as a group.

According to the Hamas-controlled health ministry in Gaza, some 37,000 people have died as a result of Israel’s actions against Hamas. The unverified data does not distinguish between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel says it has killed at least 15,000.

Frank Heikoop speaks at a conference near Amsterdam on June 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/The Times of Israel)

The event at Schiphol featured multiple non-Jewish speakers, including from the Christians for Israel group, which co-sponsored the conference along with Israel’s Ministry for Diaspora Affairs.

“Know that you are not alone,” Rev. Frank Heikoop, chairman of Christians for Israel International, said in a speech during the conference.

Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs, who works closely with Christians for Israel, called their communities’ support for Israel and Jews a “ray of light in a very dark situation.” But Jacobs, who is also a teacher, noted the difficulty facing educators. “If there’s hate in the home, then you don’t have access. You don’t have the key,” he said.

In the conference’s final session, all 160-odd participants unanimously passed a resolution that, alongside statements of support for Israel and the freedom of religion in Europe, singled out Josep Borrell for criticism. The European Union’s top diplomat is the de facto foreign minister of the bloc.

Borrell, who has blamed Israel for causing famine in Gaza and of having “created” Hamas, has had “a significant contributory factor to the ongoing antisemitism and the vilification of the state of Israel,” the unusually harshly worded resolution read.

Borrell’s office has not replied to a request for comment by The Times of Israel.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks with the media as he arrives for a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Monday, May 27, 2024. (AP/Virginia Mayo)

In her speech at the conference, Katharina von Schnurbein, the European Commission coordinator on combating antisemitism and fostering Jewish life, listed the efforts undertaken by her office to curb attacks, including the promotion of greater accountability by internet platforms for allowing incitements to antisemitic violence.

But von Schnurbein, a cherished ally of European Jews who received a standing ovation at the conference, also acknowledged a reality that she called an “absurdity” following October 7, when about 3,000 Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people in Israel and abducted 251, among other war crimes and atrocities.

“The worst attack on Jews since the Shoah,” she said referencing October 7 and the Holocaust, “has led to the highest level of antisemitism around the world since the Shoah.”

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