Inside story'I’ve never felt as unsafe as I do now'

Pro-Hamas sentiment shocks European Jews, rekindling fears about their future

The disgust felt by millions toward the terrorist group’s barbarity is overshadowed by angry street protests against Israel and soaring antisemitism

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

People gather with placards and a large Palestinian flag to take part in a 'March For Palestine' in London on October 14, 2023 (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)
People gather with placards and a large Palestinian flag to take part in a 'March For Palestine' in London on October 14, 2023 (Photo by Adrian DENNIS / AFP)

As a rabbi who divides his time between Berlin and Vienna, Lior Bar-Ami is keenly aware of the risks facing people who are recognizably Jewish on the streets of those cities and elsewhere in Western Europe.

Bar-Ami, 37, had felt uncomfortable wearing his kippah publicly in some parts of Berlin even before the October 7 outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, which started after terrorists from Gaza broke through the border fence in a shock onslaught, rampaged through southern Israel, and killed, tortured and mutilated some 1,400 people, mostly civilians.

But with the onset of the war, which is unleashing a wave of antisemitism by Muslims in Europe, the rabbi has for the first time in his life switched to hiding his kippah under a hat regularly whenever he’s outdoors in the German capital.

“I’ve never felt as unsafe as I do now,” said Bar-Ami, adding that some his friends told him they feel unsafe around him when he wear his kippah.

Similar fears are shared by Jews across the continent, where antisemitic incidents are skyrocketing. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of protesters rally at demonstrations that are billed as expressions of support of Palestinian civilians, but that many, both Jewish and non-Jewish, perceive as shows of Jew-hatred and solidarity with Hamas despite its recent displays of extreme barbarism against Israelis.

The speed, scale, and violence with which anti-Israel actions have unfolded in Berlin startled and surprised Bar-Ami, he told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. Last week, unidentified individuals hurled firebombs at a synagogue in Berlin. Clashes erupted between rioters and police that night in Neukoelln and Kreuzberg, two neighborhoods with many Muslim immigrants.

German riot police officers push back Pro-Palestinian demonstrators as they protest outside the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on October 18, 2023. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

In Berlin, hundreds of people chanted in Arabic, “Our lives, our blood we’ll sacrifice for you, Al Aqsa” in a series of rallies, most of them occurring despite police and municipal bans on such events due to authorities’ concern over incitement and disorder. RIAS, a German antisemitism watchdog, has documented 202 incidents this month alone, a 240% increase over that tally from October 2022.

In London, police documented a tenfold increase in antisemitic hate crimes in October over last year. In Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, protesters burned an Israeli flag outside a synagogue.

Protesters attend a pro Palestinian demonstration in London, October 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

In Amsterdam, three Jewish schools were shuttered temporarily, one of them twice, over safety worries. On the city’s Dam Square, a monument for victims of the Holocaust and World War II, thousands chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” during a demonstration that drew some 50,000.

In Vienna, people who wanted to show their support of Israel were warned by authorities for the first time not to display Israeli signs on the street for fear of violence.

“They didn’t speak of kippot but common sense tells you that if displaying an Israeli flag is dangerous, then so is wearing a kippah,” Bar-Ami said. “To the people doing the intimidation, a Jew is an Israeli and vice versa.”

Large crowds of pro-Israel demonstrators gather in Trafalgar Square, London, October 22, 2023, demanding the release of all hostages abducted from Israel to Gaza by Hamas terrorists. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

At the same time European leaders have expressed solidarity with Israel and in London, Paris and Berlin, thousands attended large pro-Israel rallies that Jewish community organizations had organized, as they often do when Israel is at war. Other European capitals and cities have had smaller events, all featuring a heavily Jewish turnout.

‘The mezuzah had to be moved’

Fears of identifying as Jewish in many European cities predate the October 7 attacks, though the outbreak of war has made the situation even more fraught.

“In France, in Belgium and in many other places it’s not safe to wear a kippah. Not before the Hamas attack and not now,” said Raya Kalenova, the executive vice president and CEO of the European Jewish Congress.

Raya Kalenova commemorates the victims of the Halle Synagogue shooting during the one-year anniversary of that terrorist attack in Germany on October 9, 2020. (Courtesy of the European Jewish Congress)

The hostility is forcing changes in the lives of European Jews who do not regularly wear a kippah, as well. “The mezuzah had to be moved, and I need to be more alert,” said Chaim Benistant, a 36-year-old Dutch Jew from the Amsterdam area who is an entrepreneur and Dutch Air Force reservist.

Drawing on his experience in business, he tries to envisage Europe’s antisemitism problem as a chart. “It’s a series of peaks, followed by dips,” he said. The dips may lull many into a feeling of safety, but “each peak exceeds the previous one.” It’s causing Benistant to “seriously question whether there’s a future for people of Jewish descent in present-day Europe.”

But the continent’s antisemitism problem is itself a symptom of an even bigger problem, Benistant added, which is causing him to “worry about my society itself.”

“Those who are currently comfortable or naïve enough to subscribe to Hamas propaganda will become victims of Islamist globalism unless we change course,” he predicted.

Student and parents, with police officers around them, leave a Jewish school after a gunman opened fire in Toulouse, southwestern France, Monday. (photo credit: AP/Manu Blondeau)
Students and parents, with police officers around them, leave a Jewish school after a gunman opened fire in Toulouse, southwestern France on March 19, 2012. (AP/Manu Blondeau)

Since 2012, many Europeans have learned that they are the targets of the same terrorists who also target Jews. The killer of three Jewish children and a rabbi in Toulouse in 2012 also killed three soldiers. The killers of four Jews at a kosher supermarket near Paris in 2015 had coordinated their attack with the murderer of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper two days earlier.

A year earlier, Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet refusenik and one-time chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, asked Alain Finkielkraut, a prominent French-Jewish philosopher, whether “European Judaism has a future in Europe.”

Pessimistic questions have become a trademark of Alain Finkielkraut’s writing. (Cnaan Liphshiz/JTA)

Finkielkraut replied with a question of his own: “Does Europe have a future in Europe?”

Europe has also seen two terrorist attacks since October 7. A jihadist in Brussels killed two Swedish soccer fans on October 17 and another Islamist killed a teacher in Arras, France, on October 13.

Terrorist attacks against Jews and Israelis in Europe have been occurring since the 1960s, initially by members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the PLO. But the Second Intifada in 2000 heralded in France a new kind of antisemitic violence, perpetrated by Muslims against their Jewish neighbors. Amid mass immigration from the Middle East, this phenomenon has reproduced itself across Europe despite attempts to curb it, spiking in connection with violence involving Israel.

Police detain a protester during a rally against Israel’s bombing of Hamas in Gaza outside the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, Germany on October 18, 2023. (John Macdougall / AFP)

This development continues to change life for countless European Jews and to push many others to immigrate to Israel or elsewhere, as at least 50,000 French Jews have done over the past decade. Their emigration is exacerbating the demographic decline of Jewish communities that had been decimated in the Holocaust.

Bar-Ami, who was born in western Germany, has seen much of this dynamic unfold, including during the 2021 wave of antisemitic protests that erupted in Western Europe during Israel’s last round of hostilities with Hamas.

This time it’s different

But the current round is different because it began with a series of atrocities on a scale and barbarity that Jews had not experienced anywhere since the Holocaust.

In a shock early-morning onslaught, some 2,500 terrorists broke through the border with Gaza and rampaged through southern communities, slaughtering more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping more than 220 others, under the cover of a deluge of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The vast majority of those killed as gunmen seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children, and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality, torture and sexual violence by the terrorists.

A dead body after the devastating assault by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 11, 2023 (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

With Israel declaring war and saying it had to eradicate the terror group, the military began bombarding Hamas targets in Gaza. Israel said it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

According to the Hamas-run health ministry, some 6,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes, including civilians. These figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include Hamas operatives killed in Israel and in Gaza, and the victims of a blast at a Gaza City hospital on October 17 caused by a misfired Islamic Jihad missile aimed at Israel, a blast that Hamas blamed on Israel. Israel says it killed 1,500 Hamas terrorists inside Israel on and after October 7.

But the signal for antisemitic violence in Europe was given immediately after the Hamas massacres and before any civilians died in Gaza, Bar-Ami noted. “It’s especially painful to witness such an outpouring of hatred when the Jewish people are still mourning,” Bar-Ami, the rabbi of the Jewish Liberal Community Or Chadasch in Vienna.

Illustrative: A Jewish wedding with chuppah in Vienna 2007. (CC BY SA 2.5 Gryffindor)

It was not only angry demonstrators who exhibited callousness to the human tragedy in Israel, argued Abnousse Shalmani, a prominent French writer of Iranian descent, who is not Jewish. “On October 7, we learned that hundreds died in the biggest pogrom following the Holocaust,” she told Le Figaro this week.

“Yet even as bodies were being pulled from the rubble, the media was already ignoring the human tragedy and treating it politically. It was shocking.”

The rampage — which consisted of murder, immolation, rape, body mutilation, and pillage – shocked the world, triggering a wave of empathy with Israel in Western democracies. But in several German cities, spontaneous celebrations erupted on October 7 by Muslim citizens.

Members of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network wave Palestinian flags during the “Revolutionary May Day” demonstration, in Berlin, on May 1, 2023. (John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

In one of them, activists from Samidoun, a nonprofit supporting Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails, handed out candy on a street of Neukoelln.

It was a rare European echo of scenes that occur regularly throughout the Muslim world whenever Israelis die at the hands of terrorists.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Tel Aviv on October 17, 2023. (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

On a continent where hundreds have died at the hands of jihadists inspired by Middle Eastern clerics and customs, the street celebrations did not go unnoticed. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has condemned the events and threatened to deport participants, and his cabinet announced fresh bans on Samidoun and on support for Hamas, which the European Commission, and Germany by extension, already regarded as a terrorist group.

“We are shocked by how many women and men have fallen victim to Hamas’s barbaric terror,” Scholz, wearing a kippah, said on Sunday at the inauguration of a new synagogue in Dessau, a city near Berlin, which was rebuilt where the Nazis had destroyed it.

It was one of several public speeches this month about Israel by Scholz, whom some pundits have called the “ghost chancellor” for his infrequent appearances. He also stated that German Jewry “remains part of life” in the country and that Germany will aid Israel whenever necessary. Scholz traveled to Israel on October 17, where he met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and survivors of the Hamas massacres.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) greets French President Emmanuel Macron before a meeting in Jerusalem on October 24, 2023. (Photo by Christophe Ena / POOL / AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron went even further, proposing during his October 24 solidarity visit to make France a part of a coalition to destroy Hamas. “France shares Israel’s grief,” said Macron, who in 2017 called anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism.

‘It’s changing everything for us’

Yael Hernandez, a French Jew from Marseille, says that she feels that the French state supports her. “But so what,” she adds. “The aggression comes from the population, the Muslim one. You feel the tension on the street. You feel the looks they give you. You feel how the attack filled their chests with pride. It’s something you feel on the street, it’s scary and the police can’t help with that. And it’s changing everything for us,” she said.

Lior Bar-Ami. (Andrej Grilc)

Bar-Ami doesn’t know where he will live 10 years from now, he says. He’s focusing on his Jewish community of Vienna, which, despite its small size of about 10,000, is relatively vibrant, diverse and robust in addition to being one of Western Europe’s few growing Jewish minorities. “There’s work to be done, there’s communal life to build and, right now, I feel this is where I need to be,” he said.

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