Coming Together: Reflections from the EU Activism Seminar in Brussels

By Alex Jakubowski

Despite rising anti-Semitism across the European continent, over the past few weeks nearly 10,000 American Jewish students arrived in London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, and other cities across the European Union to begin their study abroad experience. For many students, their time abroad is the most transformational of their lives – filled with new experiences and cultural immersion opportunities impossible to realize in the United States. Unfortunately, many students are also afraid to express their Jewish identity abroad – fearing that what happened to journalist Zvika Klein walking through Paris in this shocking video would become their daily reality.

In response to the troubling trends, DoJAS, the European Union of Jewish Students, and B’nai B’rith International decided to host the first EU Activism Seminar in Brussels. Ten North American, Jewish study-abroad students, along with ten European Jewish students from across continent gathered together to learn about critical issues facing the Jewish communities of Europe. The students met with renowned experts, heard from critical decision-makers, and lobbied members of the European Parliament and European Commission on ways to address the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Among the many influential and high-level officials with whom students met were Member of European Parliament and Chair of the EU Working Group on Anti-Semitism Juan Fernando López Aguilar, Member of the European Parliament Csaba Sogor, The European Commision’s Coordinator for Dialogue with Churches, Religions, Philosophical, and non-Confessional Organizations Katherina von Schnurbein, as well as staff members for various other MEP’s, Commissioners, NGO’s, and lobbyists.

Students also discussed ongoing developments on anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activity in their native and host countries. Drawing upon each other’s experiences at home and abroad, students discussed ways they could bring the lessons they learned at the Seminar back home, spurring greater efforts to address issues of critical importance to the Jewish community.

What students realized was that many of our allies in the fight against anti-Semitism around Europe saw anti-Semitism as just another form of hate-speech, no different than homophobia, Islamaphobia, or a litany of other xenophobic means of expression. As such, many of the means through which they planned to combat anti-Semitism focused not on deeply-ingrained roots, but rather the symptoms of the problem.

The truth is, however, that anti-Semitism is different. Anti-Semitism, now often manifesting itself as anti-Zionism in Europe and around the world, is a unique and long-standing global tradition. Although French Jewry makes up less than 1% of France’s population, half of all racist attacks in the country target Jews. The ratio of anti-Semitic attacks far outweighs the relative Jewish populations of dozens of other countries around the world, as well, including in Germany, the Netherlands, Chile, South Africa, and elsewhere. Despite laudable efforts to work with other minority groups to combat hate – efforts which should undoubtedly continue – we Jews are, in many ways, alone.

I’ve heard from dozens of colleagues and friends that they would never go to France right now. “It’s too dangerous. Why would a Jew want to go there?”

The answer is simple – if we stand together, we are never alone. As I watched students discuss personal experiences with anti-Semitism, with nearly every participant having one or multiple personal stories, I observed the comfort and solace students took knowing they were not alone. When a Parisian Jewish student shared her friends’ experience, students from America, Sweden, and the United Kingdom shared solutions that had worked for their communities. For the first time, many students felt comfortable sharing how lost they felt, and how much they needed to know that there were others out there that felt lost, too.

By the end of the seminar, students came away inspired – not only toward greater involvement in their own communities, but the global Jewish community as well. We in America and Israel often forget that we are a part of a truly global people, and that communities around the world are not only committed to their Jewish identity, but their respective national identities as well. It is our duty, as Jews living in uniquely philo-Semitic countries, to actively support our family wherever they are – not urge them to simply pick up and move.

As students at the seminar and thousands of Jewish study abroad students each year have realized, the only way to really do this is to visit them, see them, and know them. Many Federations and other organizations have taken solidarity missions to Europe – I urge others to follow their example, but not just to Europe. Go see South African students combat hateful resolutions in Durban; assist the Chilean community combatting a virulently anti-Israel, 400,000 strong Palestinian population in Santiago; and learn from the educational successes of the Australian Jewish community in Sydney. Let the world’s Jewish communities know they are not alone.

Alex Jakubowski is the Executive Director of the Delegation of Jewish American Students (DoJAS), which provides Jewish engagement opportunities for study abroad students.