Under the Radar: An American’s Experience in Contemporary Jewish Europe

EUJS Summer University 2014 (via facebook)

EUJS Summer University 2014 (via facebook)

By Alex Jakubowski

Last month I, like many of my classmates, embarked on a post-graduate Eurotrip. Unlike most, however, I had the privilege of doing so for work, visiting several Jewish communities in the often frequented study abroad destinations of Spain, France, and the Czech Republic. I spent time with Jewish communal leaders, frequented the local restaurants, and explored the nightlife.

Again and again we in America hear about the rabid anti-Semitism sweeping across the European continent. We hear comparisons to the days of the Holocaust – equating contemporary Paris with the Berlin of 1933. As I work with hundreds of students each year that visit and spend extended periods of their young lives in these cities, I was anxious to discover the reality. How bad was it on the ground?

My first leg brought me to the small community of Seville, Spain. Numbering under 200, the Jewish community of Seville is but a fraction of the size it once was. The “Juderia,” or the old Jewish ghetto, has become a tourist destination for Jews and non-Jews alike. “It’s not anti-Semitism, but ignorance,” Sara Pink, one of the leaders of the local community explains. “Most people here have never met a Jew. They don’t even know there are Jews in Spain.”

When I left the comfort of the small community in Sevilla, however, I found a different story. In Barcelona, I was discouraged from wearing my yarmulke, for fear of violence and intimidation. But that was nothing compared to what I heard and experienced in Paris.

That weekend I spent Shabbat with my friends, a local family in the community. The anti-Semitism was a distant thought, until the walk back from the synagogue after Shabbat concluded. I was in Paris to get to know the local community, where dozens of our students travel and study each semester. As such, I began asking my friends and colleagues the same questions my students were asking me: “Is it safe?” “Can I be Jewish in Paris?” “Have you ever been attacked?”

I was shocked by the nonchalant response I received. “It’s not so bad. The people here are filled with hate, but not just against the Jews. It’s against us for now, but in a few weeks it will be against someone else.” “But,” he continued, “I must admit, one time I was afraid. I was walking down the street to the synagogue when I came upon a group of young men holding a Palestinian flag. They saw my yarmulke and started yelling, ‘death to the Jew.’ They began chasing me, until we reached the police outside the synagogue, when they ran away.”

I was in shock. This was a normal story, a normal event in his life. Beyond comprehension for any American, this was everyday life for a Parisian Jewish student. After that story, I decided to take off my yarmulke for the duration of my time in Paris – I couldn’t justify it to my parents any longer.

I then left Paris for the annual Summer University of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS), held this year in the Czech Republic.

I left the conference by bus a few days later. As I left around 4:30 in the morning, I was quite tired and decided to sleep in the back of the bus. Thankfully, I had removed my yarmulke for comfort, as I was coincidentally seated next to a man decked-out in swastika and neo-Nazi tattoos. I reached around my backpack, quietly tucked my yarmulke deep into the side pocket, and hoped he and his friend hadn’t noticed.

I saw and heard many cases of anti-Semitism, but at the end of the day I had a wonderful time in Europe. I had such a great time because I spent my weeks with the amazing Jewish communities that continue to thrive. Throughout my time, I kept asking myself the same question, “what can we do?” By the end of the trip, I came to an answer.

The only way to truly help these communities is to involve ourselves. Rather than lament the rise of anti-Semitism in Paris, we must actively contribute to and encourage their efforts to combat the hate. Instead of asking how the far-right parties in Hungary and Greece can rise so rapidly, we must strengthen the Jewish communities in these countries so that they can combat these fanatics on their own.

Rather than abandoning these communities, avoiding travel due to our concerns about safety and comfort, we should be traveling to and supporting them more than ever. This year, more than 14,000 American Jewish students will do so. Let’s follow their lead.

Alex Jakubowski is a co-founder and serves as Executive Director of the Delegation of Jewish American Students.