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THE TELEGRAPH UK: THE WATCHERS TRYING TO PROTECT EUROPE’S JEWS

THE TELEGRAPH UK: IN THE FIRST OF A THREE-PART SERIES, PETER FOSTER REPORTS FROM BUDAPEST ON HOW JEWISH COMMUNITIES ARE RESPONDING TO HATRED AND ABUSE ACROSS THE CONTINENT.

In a faraway corner of Europe, a Jewish man in a kippah is walking down the street when he is accosted by a group of aggressive young men who start to jeer and mock him, knocking the skullcap from his head.

In recent years the man has grown more used to this kind of behaviour, but fearing things might take a more serious and violent turn, he slides his finger across his smartphone and operates a virtual panic-button.

The phone app is called ‘Octopus’ and it can instantly send an alert to control in both his home country and a European network headquarters in Brussels, where an alarm sounds.

The siren causes the central control room operator to look up from his desk to a bank of nine television screens, where a red dot is now pulsing at the location of the attack; seconds later a video or audio Livestream is available. In the location country, the police are now on their way.

Thankfully this is only a drill, but as we watch the live demonstration in the Brussels control centre at the Security and Crisis Centre of the European Jewish Congress, the question is why all this technological hardware should be necessary at all?

The combination of radical Islamist terror threats in western Europe and the resurgence of nationalist, far-Right sympathies in the eastern EU means that Jewish communities are now reporting a gathering storm of anti-Semitic forces that are changing the way they live their lives.

The numbers are stark. The annual Kantor Center report on global antisemitism found an increase in 2018 in almost all forms of antisemitism, with the number of major violent incidents rising by 13 per cent, from 342 to 387. In France recorded incidents of anti-Semitism rose by 74 per cent in that time, second only to Belgium where the number of incidents trebled. Meanwhile, Italy and the Netherlands saw 60 and 19 per cent rises respectively.

The Kantor Centre report detailed a range of anti-Semitic attacks, from physical and verbal assaults, to online and workplace bulling and the defacing and destruction of property.

Belgium and France, recently shocked by the brutal murder of an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, were singled out as the countries most hostile to Jews.

Meanwhile, day-to-day casual anti-Semitism is returning. Among a list of reported incidents, a case from the Czech Republic tells how Jewish workers at a Prague hotel were asked to leave when the ownership switched from Israeli to local hands.

“I know that you Jews keep always together, so it would not be possible that you continue working for me,” the manager of the hotel allegedly told the victim, who then told how he was assaulted by her husband, call him a “Jewish mother!”

According to a survey released last month by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) nearly half of Jewish millennials said they were the victim of anti-Semitism in the past year – and nearly 80 per cent chose not to report it.

That is something that Mr. Revach, at the crisis centre, hopes to change with the Octopus system which will be used to gather data not just on physical attacks but on issues like anti-Semitic graffiti and online and workplace bullying.

The FRA survey echoes the findings of a series of soundings in the Jewish communities worldwide which point to both a growing number of anti-Semitic incidents, but also a rising fear that the hostile environment is deepening and deteriorating.

Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress which supports the new security network, warned that the broader collapse of the political centre-ground amid an increasingly coarse populist rhetoric in Europe was proving fertile ground for anti-Semitism.

“Antisemitism is the common denominator that unites extremists on the political spectrum,” he said on launching the report earlier this year. “As part of their politics of intolerance that puts us all in danger.”

Back on the ground, that rising sense of fear is echoed in Budapest where the city’s schools and synagogues are monitored by CCTV cameras that play a constant feed of everyday comings and goings.

In a control room secured behind a massive steel door, security specialists, some of whom are carrying sidearms, constantly scan the images for anything that looks out of place.

Peter Gonci, head of security in Budapest, says that some 2,000 people in the community are now using the Octopus app, though thankfully physical attacks in Hungary are incredibly rare, unlike in some Western EU countries where attacks are on the rise.

“Europe is a small and inter-connected place; people can come very quickly and with the internet, they can be radicalised and have access to the kind of know-how that enables them to make bombs in their mother’s kitchens,” he says.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has sent mixed signals about support for Jewish people CREDIT: BERNADETT SZABO/ REUTERS

In Hungary itself the signals are mixed – the government of Viktor Orban, a populist demagogue who has toyed with the meme of the ‘wandering Jew’ in election campaigns has also committed government funds to Jewish cemeteries and hospitals.

History aside, it is the rise of populism – and the power of social media in disseminating high-profile attacks, such as the Jewish woman who was pushed from an upper storey window in France – that experts warn is rocking the foundations of the European Jewish community.

The EU’s FRA survey found that some 40 per cent of those young jews surveyed said they had considered emigrating because they do not feel safe in Europe.

These trends are deeply worrying, according to Raya Kalenova, the European Jewish Congress executive vice-president, who says the organization has been battling since 2015 to stem a rising tide of Jewish emigration from Europe.

“Every year another community decides they can’t bear it anymore, and wants to move to another place,” she says. “This is a state of emergency, it’s hard to imagine it could happen 75 years after the Holocaust. It’s unbelievable.”

 

 

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