By Peter Foster
In a city in Europe, a Jewish man wearing 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 hits a virtual panic button. The phone app is called Octopus and it can instantly send an alert to a 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 pulsing at the location of the attack; seconds later a video or audio live-stream is available. In the location country, the police are now on their way. 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 this should be necessary at all?
The answer, says Ophir Revach, the crisis centre’s chief executive, is the rise in antisemitism across Europe in the second half of this decade. “Antisemitism is as old as civilisation itself, but this latest upswing really started about five years ago,” he says. 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 antisemitic forces that are changing the way they live their lives. The annual Kantor Center report on global antisemitism found an increase in 2018 in almost all forms, with major violent incidents rising by 13 per cent.
In France, incidents rose by 74 per cent, second only to Belgium where the number of incidents trebled. Italy and the Netherlands saw 60 and 19 per cent rises respectively. The report detailed a range of antisemitic attacks, from physical and verbal assaults to online and workplace bullying and the defacing and destruction of property. A case from the Czech Republic tells how Jewish workers at a Prague hotel were asked to leave when 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 says he was assaulted and verbally abused by her husband. According to a survey released last month by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) nearly half of Jewish millennials said they had been the victim of antisemitism in the past year – and nearly 80 per cent chose not to report it.
That is something Mr Revach hopes to change with the Octopus system, which will be used to gather data not just on physical attacks but on issues like antisemitic graffiti and online and workplace bullying. “If someone sees a swastika painted on the wall, they can just snap a picture and upload it,” he explains. “Surveys show that antisemitism is heavily under-reported and we hope this will be a tool to improve the data.” Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, warns the collapse of the political centre ground amid an increasingly coarse populist rhetoric in Europe is proving fertile ground for antisemitism.
“Antisemitism is the common denominator that unites extremists on the political spectrum,” he said.” The 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. A map on the wall marks out prominent locations and travel routes used by the city’s Jewish population. A large trauma medical kit is on standby at the door.
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. “Europe is a small and interconnected 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. 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. This trend is deeply worrying, according to Raya Kalenova, the European Jewish Congress Executive Vice-President, who says the organisation 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 any more, and wants to move to another place,” she says. “This is a state of emergency. It is hard to imagine it could happen 75 years after the Holocaust.”