Facing a rising tide of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and government crackdowns on religious practice, European religious communities must stand together, insisted one religious leader this week.
“For the first time in history, we recognize that all faiths are at risk,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told an audience at the National Press Club on Monday in Washington, D.C. He added that “all faiths can stand together recognizing our shared humanity under the sovereignty of God.”
Rabbi Sacks gave the keynote address at the conference put on by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, titled “Europe at a Crossroads.” The conference focused on efforts by civil and religious leaders to combat “religious hatred and bigotry in Europe,” especially Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
“The truth is that things are difficult, in Europe and throughout the world. I have been very, very shocked by what is happening in Europe,” Rabbi Sacks said.
More Jews are leaving France, Holland, Belgium, Norway, Sweeden, and Denmark because of increasing acts of anti-Semitism. The political hostility has become particularly bad in Hungary, Rabbi Sacks noted, and the climate toward Jews in Poland is deteriorating.
Throughout Europe, synagogues have been attacked, Jewish stores have been targeted, and Jews are afraid to wear symbols of their faith in public. Whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalates, so too do public acts of anti-Semitism in Europe.
It was recently discovered that a member of Britain’s Labour Party praised Hitler amongst a slew of anti-Semitic tweets, including statements that Iran should “wipe Israel off the map” and that Hitler was the “greatest man in history.”
Jews are the not the only victims of religious-targeted violence throughout Europe. In Glasgow, a Muslim shopkeeper who wished a happy Easter to the “beloved Christian nation” of Britain was shortly afterward stabbed to death by a Sunni radical for insulting Islam. Muslim women in Britain have been targeted for veiling their faces or wearing a hijab, a headscarf.
Laws prohibiting or infringing on religious practice have also surfaced. A German law required parents to discuss circumcision with their children. French laws outlawed the wearing of the hijab in public. Denmark banned Kosher and Halal animal slaughter.
Threatened by extremism and hostile secularism, religious communities must stand together, Rabbi Sacks insisted. He drew from an account of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi from his book “If This Is a Man.”
At Passover, Jews begin eating the “bread of affliction” in remembrance of the toil the Hebrews endured as slaves in Egypt. At the end, however, they eat the “bread of freedom” that their ancestors ate at the first Passover, their exodus from Egypt, Rabbi Sacks explained.
In his book, Levi wrote of a meal that the suffering prisoners at Auschwitz shared together in between the Nazi departure from the camp and the Soviets arriving. “And I suddenly saw that even if what we eat is the bread of affliction, if we are willing to share it with someone else, we have begun the process of turning affliction into freedom,” he wrote, quoted by Rabbi Sacks.
“In the same way, everyone must be “standing together in defense of religious liberty,” Sacks said, “and that stands a chance of success. Whereas if we stand on our own, we stand no chance whatsoever.”
As an example, Sacks explained how, when he was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, the BBC had him do a television program “as a message to the nation.” He used the opportunity to “show the most beautiful faces of the Muslim community in Britain.”
The “end result” of this was that “we realized we had to be there for others if we wanted others to be there for us,” he said.
Another time when anti-Semitic acts became more prevalent on Britain’s college campuses, he explained to fellow Jewish leaders that they would monitor for anti-Semitism, but they would also “lead the fight against Islamophobia.”
As he sees it, “if you are hurting because people hate you, then stand in solidarity with other people” who also face hatred.