Since the dawn of humanity, history has not been kind to the Jews, Georgette Bennett said, and the outlook is still concerning in Europe today.
Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, delivered her lecture, “Swords and Ploughshares: The Religious Landscape of Post-Secular Europe,” Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy.
Over the past several years, things have gotten increasingly worse for Jews in Europe, she said.
A native of Hungary, Bennett said she and her family fled to France to avoid the Holocaust. Despite the sanctuary that France provided for her family, Bennett is aghast at what has come of the country, and Europe at large.
“Today, when I look at the two countries that were my home in my early childhood, Hungary and France, I see that anti-Semitism is again ripe in Hungary … and France, which had been a haven in my childhood, is a place of fear for me,” she said.
But Jews are not the only victims, Bennett said. Given the present Islamophobic and anti-Christian sentiments, she said, Jews tend to receive the worst of the hatred, and this is indicative of a less tolerant religious community at large.
“Anti-Semitism is always the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “When anti-Semitism is resurging — as it is now — that’s just the first step.”
The triangle of hatred, Bennett said, shows a larger trend of modern Europe.
“What we’re seeing in Europe is a resurgence of xenophobia,” she said.
Elaborating on the anti-Semitism Jews are experiencing, Bennett detailed instances of hatred that Jews have experienced across Europe. There are laws in Sweden banning the slaughter of Kosher meat, and a movement to ban its import, among other examples.
“Circumcision is under threat, synagogues are heavily guarded and public display of religious identity puts one at risk,” she said of Sweden.
Likewise, in France, of the 851 registered hate crimes against Jews in 2014, she said 241 of them were violent crimes. In Denmark there was a recent shooting targeted at a bar mitzvah party, and in Germany, a recent chant broke out that went, “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to gas!” she said.
While Islamophobia is a growing problem in the region, Bennett said it poses a trickier problem to solve for two reasons. One, Muslims are a more ample demographic than Jews, even though they are the victims of less hatred. They are also a frequent propagator of malice against Jews. In a recent survey of residents of the Middle East and Northern Africa, 74 percent hold anti-Semitic attitudes, and 63 percent believe the Holocaust was a myth or exaggeration, she said.
“Coming from a place where such a high percentage hold anti-Semitic views, it’s not surprising that they would bring those views with them when they come to Europe,” she said.
However, Bennett also said Muslims are the victim of feverish discrimination in Europe, largely due to the rise of extremist Muslim terrorism. While she denied the equivalence between contemporary Jewish suffering and Muslim suffering, she said no amount of religious intolerance is acceptable, regardless of who has it worse.
“Islamophobia does exist, and it doesn’t need to equate to the Jewish Holocaust experience to be taken seriously,” she said.
The last critical factor she mentioned in all the interreligious issues is the current Israel-Palestine conflict. She said much of the violence, especially in Western Europe, rises and falls in tandem with the conflict. She said conflation of Israeli independence (a secular, socialist ideology) and Judaism (a religion whose followers tend to support the former) incites some of the violence.
“The elephant in the room is Israel,” Bennett said. “Israel is where the three Abrahamic religions emerged, and it’s also the place where the three great hatreds emerged, anti-Semitism, anti-Christianity and Islamophobia.”
Bennett closed by saying the most important things for progress are an increase in understanding and empathy for the others’ narratives and feelings.
“When we learn what hurts the other, we can truly start to respect and love the other,” she said.