Anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism, and other rising tides of extremism have dominated recent media coverage of European affairs. A growing number of Jews are fleeing Europe, right wing patriot rallies and marches have spawned an increase in violence against Muslims, and the outlook for an abatement of hatred against Europe’s minorities and immigrants seems bleak. Media coverage of these trends seems to sow the very fear to which civilized people say they will not succumb.
Amidst the constant reports of threats from extremist forces, many observers claim that European leaders and the media show indifference towards some victims of terror. Some see double standards in the amount of attention that is devoted to certain groups of victims over others. After the slayings in the kosher market in Paris, there were cries from some Jewish quarters about the insufficient amount of attention given to these anti-Semitic crimes. “Why won’t Europe acknowledge the grave threat to its Jews?” screamed one recent headline. As if Angela Merkel and the rest of the continent had been silent or inactive in the face of anti-Semitism.
Must we really compete with other victims for attention in a world besieged by so many tragedies? Responding to terrorism with complaints about the amount of attention one group receives compared to another is divisive and counterproductive. Some groups do receive more attention and expressions of sympathy than others. Jews are not at the top of the list, but we have not been ignored either.
Viewing the threat from extremist forces in Europe through the narrow lens of identity politics does little to address the root problems that foster terrorism. I worry less about the depth of hatred towards Jews than I do about how to support Germany’s economically depressed regions and growing refugee population so that extremism does not take root and spread. The racism of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), the group that has been holding enormous anti-Islamic rallies in Germany, threatens all of us, not just Muslims.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the news about Jewish life in Europe is not all bad. One countervailing trend to the rise of extremism is the steady flow of descendants of German Jews who continue to reclaim their German citizenship. According to an April 2014 jWeekly.com article, 2,600 Jews from around the world became naturalized German citizens in 2013. San Francisco Bay Area Jews who went through the citizenship process reported that they did so for the same personal and practical reasons that motivated our family: opportunities to live, work, study, and easily travel in Europe, as well as for the emotional significance of reclaiming what was stolen from our parents and grandparents.
The story of European Jewry is more than a story of hatred and anti-Semitism. Many Jews are well integrated members of our communities. And we are not just Jews in Europe; we are also students and professionals, artists and volunteers, parents and athletes. We are citizens of democratic societies who have a stake in both the Jewish community and the broader civil community in which we reside. We do not view the world solely through a Jewish lens because we recognize that our fate is tied to the fate of others who encounter injustice.
A time may come when my family decides it is best to return to the U.S. But we are not ready to walk away from the standard of living and quality of life that we currently enjoy in Germany. Our oldest son will soon begin the process of applying to colleges in Europe that have either no tuition or significantly lower fees than colleges in the U.S. I hope he will make his choices based on his opportunities rather than his fears.
Donna Swarthout lives in Berlin and writes about Jewish life in Germany on her blog Full Circle.