The Jewish Response to Food Insecurity
A new crisis has befallen Europe: the crisis of food insecurity. In spite of the fact that the European Union is the largest economy in the world, a number of concurrent economic trends including stubbornly high rates of unemployment, stagnant wages, decreased government spending on welfare, and rising prices of food and fuel have begat fallen standards of living. Eurostat, a project of the European Commission, calculates that 24.8% of citizens of the European Union – almost 125 million people – are at risk of poverty or social exclusion.
When it comes to relieving the effects of poverty, the work of Jewish charitable organisations has traditionally centred on the most vulnerable groups within the community. In central and eastern Europe, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and World Jewish Relief (WJR) among others have provided and continue to provide assistance in terms of food, winter fuel, and medical care to children and the elderly, including survivors of the Holocaust.
That has had to evolve. In Bulgaria, for example, 49.3% of the general population are deemed to be at risk. Pensions and salaries have failed to keep up with the cost of living while for the middle class, the struggle is in finding work and retaining it. The work of the JDC, not only in Bulgaria but the Baltic states, Hungary, and Romania, now encompasses a programme which offers job training and placement services, career counselling, and small business development aid through a network of job centres.
But the point of this crisis is that it is not confined to Europe’s developing east – food insecurity and the threat of poverty and social exclusion is a grave matter across the continent. 11 percent of Europeans are having to forgo a meal with meat, chicken, or fish every other day, while the European Federation of Food Banks is currently operating 256 food banks in 21 countries. In the United Kingdom, where 24.1% of people are deemed at risk, 913,138 people received three days worth of emergency food from food banks run by the Trussell Trust in 2013-14, compared to 346,992 in 2012-13.
Rising Number of French Jews Making Aliyah
Aliyah rates from Western Europe increased by 35 percent in 2013, with 4,390 people immigrating to Israel from Western European countries as compared with 3,258 in 2012, according to data released by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israel Ministry of Immigration and Absorption.
The most dramatic upturn in aliyah rates, though, was seen in France. In 2013, 3,120 newolim, or people making aliyah, arrived in Israel from France, compared to 1,916 the previous year, marking a 63 percent increase. 2013 was also the first year since 2005 that more Jews immigrated to Israel from France than from the United States, despite the massive disparity in size between the two communities. Even more striking, the increase in French aliyah rates was the driving force behind a 7 percent increase in the total number of Jews who moved to Israel this year.
There are two major factors that explain the rise in French aliyah rates, Shay Felber, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s deputy director general for community service, explained. The first is the ongoing economic malaise in Europe, which is affecting France in particular. Unemployment peaked at 11 percent in July and August, and after negative growth in the third quarter, the French economy is in danger of falling back into a recession. Such problems are “pushing young Jewish students to leave France in search of other job opportunities,” Felber said.
The other factor is anti-Semitism. “Although it has been going down over the past couple of years, French Jews remained concerned about the future,” Felber said. Indeed, a recentsurvey published by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights showed that 85 percent of French Jews believe anti-Semitism is a problem in their country, with 70 percent fearful of becoming the victim of a hate crime. As a result, 51 percent of French Jews frequently avoid wearing, carrying, or displaying items that might help identify them as Jews in public.
But these factors alone don’t account for the upturn in French aliyah rates, or explain why Jews seeking to leave France would choose Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over London or Montreal. Rather, the trends represent an expression of the French Jewish community’s increasingly Zionistic mentality, particularly among young French Jews, and a manifestation of efforts by the Jewish Agency, the Israel government, and other non-profits to cultivate Jewish identity in France.
Programs such as Masa Israel Journey and Bac Bleu Blanc, which bring young French Jews to Israel for educational trips or volunteer opportunities, have been successful in encouraging aliyah. “This year, almost 1,000 young French Jews will have used Masa,” Felber explained, “and 70 percent of the students coming through the Masa programs go on to make aliyah.” Other factors for potential olim are familial connections between France and Israel, plus the community of around 100,000 French-speaking olim already living in Israel.
Overall, though, while other Western European nations did see an increase in aliyah rates, no other country exhibited an increase of the same statistical significance. The Netherlands, for example, saw a 54 percent increase in aliyah rates, but the uptick was a result of only 74olim. Similarly in Belgium, a 46 percent increase in aliyah rates was accomplished by just 240 new immigrants. As for France, where the situation for the Jewish community gets more dreary by the day, there is little reason to think that French olim won’t outnumber their American counterparts once again next year.
Could Spreading European Anti-Semitism Drive Jews From Homelands?
As the gnashing of teeth about the fate of American Jewry in the wake of the Pew Research Center survey continues, a newer and far more troublesome study of European Jewry ought to keep the supposed problem of defining Jewishness by the food you eat and the jokes you tell in some sort of perspective.
Conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, known as the FRA, “Discrimination and hate crime against Jews in E.U. Member States: experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism” surveyed 5,847 individuals 16 years old and over who considered themselves Jewish, residing in Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
The headline figures were frightening enough. Across Europe, 66% of Jewish people see anti-Semitism as a problem in their respective countries today — as high as 90% in Hungary and 85% in France. The perception, moreover, is that over the past five years, the level of anti-Semitism has increased, with 76% of respondents saying it had gone up a lot or a little.
Where this increase has taken place might be surprising. But first, some more numbers.
Thirty-eight percent of Jews now avoid, all the time or frequently, wearing, carrying or displaying things that might help people identify them as Jews in public; 60% of Swedish Jews and 51% of French Jews act this way. Forty-eight percent of Jews in Hungary and 46% in France have considered emigrating because they do not feel safe living in those countries as Jews, with 90% of French Jews stating that the Arab-Israeli conflict affects their feelings of safety.
Immediately discernible from the statistics, though, is that the number of people who fear becoming a victim of anti-Semitism is greater than those who have experienced it as verbal insults, harassment or a physical attack. While 21% have been the actual victim of an anti-Semitic incident in the past 12 months, 46% worry about the possibility of such an assault.
There is also tremendous regional variation between fear and experience. In France, for example, an astonishing 70% fear becoming the victim of a hate crime. In the United Kingdom, however, the fear is not as heightened, with 28% of respondents worrying about becoming a victim of verbal assault, and 17% the victim of a physical assault — still high numbers, to be sure.
The reason for this disparity between perception and experience, however, is not groundless panic or hysteria; it comes because of new manifestations of anti-Semitism, principally dissemination via the Internet and new media.
Hungary, Where Europe’s Faultlines Meet
As the World Jewish Congress prepares to convene in Budapest, Paul Berger covers the increasingly hostile conditions under which Hungarian Jews — one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe with an estimated population of around 85,000 recorded in 2012 — are forced to reside.
Primarily, the problem in Hungary is a political problem. With an unemployment rate of over 11 percent and low economic growth, the electoral success of the fascistic Jobbik movement, and an annual rise in recorded hate crimes last year, the European faultlines of economic malaise, political extremism, and the persecution of immigrants and minorities are meeting in Hungary with troubling consequences.
Other provisions restricted the liberty of the individual to work, travel, and marry. Students whose college education is subsidised by the state are required to work in Hungary for a certain period of time after graduation, while others who elect to move abroad now have to pay back the value of that subsidy. The law now also gives preference to traditional family relationships, in other words those between one man and one woman with children. At the behest of the European Union, a provision allowing only public media to broadcast political advertising before general and European elections was amended.
The beginning of the end of the Yugoslav Wars
Initialled on Friday afternoon and approved by both parliaments on Monday morning, the concord between Serbia and Kosovo seems to have so swiftly altered the status quo in the Balkans that it has been presumptuously labelled historic, well before the first condition of that deal has even been implemented.
Brokered by Baroness Ashton and the European External Action Service, the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is undoubtedly of tremendous significance, since it provides a pathway to the normalisation of relations between two states that have been in a state of antagonism since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991. Under its terms, Kosovo’s sovereignty will for the first time extend to “every corner of its territory”, as their Prime Minister Hasham Thaçi termed it, with Serbia and Kosovo’s Serb minority recognising the authority of the government in Prishtina over the Serb-majority provinces.
As such, Serbia has agreed to dismantle the parallel institutions it has established in Kosovo which presently control local security, healthcare, education, and the judiciary in the places north of Mitrovica. In return, a new Association of Serb Municipalities will be established, afforded broad powers over local affairs. In particular, the Kosovan government has committed to changing the ethnic composition of the police force and the judiciary to better reflect the balance between the Albanian majority and the Serb minority.
It is not yet guaranteed that this pact will hold, of course, nor the terms implemented. The proposal to dismantle Serbian institutions and accept Prishtina’s sovereignty over Serb areas might still face staunch opposition on the ground in Serbian Kosovo itself, where nationalist sentiment is strong and the tricolour Serb flag flown. But, while it cannot be deemed historic now, this agreement between Kosovo and Serbia does have the potential to be historic. It has the potential to reshape the entire region, and finally bring to a conclusion the bloody ethnic and nationalistic Yugoslav Wars.
Europe’s Foundation of Ashes and Dust
Europe’s foundations are constructed upon ashes and dust. They are built where the walls of the ghettos were once erected around overcrowded quarters in Warsaw, Łódź, and Krakow. They are built upon the pits of Babi Yar and the mass graves made across Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine. They are built upon the ruins of the camps whose names are forever branded on our collective memory: Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor.
Europe exists because of the Holocaust – it is forever tied to that awful past. Through education, commemoration, and memorialisation, the peoples of Europe are constantly borne back to the horrific events which preceded our zero hour, in the knowledge that they were of our own making and that it is our responsibility as a continent to ensure such things never occur again. European institutions exist precisely in order to prevent another war to end all wars, another war of imperialism, slavery, and annihilation.
By extension, Europe also exists in order to protect those who were the victims of the last great war and Hitler’s campaign of racial and biological purification, including and perhaps above all the Jewish people. Ensuring the safety and allowing for the political, economic, and cultural flourishing of European Jewry is or should be one of postwar Europe’s founding principles. It is an obligation of national governments and the European community to uphold it at all costs.
The nations of Europe have indeed succeeded in preventing another war, another catastrophe, yet across the continent conditions for Jews are worsening. In 2012, recorded anti-Semitic hate crimes increased by 30 percent year-on-year, ranging from physical violence to the vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries. This was not, as it has been in the past, a phenomenon linked to events in the Middle East, a revulsion at times of conflagration and unrest in Gaza or Lebanon. Rather, there has been an overall deterioration in the economic and political state of Europe, with Jews suffering disproportionately as a consequence.