‘An existential threat’: Antisemitic attacks soar across Europe amid Israel-Hamas war

“This takes us back to the darkest times,” Chief Rabbi Jaron Engelmayer told CNN, as he surveyed piles of destroyed holy books in a blackened and burnt out ceremonial hall.

A brutal arson attack on the Jewish cemetery in Vienna on Wednesday left parts of the building close to ruins, pieces of scripture in tatters, and swastikas emblazoned on the walls outside.

But the attack stirred up painful memories, too. “It takes us back to times where the books were burned,” Engelmayer said. “It is an attack on the spiritual values of the religion and of humanity which happened here.”

The last time the cemetery was set alight was 85 years ago, almost to the day, on Kristallnacht – a Nazi pogrom against Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues. “It’s unbelievable that 80 years after Nazi times, we go back to such times and have antisemitic acts here, in the center of Europe,” Engelmayer told CNN.

Now, incidents like these feel all too common. Across Europe, in the weeks since Hamas’ brutal attacks in Israel sparked a war between Israel and the militant group, a spate of antisemitic assaults have shaken Jewish communities.

Oskar Deutsch, head of the Jewish Community in Vienna, told CNN that Jews in the city have reported 167 incidents in just the past three weeks – a “huge” rise for a small Jewish population of around 12,000.

“After the seventh of October, antisemitism grew dramatically here in Austria, here in Europe, all over the world,” Deutsch said.

Small children were wondering whether they should go to Jewish schools, he added. For older people, “the Holocaust comes back in their mind,” he said.

“That’s not the life we want.”

Swastikas were sprayed on the walls outside the Vienna cemetery. - Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP/Getty Images
Swastikas were sprayed on the walls outside the Vienna cemetery. - Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP/Getty Images

‘The scale is completely different’

The spike in antisemitic attacks in Europe has been wide-reaching.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said Monday that since October 7, there have been more than 800 antisemitic acts in the country, nearly twice as many as in the whole of 2022.

In London, the first week after Hamas’ attacks saw a 1,353% rise in antisemitic incidents, the Metropolitan Police reported.

And on Wednesday, Germany’s Vice Chancellor, Robert Habeck, said in a video message that “Jewish communities are moving their members to avoid certain places for their own safety – and this is happening today, here in Germany, almost 80 years after the Holocaust.”

“The scale now is different, completely different,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the chairman and the founder of European Jewish Association, told CNN.

“People are harmed in the street and social media is full of death threats. People get threats,” he said.

“Governments in most countries do not understand that they have to immediately increase the level of alertness and the level of security around Jewish institutions and Jewish neighborhoods. This is very, very alarming.”

When an attack happens, it leaves local Jewish leaders and residents in shock and afraid.

“It’s a call which has to worry all of us – to worry about the values of our free world which are now in danger,” Rabbi Engelmayer told CNN. He admitted that some Jews in Austria and around Europe are thinking about leaving – perhaps for Israel or the United States – for their safety.

The fire that spread through his cemetery shocked Austria. The country’s chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said he “strongly” condemned the attack. “Antisemitism has no place in our society and will be fought with all political and legal means. I hope that the perpetrators will be found quickly,” he said.

Alongside the fear, defiance

For Tal Yeshurun, the painful impact of Hamas’ October 7 attacks continues. Yeshurun, who lives in Dublin, Ireland, had four family members killed in the attack, and a further seven are missing.

The body of one of his relatives “was so badly mutilated that it took them two weeks to actually identify any remnants of DNA to connect,” Yeshurun said.

He still has hope. “I believe 100% that my seven family members are alive and are taken care of. I have to, there’s just no other way.”

People attend a rally in Berlin last month to support Israel and protest antisemitism. - Annegret Hilse/Reuters
People attend a rally in Berlin last month to support Israel and protest antisemitism. - Annegret Hilse/Reuters

But as he waits for news, he has been forced to deal with fear and uncertainty at home.

“I feel like a big, big part of communities in Europe and the US don’t understand the magnitude of what’s going on here,” he said. “We have to be blunt about it. There’s an existential threat for Israelis and Jews all over the world.”

“You try to (keep) to yourself, (to) not have large gatherings of Israelis or Jews,” he said, reflecting on the rise of antisemitic incidents across Europe. “Not to be associated with anything written in Hebrew, not to speak Hebrew. Not to go to places which are considered Jewish, like a synagogue.”

But alongside the fear, the rise in antisemitic incidents has been met with defiance.

“We’re going on to live our Jewish lives,” Engelmayer said in Vienna, after the attack on the cemetery. “The schools are open, the synagogues are open. We won’t let our enemies scare us.”

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