Courage in the Face of Rising Antisemitism in Europe

Hanukkah festival at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photo via Wikimedia Commons by Olga Ernst.

My carry-on bag was packed, my luggage was already in the car, and my clothes for the day were laid out. It was December of last year, and by all accounts, I was ready to travel to Europe; I had an itinerary already planned in my head, full of museums and landmarks I couldn’t wait to visit.

However, the feeling of my silver shema ring against my finger stopped me before I left my house for the airport. I associate the ring with my happiest memories of Israel, my closest friends, and my relationship with Judaism, and wearing it proudly has been a part of my daily life for more than a year. Quickly, I removed the ring, putting away a piece of my identity in favor of ambiguity. I touched the base of my neck and checked to see that I wasn’t wearing a Jewish star necklace that day, and then left.

In my day-to-day life, I rarely feel unsafe; my mind doesn’t dwell on the likelihood of antisemitic attacks, and I never think twice about whether I should take steps to modify my Ashkenazi features or alter my appearance. As an American Jew living in the large Jewish community of South Florida, I have the privilege of feeling comfortable in my religious and cultural identity. In spite of this, I knew that Europe wouldn’t offer the unspoken protections of my home community.

As my family’s trip began, I reeled over the consequences I could have faced if I hadn’t removed my ring. Worse, I began to wonder if the things about me I couldn’t change that announced my Jewish identity—my name, for instance—would bring trouble nonetheless.

France, a country that saw a 74 percent increase in antisemitic incidents in 2018, was our first destination. After a few days of sight-seeing at the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, I craved a chance to learn about the Jewish history of France, and see a side of the local culture not abundantly represented at the famous tourist sites.

On Christmas Day, my family found just that opportunity: the Museum of Jewish Art and History, or MAHJ. Admission to the museum required passage through several layers of metal detectors and security guards, an experience that highlighted the contrast between Jewish life in my home community and Europe.

Once inside, I was free to explore the space, which housed artifacts and artworks that reflected the depth of culture and creativity that thrived against oppressive odds. As I studied the items, I could see elements of my own life reflected; though the haggadahs before me were created during the Middle Ages, they contained the same Passover rituals that I performed every year. I saw works ranging from silver Torah adornments to priceless paintings by Chagall and Soutine, and I was overwhelmed with pride in Jewish art.

While discussing the museum’s security measures with a volunteer, I was surprised to learn that they wouldn’t consider working elsewhere, regardless of any antisemitic threats. I saw an example of true courage in this Jewish docent, who let their love of history and art come before their fear of violence and bigotry.

Although I was initially trepidatious about visiting Germany, I experienced my most cathartic Jewish moment in the heart of Berlin. The Brandenburg Gate is a famous symbol of the city, one I’ve seen countless times in history books and documentaries. Once the focal point of major Nazi rallies, the gate towered above me, and I felt consumed by the history of the space. My palms began to sweat despite the chilly weather. Though the plaza before the gate held a large menorah and was dressed in cheery holiday decorations, I was uneasy, and hastened to take my pictures so I could leave the site as soon as possible.

It was then, at my most fearful, that I heard music. It was the unmistakable melody of Hava Nagila. When I looked for the source, I saw a group of people dancing the horah. Some revelers were dressed in Orthodox clothing, some wore secular attire, and others stood outside the circle, singing along or waving Israeli flags.

My first thought was one of disbelief: Why would any Jew assert their presence so clearly in an unsafe place? How could they dance the horah while I couldn’t wear a simple ring? Moved by their celebration, I went up to the group. They included me in their horah without any introduction, questioning, or apprehension at all. In their circle of song and joy, I transcended my own anxieties about the political climate.

The dance itself and my participation in it were not direct moves to shut down antisemitism; the casual festivities of a few Jews in Berlin would not have major implications, nor have any effect on reversing the rising tide of far-right extremism in Germany. But the dancers near the Brandenburg Gate taught me that daring to join a community and identify oneself are small acts of courage that stem from strength in belief.

I did not expect to connect with my Jewish identity in the cities of Paris or Berlin; I expected my trip to be full of secular excursions that would distract me from the knowledge of growing antisemitism in Europe. However, I encountered Jewish groups in both cities, and they were filled with joy, not fear. Their pride in their religious beliefs, at a time when being Jewish in Europe is increasingly difficult, inspires me to be mindful of the ways we can show courage through community.

In viewing every painting on the walls of the MAHJ, from the portraits of elder rabbis to the pencil sketches of Parisian women wearing their faith on their sleeve, I bore witness to the power of identifying as your truest self, even when fear and hate are used to relinquish your identity. I saw courage in the smiles of those dancers, and perhaps they saw the same in the American girl that walked up to them and asked to join their horah.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Anti-Semitism
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How to cite this page

Goldstein, Lila. "Courage in the Face of Rising Antisemitism in Europe." 22 April 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 26, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/courage-face-rising-antisemitism-europe>.

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