A camouflaged military vehicle stood outside the locked gate of the famous synagogue in Turin. Flanking the vehicle were two soldiers in military fatigues holding submachine guns. Finger on the trigger, voices stern, gaze uncompromising - they were ready to defend, protect and kill anyone who threatened this historic Jewish landmark. After Pittsburgh, Poway, Hall, Monsey and Jersey City, they weren't taking chances. Our presence and inquiries to enter made them uneasy – their stance more rigid.
Steps away from the synagogue are countless churches with an open door policy. We entered some of them to take in the history of the place. Less than a kilometre away is the Cathedral of Turin, which holds an invaluable religious artifact - the "Shroud of Turin." The legendary shroud depicts Jesus's face and is said to be the very cloth he was covered with when he died.
Given its historical significance, our group was pleasantly surprised to find the church door open and unguarded by the military. In fact, we were warmly greeted by church volunteers who gave us immediate access to see the shroud, which was behind a protected glass (they were apologetic about that, but invited us to view a video about the artifact).
Conversely, in synagogues across Europe, casual entry to visitors wanting to see or participate in services can be a challenge (but not impossible). Most synagogues are gated, have security guards and high surveillance systems. To enter, you must provide the administration with verifiable identification, preferably weeks in advance.
Who can blame any European Jewish community and their country's security services these days for heightened security vigilance? The reported incidents of antisemitism are overwhelming. The British Jewish Community Security Trust reported this week a staggering 157 physical antisemitic assaults - a 27% increase in 2018 in three of England's largest Jewish communities. In all, there were 1,805 antisemitic incidents in 2019 representing a 7% increase for the fourth year.
Antisemitism is up all over Europe: in France, police reports indicate an increase of 78% in 2018 on the heels of the Copernic synagogue bombing in the 1980s and countless vicious delta force-requiring incidents ever since, including the cold-blooded massacres in the kosher market and Toulouse; the killing of Ilan Halimi and the murder of a Holocaust survivor who was thrown off of her own balcony.
What shall we make of the resurgence of antisemitism in Germany, whereby a killer attempted entry into a synagogue in Hall (killing a passerby) and Jews were discouraged from wearing a kippah in public (later retracted)? Shockingly (or maybe not), antisemitic rates have gone up significantly - even while government leaders condemn and deplore them. The Interior Ministry reports 1,799 antisemitic offences for 2018, up nearly 20% over the previous year.
Given our own increasing rates of antisemitism on this side of the pond, on a continent that was supposed to be free of the hatred in this new land, we too are not far behind having delta force parked outside our shuls. According to Statistics Canada, the Jewish community is still the most targeted, accounting for 19% of all hate crimes. This is especially true after an ‘intifada’ was allowed to take place at York University this past November. If a mob mentality against Jewish students is permitted and acceptable in the bastions of our places of higher learning – and these students are our future politicians, educators and business leaders – what does the future hold?
We might be a generation removed from Europe's violent antisemitism. But make no mistake about it, if the current trend continues and we continue to look the other way, delta force will not only be at a theatre near us, it will be carding us at our shuls, schools and community events. Without increasing counter-antisemitism education programs like Tour for Humanity; stronger laws and government policy against hate and unified condemnation from authority figures, our grandchildren’s reality may not be different than that of Jewish children in Europe.
Complacency is our enemy. At a time when standard of living is higher than any other time in history, it's easy to forget, become absorbed in other matters and look the other way. History provides plenty of examples where the community grew too comfortable and complacent and failed to heed warning signs. Pay attention, take action, become educated and stand together with your community – lest we forget!