A news item appeared a few weeks ago detailing the refusal of an Austrian hotel owner to rent a summer apartment to Jews. The owner of the Haus Sonnenhof apartment hotel in the village of Serfaus in the Austrian Tyrol reportedly told a Viennese Jewish family the facility was no longer accepting Jewish guests. This is shocking and distressing, but according to my close relative who moved to Zurich 25 years ago, it is hardly newsworthy. As a matter of fact, it’s almost routine in Switzerland.
The annual rite of summer hiking in the Swiss Alps starts way before the season. My relative scours the rental sections each spring, since Jews and non-Jews alike scramble to rent apartments in the famed mountains. Years of experience have taught her to develop a system of trying to pin down that prize apartment without being rejected as a Jew, which is not an easy feat.
There have been times when the rejection has been outright – as soon as the owners hear her Jewish-sounding name. “We don’t rent to Jews,” they tell her. Other owners are more subtle. After affirming the apartment is available, they quickly change their minds upon hearing the Sunday to Sunday request, rather than the usual Saturday to Saturday. “Oh, I’m sorry,” they say, “you should really look for something else.” My relative has learned to withhold her name and waits until finalizing an agreement before springing the Sunday request. Even then, it doesn’t always work.
Somehow this should not surprise me, a regular visitor to the “land of the quiet Nazis.” Yet with each visit to Switzerland I am jarred anew at the sight of Orthodox Jewish boys wearing caps instead of yarmulkes in a feeble attempt to fool the locals. And I remember hearing the story of my twelve-year-old niece who greeted a Swiss lady in her neighborhood, only to be told, “I don’t greet Jewish children.”
Nothing, however, was as shocking as the phone call my relative made several months ago to wish happy birthday to Veronica, a Swedish au per she had employed many years ago, now married and living in Sweden with children of her own. Delighted with the call, Veronica enthusiastically told her, “If you ever need a place to hide, we would be happy to take in your whole family.”
What frightful magnanimity. In one fell swoop the state of the European Jewry, little more than a generation removed from the Holocaust, is summed up in alarming simplicity. Veronica’s staggering offer conveys not so much her apparent eagerness to play the role of the righteous Gentile as it does her tacit understanding and acceptance that such a role may well be needed in the near future.
What is even more disturbing is how my relative takes this in stride. She seems almost amused at my horror upon hearing this story and tells me that she and her husband have for years been sizing up non-Jews they meet by whether or not they think that person would hide them should the need arise.
Though the increase in anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic incidents in Europe is due in large part to the influx of Muslims, there is no denying the almost innate nature of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe. Long before robed men and veiled women walked the streets of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, Jews fled from and often were killed by their neighbors.
There are, to be sure, anti-Semites and anti-Semitic incidents in America as well, but I never had to endure the climate of anti-Semitism my relative lives with in Zurich on an almost daily basis. And yet, almost through osmosis, I am beginning to feel cracks in my seemingly impregnable existence in a land that was founded on religious freedom and built by those who fled religious persecution.
The policemen who have come to guard the synagogues in my Brooklyn neighborhood over the past several years don’t tote machine guns like their counterparts in Europe, but the pistols in their holsters are equally as lethal. But rather than make me feel protected, their presence only causes me to feel more vulnerable with the knowledge that such protection is now needed.
Anti-Semitic incidents in America are on the rise. College campuses are rife with anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and Jewish students fear to voice their support of Israel. The recent arrest of homegrown Muslim terrorists in a (thankfully amateurish) plot to bomb a Riverdale synagogue and Jewish center, and the attack at the U.S. Holocaust Museum by a deranged Holocaust denier, point to the new reality Jews face in America.
These might seem benign compared to the threats facing Jews in Europe, where it would probably be impossible to hold a Salute to Israel parade of the type that just marched down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, with its tens of thousands of marchers and spectators. But my new sense of conern grows as President Obama makes fawning overtures to countries in Europe and Latin America rife with anti-Semitism and presses for a more “evenhanded” Mideast policy.
Whether or not Jews outside Israel will feel the pinch strongly enough to make aliyah, the tide is turning against Jews and Israel, slowly and subtley here in America and much more speedily in Europe.
Bearing in mind that Israel is the home of all Jews, one can only hope Israeli leaders recognize the responsibility their role entails and resist the pressures of the Obama administration and the demands of the rest of the world that imperil Israel.
The need for a strong Israel to counter the increasing threats to Jews worldwide has never been more clear.
Sara Lehmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn.