The deadly terrorist attack on the Hyper Cacher kosher grocery store in Paris in 2015 was a turning point for the Jewish communities of France and its neighbors throughout Europe.
Combined with the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters that same month, the Hyper Cacher attack marked the beginning of France’s Operation Sentinelle – a massive national military operation that led to the deployment of 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes to protect civilians and sensitive sites.
“On the Sunday morning [following the attacks], President François Hollande met with all the leaders of the Jewish communities and declared that he was putting out 10,000 soldiers to protect every single building of the Jewish community, and from that day… every school, synagogue and JCC was protected,” Robert Ejnes, executive director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“From that day, we lived under the security of the state,” he said.
In 2016, following a string of Islamist attacks, the French government increased the mobility of its security operation in order to reach more sites.
Today security personnel make rounds between Jewish schools and synagogues as opposed to being permanently stationed in front of them. And recently, the French government announced that it wanted to make the forces even more mobile.
“We had to respect that decision,” Ejnes said. “It’s the role of the government to protect all its citizens.”
The French government’s decision to deploy soldiers in a more flexible way reflects the shift in potential targets over the past couple of years. Whereas Jews were once seen as the primary target, today everyone is seen as vulnerable.
Ejnes said that the changing trend in French immigration to Israel mirrors this shift.
After the shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012, there was an uptick of Jews leaving France to live in Israel.
“We saw the numbers grow because Jews in France felt that they were not secure anymore and that they were becoming special targets. There was a rise in antisemitic incidents and Jews felt like primary targets,” he explained.
Indeed, in 2015, French aliya reached a record 8,000 immigrants.
But in 2016, it fell to 5,000.
“We think this is due to the generalization of the attacks,” Ejnes said. “Jews began to feel like they were targets like everybody else and not the primary target.”
He added, however, that he still believed that the Jewish community was a main target and needed to pay extra attention to its security.
A security expert from the European Jewish Congress, who withheld his name, echoed this sentiment. “Today the aim of the attackers is to make as much damage as possible without checking who the people are,” he said, pointing to the recent terrorist attack on Barcelona’s bustling Las Ramblas boulevard.
“They look for easy targets,” he added. “Today, they [terrorists] are against the general community…
their aim is to see a Muslim Europe.
“If the Jews used to be a defined target, today the enemy treats them as a citizen like everyone else. Today if a Jew, Muslim or Christian walks in the street, they can get hit in the same way. Everyone is a target.”
Rabbi Eliezer Wolff, Amsterdam’s rabbinical jurist, said, “After the terrorist attacks two years ago in France, we all understood that in a drastic way we needed to increase security.”
Wolff gave as an example the directive he received from authorities to secure the windows at his beit midrash (study hall) with bulletproof materials, which were installed in place of the security guards who were once stationed there.
Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni said, “There was a knock-on effect after what happened in France, and since, the security measures have been raised.”
In Italy, he said, the authorities have heavily invested in protecting Jewish institutions, providing round-the-clock security. “There is higher level security. More security staff, more guards. The general atmosphere has changed – not just among the Jews,” he said.
Like other Jewish communities, those in Italy implement their own security measures in addition to that provided by the state.
Di Segni said that the Jewish community in the Italian capital had lived under fear of attack since Palestinian terrorists killed a two-year-old boy and wounded 37 others at the entrance to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1982. “Even before that, we were used to it… but what happened now is that they are striking the general community, and now the wider community has a deeper understanding of the dangers.”
In some cases, security has become so tight that Jewish tourists have difficulty entering synagogues around Europe.
“We have received quite a few complaints from Jews who wanted to visit [synagogues] and they just couldn’t get in,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, chairman of the Conference of European Rabbis.
“It’s unfortunate. There should be an open-door policy.
But with the situation today, I don’t see an alternative. We have to make sure that those who come to pray can be assured of their security,” he said.
Goldschmidt recalled that he, along with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau, underwent some 15 minutes of questioning before being allowed into a synagogue in Prague.
While the majority of Jewish community leaders who spoke with the Post praised the authorities in their countries, according to Gady Gronich, chief of staff to the president of Conference of European Rabbis, some feel as though the authorities have tried to pass the buck on Jewish security concerns.
“We don’t accept this, because we are citizens of the country and we don’t see the issue of security of the Jewish people as our business only,” Gronich told the Post.
Goldschmidt mentioned Switzerland as a country whose small Jewish community would like to see more cooperation from the government on its security needs.
Goldschmidt, who is the chief rabbi of Moscow, said that in Russia, too, he would like to see more support from the government.
There, the security of synagogues is financed by the Jewish community, he said.
In the last few years, the majority of terrorist attacks in Europe were in its west, and the countries hit hardest, such as France and Belgium, are more attuned to the dangers, particularly those posed by Islamic extremists, he said.
“I think communities in many countries are in dialogue with their governments and I think the European governments’ understanding of their responsibilities toward every one of their citizens is increasing, not decreasing,” he said.
“We saw in the last few years that many of the terror attacks were against Jewish institutions,” said Gronich, who is based in Munich. “If they [authorities] secure us, they at the same time can reduce the number of terror attacks, because we are at the least one of the targets.”
This issue was raised in February at the annual Munich Security Conference, which partnered with the Conference of European Rabbis – the first time the conference had done so with a Jewish institution.
“This was the first time Jewish issues were put on the agenda,” Gronich said. “We made it clear that we are looking for cooperation, support and to work together.”
Germany, he said, is an example of a country where Jewish security issues are being addressed with full support from the police and authorities.
Britain is another. The Community Security Trust, the United Kingdom’s main watchdog group on antisemitism, evolved from various British Jewish self-protection initiatives, and was officially designated as a nonprofit organization in 1994. The police and government recognize it as a unique model of best practice.
“Fifteen years ago, people needed to be convinced about our work, but as time has gone on, nobody needs convincing anymore about how important this work is,” Mark Gardner, CST communications director, told the Post.
Since 2010, the British government has supported CST efforts, providing funding for the security guards it manages.
And today, a £13.3 million government grant pays for security guards for Jewish schools, the surplus of which goes toward guards for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
In the past year, the CST opened a 24-hour security control room to monitor locations throughout the country through cameras and radio links.
Gardner said that the general public has resigned itself to the fact that terrorism has become a common part of life.
“There’s nothing like the level of media interest around these attacks that there used to be,” he said. “We appreciate that this is how things are and therefore security measures must be put in place. Thankfully, we had it in place already, because it takes a long time to build and for the community to understand.”