Another day, another newspaper story about anti-Semitism in Europe. The good news, I suppose, is that there are at least some newspapers in Europe that are willing to acknowledge the phenomenon. The bad news is that there’s more than enough material to keep the stories coming.
The latest report, in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten, is about seventeen-year-old Moran Jacob, a Jewish boy who until recently lived in Nørrebro, a heavily Muslim neighborhood of Copenhagen. Back in January, Jacob agreed to testify at a hearing about anti-Semitism at Copenhagen’s City Hall, where he told about the harassment he’s been subjected to since childhood. At the time, several newspapers provided accounts of his testimony. (Representatives of Islamic organizations were invited to attend the hearing, but chose not to.)
The son of a Muslim father and an Israeli Jewish mother, Jacob began his education at a private Muslim school, where he was bullied because of his Jewish background and had to keep his distance from the other kids during recess. When he was transferred to a regular school, the abuse grew even worse; it wasn’t even safe for him to walk home alone. In eighth grade, his teacher told him to say that he was Palestinian and that his mother was Russian. “I had to lie about who I was,” he recalls. But it didn’t work. They knew. Eventually, a group of his classmates ganged up on him and stabbed him in the leg. “You can’t go here anymore,” his teacher said. “I have scars,” he told the hearing. “Not on my body, but on my soul.”
Jacob, of course, isn’t alone. He was the youngest of seven Jews who told their stories at the January hearing. There was obviously a reluctance to go public. Many gave only their first names. When TV cameras swung around to show the members of the audience, a number of them covered their faces.
“Jews have learned to keep a low profile,” Max Mayer, president of the Danish Zionist Federation, told the hearing. “To not exist in the city.” When they come out of the synagogue, they remove their yarmulkes. And they teach their sons to do the same: wear the skullcap at school, but take it off when you leave. This, Mayer said, has become standard practice for Danish Jews: “Don’t see us, don’t notice us.”
It certainly wasn’t easy for Jacob, a shy kid, to testify. But he decided to do so after reading a comment made by Lise Egholm, a school principal in Nørrebro. Apparently, Egholm had privately warned Jewish parents not to send their kids to school in Nørrebro. When the news of her advice made headlines, she was irritated, insisting that the problem really wasn’t all that big a deal. The particular expression she used to make this point was one I’ve never heard before: she said that the issue of anti-Semitism in Danish schools was “en fis i en hornlygte.”
It’s a rather goofy-sounding term: literally, it translates (roughly) into “a candle in a lamp made of an animal’s horn,” fis being a now outdated term for candle. In contemporary usage, however, fis is one of many words in Danish (and Norwegian) for fart, so it sounds as if it means “a fart in a lamp.” In any event, it’s an expression used to describe (according to Wikipedia) “something that isn’t really anything” or (according to a website about the Danish language) “something that looks like much, but isn’t really anything special.” It was when he read Egholm’s blithe use of this term to dismiss the challenges faced by him and other Jewish schoolkids in Denmark, Jacob told Politiken, that he decided to take the risky step of going public about his experiences.
(By the way, Egholm isn’t the only educator in Copenhagen who, while clearly recognizing the dire reality of anti-Semitic harassment in the city’s schools, is possessed of a curious disinclination to draw attention to it: Linda Herzberg, who works at a school in another part of town, acknowledged in an interview with Politiken that she, too, had witnessed assaults on Jewish kids, but shared Egholm’s concern that the problem not be “blown up too much.”)
Anyhow, Jacob’s testimony was featured in the media – and, as Jyllands-Posten now reports, the hubbub just made his life even tougher. Some time after the hearing, two Middle Eastern men passed him in the street. “That’s him,” one of them said. “Jew pig!” shouted the other. On Facebook, strangers called him a “Jew pig” and “Nazi pig” and “Jew dog.” (Plainly, the imagination of these people is severely limited.)
In the wake of his moment in the media spotlight, Jacob’s mother was advised by several school officials to transfer him to a school outside of Nørrebro. She was stunned by the suggestion: Jacob had lived in the neighborhood almost his entire life; neither of them wanted to flee. But in August, he finally gave up, packed up, and moved out. He now resides in what he considers a safer part of town. Not that it’s made his life a bed of roses: a couple of weeks ago, he was on Strøget, the main pedestrian street in Copenhagen – Tourist Central, basically – when a couple of “Arabic kids” grabbed hold of him and made a serious effort to drag him away with them. Who knows what they had in mind. Fortunately, two companions of Jacob’s managed to come to his aid. (As someone familiar with Strøget, which is almost always quite a busy, bustling thoroughfare, I can’t help but notice that no passersby appear to have tried to help.)
Now, Jacob says, he’s considering leaving Denmark altogether. He’s quick to add that he’s determined not to allow the continual harassment to scare him into silence, and insists that Denmark has to remain a country where people have the right to express themselves and to be who they are. Still, he admits that he’s not sure the Copenhagen of the future will be such a city. “If I have children, I hope they can walk around Nørrebro without hiding the fact that they have a Jewish father and without being spat upon and assaulted. But I am beginning to doubt it.”
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