‘Where are you from? Why are you here? What is this week’s reading from the Bible? Where are you eating tonight? Why don’t you have a beard in your passport photo?’ And more. Much more. By the time I gained entry to the beautiful Stadttempel, the only one of the 94 Viennese synagogues not destroyed by the Nazis, I felt as if I had completed a job interview to be the rabbi. Given a past which included not just threats but a murderous attack on a Bar Mitzvah by terrorists in the 1980s and a present in which violent extremists target Jews and Jewish places of worship, I was nonetheless grateful for the diligence of the security guards.
Last year, in Amritsar, India, my entry to the Golden Temple was delayed when two imposing Sikh guards noticed my skullcap under the bright yellow bandana provided to visitors. While they argued about whether or not Jews were Christians or Muslims – dismissing my claim that we predated both but were neither – I waited while streams of visitors filed in freely. This beautiful Holy Place has also known violence, and continues to face threats, but it is the good fortune of the Sikhs that their temples are not a high priority for terrorism.
In December, I was a guest at the Vatican for biennial Catholic-Jewish consultations. Entry was unimpeded and the Swiss Guards did not give the impression that they expected problems. The sight of military personnel and armoured vehicles at a number of Roman tourist spots had been a little confronting, although completely understandable given the threats of Isis and others. But only Jewish Romans appeared concerned for their safety at prayer, with the Cathedral-like main synagogue having perimeter security, guards at the gate and other clear signs that there was a genuine awareness that people, more than buildings, were likely targets of violence.
In most mosques I have visited – in Australia, Asia, Europe and Africa – it is more of a struggle to leave than to enter. Hospitality and a keenness to share knowledge have been hallmarks. But there have been exceptions. In China, at two mosques, I was confronted by agitated, elderly men, who did not want a foreigner drawing the attention of the government to them or their community.
My hosts in visits to Indonesia have generally not only urged me to come into prayer rooms and mosques, but pointed out the direction of Jerusalem (where Jews face for prayer). But in one beautiful complex in Eastern Java, a friendly discussion with an official turned sour when I volunteered that I was not a Muslim. I was promptly escorted to an exit, hundreds of metres from where I had deposited my shoes, and made to wait while my friends completed their prayers and then went looking for me. It transpired that an extremist group was seeking to take control of the mosque and it was felt that permitting non-Muslim visitors would be used to question the credentials of the current custodians.
I was in Austria to participate in an international conference which had the declaratory title An End to Antisemitism! Forty eight institutions were co-sponsors of the gathering of hundreds of scholars and students at the University of Vienna. The ambitious organisers succeeded in bringing together an eclectic and inspiring inter-disciplinary assembly. Parallel sessions took place on ‘Bible, Christianity and Antisemitism’, ‘Pedagogy’, ‘Modern History’, ‘Philosophy and Ethics’, ‘Islam and Antisemitism’, ‘Media Studies, Journalism and Visual Culture’, ‘Internet and Antisemitism’ and much more. The quality of research was extremely impressive, which made the constant negative analyses particularly disturbing. Threats to religious freedom, physical intimidation, political developments including weakness of a moderate, inclusive liberal centre, changes in the influence of bases of moral authority, and a seemingly viral rewriting of 20th century history were amongst the many factors of more than passing concern.
One issue which galvanised all those involved in the deliberations was Poland’s new ‘defamation of the Polish nation’ legislation and its impact on free discussion of Polish history, specifically concerning World War II. In recent years, Poland has been successful in having its concerns accepted regarding false attribution to it of Nazi crimes, but now, a politically, religiously and culturally diverse group of scholars feels compelled to condemn a policy of its government in unison.There is also real concern that bullying tactics directed at Muslims in Europe are having a far more severe impact on Jewish Europeans. Religious male circumcision, skullcaps and other identifying signs are under social and even legislative attack. Attempts to deprive Muslims of religiously-sanctioned meat are claiming Jewish ritual practices as collateral damage.
During the conference, as the representative of Austria’s ruling coalition took to the floor, a group of students unfurled a banner, reading ‘Mr Kurz, Your Government is Not Kosher’. As a number of presenters had highlighted, we were meeting not far from the Parliament where the government includes the far-right Freedom Party. In many other European countries, anti-immigration, so-called ‘civilisational’ parties are also gaining momentum, votes and influence. How to respond effectively is a challenge for all who have become accustomed to interactions with parties of the broad centre.
When I left synagogue around midday on Saturday, it was minus seven degrees Celsius. I was informed it was my good fortune that I would be leaving Vienna before it became cold! When I left the next day, I was conscious not just of the snow and icy wind, but the chill of the political developments in Europe and beyond.