An Atmosphere of Intolerance

10/10/2011 23:58 BST | Updated 10/12/2011 10:12 GMT

The Jewish world is now emerging from the 'Aseret Y'mei Teshuvah' (literally - The Ten Days of Repentance) a period between the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement when one is required to take stock of their moral and ethical position in the world and ask themselves whether they could have behaved just a little bit more responsibly, been just a little bit more tolerant of others and to consider how we might improve ourselves in the coming year. I expect that this year, thoughts of tolerance, equality and freedom will have been felt more sharply than ever.

Before the end of the calendar year, the upper house of the Dutch Parliament will vote to outlaw religious slaughter on the grounds that it is inhumane - this despite not one reliable scientific study of the process, no mention of the huge numbers of mis-stunned animals, who, all are agreed, live the last moments of their lives in great distress, and no attempt to allow religious communities to demonstrate the humaneness of their methods. The Dutch Parliament has instead put the onus on their Jewish community, who will suffer at the hands of the ban, to 'prove' that its methods are humane, knowing full well that to provide genuine proof of either position is virtually impossible. The Dutch have defaulted to taking the attitude that religious communities are agitating against the will of the majority and should be stopped wherever possible.

The dust is only now beginning to settle over the mass-murder perpetrated in Norway by the bigoted Anders Brevik, who subscribed to a similar ideology and if we go back further, we must ask ourselves, should we have heeded the warning of laws banning the building of minarets in Switzerland and of women wearing Islamic head coverings in France and in Belgium?

It should be clear that each of these things did not happen in a vacuum. Each one feeds off a fear that the continent is somehow being hijacked by religious communities who are attempting to radically change the host society and force a once Christian but now largely secular Europe to regress into some sort of medieval Middle Eastern society with a pre-Enlightenment Zeitgeist.

This latest move by the Dutch government is indicative of alarming levels of intolerance in some parts of Europe towards the modes of worship and of dress codes of 'unfamiliar' communities. The world once feared and therefore persecuted men like Galileo who espoused the virtues of science as opposed to religion for no other reason than they feared it would upset the status quo. Now that same fear runs in the opposite direction.

Minority communities across Europe are beginning to feel that the underlying motivation behind these infringements on their personal and religious freedoms is to either force us out of Europe or to make us quietly and gently assimilate into an ill-perceived European secular hegemony. Of course this idea is not new, save for the fact that this time it has been camouflaged by messages of freedom, equality and tolerance.

If the purpose of these measures is to reinforce the spirit of the Enlightenment - of greater democracy and universal tolerance, then they have been an abject failure. Fringe groups see their once extreme points of view espoused by 'legitimate political parties' leaving them to pursue yet stronger anti-immigrant and anti-religious sentiments. What message does this send to the Jewish community to communities which have successfully integrated into Europe whilst retaining their own sense of identity and community?

Some time ago, I had the chance to go on an interfaith visit to the United States with a delegation of senior European Rabbis and Imams. When we met representatives of other faith groups, European religious leaders were amazed to see the way that immigrant communities there prided themselves on becoming Americans, sharing the values of their fellow citizens, of democracy, diversity, tolerance and human rights with the rest of society, while maintaining their faith and customs in their own communities. Why is it that European states have failed to instil that same pride in their constituent minority communities?

Across Scandinavia and in The Netherlands, the odious politics of the far-right is gaining ground and popularity. In both cases, this is coupled with a quiescent intolerance of religion that has become the norm in modern liberal democracies.

Europe's Jews were jarred but sadly not surprised when the Mayor of the Swedish city Malmo turned a blind eye to the shocking antisemitic violence that took place in his city last year. This indifference destroys the model of tolerance upon which European values are founded. There are countless similar examples from other faith communities and yet European institutions apparently remain oblivious to what it feels like to be a minority.

It is my deepest wish that those who have demonstrated a propensity for attacking difference, join in the Jewish practice of self-reflection at this time of year and consider what is truly driving the bans on wearing an Islamic veil or religious slaughter. Pastor Martin Niemoller chillingly recorded that it was only when the Nazis came to take him away that he realised the gravity of his failure to speak out for the other victims of the Holocaust. There is already a feeling that religious communities in Europe are singled out for criticism. Now is the time to protest against that injustice.