The world seems a more dangerous place to travel for everyone, but maybe especially for Jews. Terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and London have sent a collective shudder down the spines of many would-be tourists. Anti-Semitic violence and rhetoric is rising across Europe. Parents packing their teenagers off to Israel on Birthright and other similar summer student trips may take extra pause this year as the “knife intifada” wave of terror by Palestinians against Jews continues.
Of course, it’s always a good idea to be fatalistic when you travel (and even when you don’t). Life in general is about gaming the odds. If you want to go to Paris, you should go to Paris — even if it means taking certain precautions such as (sadly) removing kippas or Stars of David necklaces.
Still, for those who prefer to vacation where the natives are more friendly, Fig Tree & Vine is launching a weekly series of the top destinations where Jewish travelers can feel completely comfortable snapping selfies and visiting major sites.
To determine these, we’ve relied on a number of sources to determine the safety factor of any given place, including the Anti-Defamation League’s most recent Global 100 Anti-Semitism Survey Index.
According to this index, the three countries expressing the least anti-Semitic attitudes are Laos, the Philippines, and Sweden (yes, Sweden, despite recent incidents. The Swedes’ index is 4% vs 15% negative scores among both its neighbors, Norway and Finland. The three worst (not including Arab/Middle East countries): A tie between Turkey and Greece (69%), with Malaysia (61%) coming in third. Cross the Acropolis and Hagia Sophia off your bucket list for now.
As we can see from the Swedish example, there’s a difference between private attitudes and public actions. While the vast majority of Swedes may not hold anti-Semitic views, a minority is making it hazardous to be, visibly, Jewish.
Thus Fig Tree & Vine chose our top vacation destinations based on a combination of factors, including low levels of anti-Semitism with little or no reported incidents of abuse or attacks against Jews.
Our first destination:
Tokyo is architecturally spectacular, surprisingly green, and pulsing with vibrant excitement. A superb public transport network makes it easy to get around to museums, the vistas of the Imperial Palace, and the Ginza district, compared to which Times Square looks like Hoboken.
As legendarily polite as they are to everyone, the Japanese are especially welcoming to Jews. There has been a small Jewish community in Japan since the mid 19th century, one that grew in subsequent decades with immigrants arriving from Russia after its 1905 revolution. Japanese leaders encouraged the immigration, believing Jewish immigration would bring the country prosperity. Even during the wartime alliance with Nazi Germany during World War Two, Japan largely refrained from anti-Semitic actions. Jews in Japan were not persecuted, and Japanese officials resisted Nazi demands to murder the large Jewish refugee population in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China.
A revered figure, to whom there is now a museum in the Japanese countryside, is Imperial Consul Chiune Sugihara: A diplomat posted in Lithuania, he defied his own government’s orders and issued transit visas to Jews fleeing Poland after Germany’s invasion on September, 1939. In the space of one year, before the Soviet Union ordered all diplomatic consulates closed in 1940, Sugihara managed to save the lives of some 6,000 Jews by granting them passage out of Europe via Asia.
Today Japan’s government keeps up close diplomatic relations with Israel: in recent years, the two countries have signed a cooperative defense agreement, increased trade to $1.7 billion between them, and promote a number of cross-cultural programs. While Japan’s current Jewish population remains small — approx. 1,000, mostly living in Tokyo — there are many sites of interest to Jewish tourists. You can even get a kosher meal.
Official Jewish life is fostered by the Jewish Community of Japan, a group established in 1953. Its building is of architectural interest: constructed in 2009 by the international award-winning firm Maki & Associates to replace its old facility, the sleekly designed Japanese modernist center houses a synagogue, school, social hall, mikveh, library and offices.
Exterior, Jewish Community of Japan, designed by Maki & Associates.
Other Jewish highlights to visit outside of Tokyo:
In Kobe, home of the oldest Jewish community in Japan, visit the ornately decorated Ohel Shlomo Synagogue, which aided Jewish refugees during World War Two.
At Hiroshima, the Holocaust Education Center serves as a memorial to the Shoah.
Where to Eat:
If you begin to crave something Jewish, try Ta-Im: an authentic Israeli style restaurant in the heart of Tokyo that uses fresh, seasonal ingredients and serves such specialties as hummus, falafal, kabobs, and crispy chicken schnitzel. Founded by a former Israeli and his Japanese wife, Ta-Im is a little taste of Tel Aviv in Tokyo. The restaurant also serves Israeli wines along with cocktails made from Arak and other Middle Eastern favorites.