European Jewry is all in the same boat, and that boat is slowly but surely sinking. That, at least, was the impression from a roundtable conversation Tuesday at the Jerusalem Press Club with leaders from 25 of the continent’s Jewish communities.
During the hour and a half lunch in a picturesque hall overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, even those leaders who claimed their countries are without anti-Semitism today were pessimistic about the future of Europe. The obliviousness to a looming Nazi regime pervasive in 1930s Jewish communities was referenced, as were the increased Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) efforts that have taken over Scandinavia and elsewhere.
The 30-odd leaders were assembled under the banner “A Time for Action” for the fifth Israeli Jewish Congress (Hakhel) Gathering and Solidarity Mission to Israel of senior European Jewish leaders. The IJC was founded as a conduit for Diaspora-Israel dialogue in 2011 by Russian businessman Vladimir Sloutsker, a former senator in the Russian Federation Senate.
Among the intensive three days of events, the leaders were taken to the Knesset on Tuesday morning. There they met with Speaker Yuli Edelstein and other senior ministers and MKs, and addressed a special emergency hearing on anti-Semitism by the Diaspora Affairs Committee.
In a late lunch following their morning at the Knesset, between bites of eggplant salad and carpaccio, the leaders took turns at the microphone in describing their escalating concerns — and the need for an emergency contingency plan should Jews in danger need to be evacuated.
Musician Peter Gyori, the vice president of the Jewish Community of the Czech Republic, said his country doesn’t suffer from anti-Semitism, nor are there any calls for BDS. He said he can be openly Jewish, and appears widely on radio and television. But he has no utopian illusions.
“I know that if something would happen to me, nobody would protect me,” said Gyori.
For her part, Gkratsiela Sofia Bourla, wife of the president of the Greek Jewish community, Moses Constatinos, said she cannot believe leaders, such as the delegates from the Czech Republic and Portugal, who say their countries do not have any anti-Semitism.
“I think the beast is sleeping in their countries,” said Bourla.
Continuing with anti-Semitism as beast imagery, the Serbian Jewish community’s president Ruben Fuks said no one is dealing with the monster itself, only its manifestations, such as anti-Semitic slogans or BDS.
“Seeing what’s around, how the beast is waking up, raising its ugly head, I’m worried,” said Fuks.
Born in Ostend, Belgium, in 1939 and hidden as a child during the Holocaust, Baron Julien Klener, the immediate past president of the Consistoire Israelite de Belgique, said he too is anxious in today’s Europe.
As if relating a parable, he told a story of when he was a boy during World War II in his parents’ shop. Two German soldiers entered and in the midst of completing their transactions, Klener said they realized that the business was run by a Jewish family. One of the soldiers turned to Klener’s mother and astonishedly asked, “What are you still doing here?” and told her the family should flee.
Klener’s mother shrugged and answered, “Nothing will happen to us because we’re Belgians.” The rest, said Klener, is of course known.
“I love it when leaders say their countries cannot be their countries without the Jews. I love it when they love us,” he said, implying that this has not been, and may not always be, the case.
“We cannot forget the Holocaust,” said Ruth Gertner Frohman, the honorary president of the Jewish Foundation of Belgium. “But the people of Europe are fed up with hearing about it.”
“When they’re nice, they’ll listen and say, ‘But in Israel, today you’re doing the same thing to the Palestinians,'” said Frohman.
And it is this anti-Israeli sentiment, which can easily escalate into anti-Semitism, that is most worrisome to these Europeans. For to the less educated angry masses, when the Holy Land is at war, the distinctions between the people of Israel and the country of Israel are blurred.
‘We can’t put roses around a situation which might get very nasty and dangerous’
Although Gibraltar’s Jewish community only boasts 750 members, its vice president Suzanne Levy, who referenced its close proximity to Muslim Morocco, said there must be a contingency plan in place.
“We can’t put roses around a situation which might get very nasty and dangerous,” said Levy.
“We have to be realists: What if it doesn’t get better? What if it gets worse?” she said. “Let’s get a plan in case we need to quickly run home.”