BRUSSELS — The agenda for the conference of European Jewish leaders in Brussels this week was supposed to address anti-Zionism as the new anti-Semitism. But attendees had a hard time focusing on a new threat when a more classical form of anti-Semitism, once thought mostly purged from the Continent, is once again rattling communities across Europe.
Buffeted by resurgent nationalists, anti-Israel movements and terror, Jewish leaders in Belgium Monday chose to focus on the one issue that seems to be overshadowing the others at the moment and raise alarms of fresh anti-Semitic threats.
As the European Jewish Association’s annual Jewish Leaders Conference met, many of the discussions quickly turned into an opportunity to voice fears of the “old anti-Semitism” and the rise of far-right parties in Europe, as well as Donald Trump’s entry into the White House, which has shaken many on both sides of the Atlantic.
“In addition to the threats to Jewish communities from radical Islam, we see a very real threat from populist movements across Europe,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, head of the European Jewish Association, told delegates in his opening remarks to the conference.
Emboldened by Britain’s vote to leave the EU and Trump’s US election win, European far-right parties are hoping to capitalize on rising resentment against the establishment and alarm over migration to shake up the political landscape on the continent. Nationalist movements in the Netherlands, France, Austria and Germany have all gained ground, with many predicting 2017 could see key election victories for the populist right.
Margolin told The Times of Israel that the rise of the right presents both a short- and long-term challenge to Jewish communities.
“There is no question that we see so many of these anti-Semitic attacks coming not just from radical Islam but from typical European nationalism,” he said.
‘New problems are arising. Anti-Semitism is appearing more and more’
“In the long term it’s even more worrying because we see they are gaining power in all of Europe and we are very concerned about what is going to be 15 years from now: Will they be a majority? Will they control power in many European countries? And will we, God forbid, experience again the rise of an anti-Semitic government in Europe?”
During a session titled “Enhancing security of the Jewish communities in Europe 2017,” Philippe Markiewicz, chairman of the Consistoire of Belgium, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations in the country, said he feared that the Continent’s old demons were starting to raise their heads again.
“After a long history of bad times, today, for the last 72 years, we are living in peace,” he said. “But new problems are arising. Anti-Semitism is appearing more and more.”
Markiewicz said that European democracy alone was not enough to stem the rise of the far right. “Let’s not forget,” he warned ominously, “Hitler was elected democratically.”
While Markiewicz was referring to the European historical experience, the allusion to America of the past few months wasn’t lost on the audience.
Trump, who has voiced statements against various ethnic and religious groups, has been criticized for failing to distance himself from far-right or neo-Nazi groups that have rallied behind him. Meanwhile, his pick of Steve Bannon as chief strategist has irked many in the US Jewish community due to Bannon’s embrace of the racist-infused “alt-right” movement while at the helm of the Breitbart news website.
Utilizing an old idiom to illustrate the spread of all types of anti-Semitism, Alex Benjamin, director of the EJA’s Europe-Israel Public Affairs lobby group, told the conference, “When American sneezes, Europe catches a cold.”
Speaking on behalf of the US State Department — albeit representing an initiative set up under former secretary of state John Kerry that is rumored to be bound for the chopping block under the Trump administration — Holly Hufnagle of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs, said the United States is carefully monitoring the rise of the far-right in both Europe and on its home soil.
“The United States is not immune to anti-Semitism,” she said, citing recent reports that found most religiously motivated hate crimes in the US were directed at Jews and that such incidents have seen a nine percent rise in the past year alone. Some have credited the bump to the divisive election campaign that saw the emergence of the “alt-right.”
“The increase in anti-Semitic attacks we have witnessed over the past few months is of serious concern,” said Hufnagle, who served as an adviser to Ira Forman, Kerry’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. “We are aware that most anti-Semitic attacks in the US, as in Europe, reportedly still come from far-right, white-nationalist and neo-Nazi groups.”
According to Hufnagle, those parties, which typically campaign on ethno-nationalist, anti-migrant and anti-Muslim platforms, are attempting to whitewash their anti-Semitism with purported newfound support for Israel.
“We fear that these extreme right-wing parties are using their anti-Muslim platforms to gain Jewish support,” she said, “and for a number of Jewish communities in Europe, this is a pressing question.”
‘We fear that these extreme right-wing parties are using their anti-Muslim platforms to gain Jewish support’
Benjamin, the EJA’s Europe-Israel Public Affairs director, told The Times of Israel that the EIPA is often contacted by far-right parties such as Geert Wilders’ Dutch Freedom Party in their attempts to “cleanse themselves of the image of anti-Semitism” by joining pro-Israel forums or events. “We will not allow them to do that,” he said.
Hufnagle and other speakers at the conference warned that accepting such parties based on their apparent pro-Israel positions could rationalize or even normalize the far right.
Katharina von Schnurbein, the EU’s coordinator on tackling anti-Semitism, said, “The very cautious reaction of the Jewish community to the far right is correct, because at some point the veil falls.”
In December, Israel’s Foreign Ministry put out a directive advising ministers against meeting a member of a Swedish far-right party visiting the country as part of a delegation of European and US lawmakers.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely canceled meetings with the Jerusalem Leaders Summit, a gathering of conservative parliamentarians, due to the participation of Kristina Winberg, a member of the European Parliament for the Sweden Democrats.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said the decision to exclude Winberg was made due to her party’s far-right and ultra-nationalist positions.
In protest over Israel’s decision to exclude Winberg from the briefing with Hotovely, the entire delegation, which notably included a senior member of Trump’s transition team, decided to boycott the meeting.
Last month, in a letter sent to Vienna’s Jewish Community and given to The Times of Israel by the Israeli president’s office, Reuven Rivlin said he will “never condone” meetings between representatives of Israel and “European parties of the far right that are tainted with a history of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial… or the promotion of racial hatred or intolerance.”
The president said he was “against any meetings by official representatives of Israel with representatives of such groups.”
His letter came in response to one sent in November by World Jewish Congress Vice President Ariel Muzicant and Vienna Jewish Community head Oskar Deutsch.
The two complained that “certain politicians in Israel are willing to meet populist parties of the European extreme right,” including Austria’s Freedom Party, and asked Israeli leaders “to draw a very clear red line between us and those who represent hate, neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism.”
Rivlin told Muzicant and Deutsch that his comments applied to all “political parties you mention.”
Asked if he thinks Trump’s election could indeed herald a new dawn for Europe’s far right, the EJA’s Margolin answered hesitantly, “Who knows?”
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