The room was packed to capacity at the Knesset on Monday for an emergency meeting on the “rising wave of violent anti-Semitic and anti-Israel demonstrations sweeping Europe,” with MKs and Diaspora Jewish leaders offering testimony and issuing condemnations.
The meeting, chaired by MK Yoel Razvozov, saw representatives of Jewish communities and diplomats from countries including France, Greece, Hungary, Belgium, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Germany and Italy speaking at a session which went well overtime but ended inconclusively.
The meeting was called by the Knesset’s Diaspora Affairs Committee with the cooperation of the Israeli-Jewish Congress.
Members of Knesset bemoaned the upswing in anti-Semitism since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8, and security and academic experts attempted to drive home the dire importance of concrete steps to counter and educate against the rising anti-Semitism throughout Europe.
Vladimir Sloutzker, head of the Israeli-Jewish Congress, said starkly, “Never before since the Holocaust have we seen such a situation as today. We are potentially looking at the beginning of another Holocaust now.”
“These events will only grow in scale across Europe,” he warned.
The Holocaust and the pre-war period were recurrent themes in several speakers’ statements.
Nathan Norman Gelbart, the head of Germany’s Keren Hayesod (United Jewish Appeal), reported that the German Jewish community is scared “because these are things that have not occurred since 1933.” He cited demonstrators shouting “death to the Jews” and other anti-Semitic slogans.
“These demonstrators are marching in the heart of Berlin shouting these slogans, in front of the police. Shouting ‘Jews are pigs’ is an incitement: Why isn’t the Germany police taking the details of these people shouting in an aggressive way ‘Death to the Jews’?” asked Gelbart.
Hebrew University Prof. Robert Wistrich, an expert on anti-Semitism, said, “We have entered a new, very difficult era in all of Europe.” He said there is “a bit” of awareness in some governments, noting France’s aggressive stance against anti-Semitism in any form, from top government officials on down, “but we see it doesn’t make much of a difference — though it is important.”
Wistrich noted that years of “one-sided” anti-Israel media reports have led to an image of the Jewish state that is far removed from reality. Additionally, the constellation of extremists on the political far right and far left, along with jihadist immigrants, have created a new anti-Semitic climate in Europe, he said.
There is no longer a facade of anti-Zionist expressions not being anti-Semitic, said Wistrich. “You just need to hear the rhetoric to believe. We need a much deeper discussion; we’re just at the outer layer of the problem.”
Various European embassy officials obligingly reiterated their countries’ severe condemnation of anti-Semitism, but attributed official inaction during the recent anti-Israel protests to citizens’ right of free expression against Operation Protective Edge.
Denmark’s Ambassador Jesper Vahr said, “Clearly some of the events we have seen recently are despicable and intolerable.” He added, however, that Denmark “as a society defends the right of people who have a critical position to the Gaza operation.”
Meeting chair Razvozov rebutted, saying that “there is a difference between free speech and incendiary speech.” MK Yoav Bentsur agreed, saying, “It is impossible that in 2014 a Jew needs to take off Jewish symbols before walking the streets of Europe… if you don’t take care of the problem now, it will soon be too late.”
The looming existential threat to the Jewish community was touched upon by Esther Voet, director of the Centre of Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) in the Netherlands. She said although she is seeing more balanced reporting in the press versus during 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, “in the Netherlands we are very aware that it’s not about if something will happen in our country, but when.”
Benjamin Albalas, president of the Jewish Community of Greece, raised a further warning.
“The attitude in Europe is promoting delegitimization of the State of Israel… and is a first step toward the intimidation of the Jews’ right to live in their own home countries,” said Albalas.
Several Israeli speakers warned that the discussion in the Knesset was only touching the tip of the iceberg of the pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe today.
Knesset diplomatic adviser Oded Ben-Hur said, “Unfortunately, the situation is much worse than what you are describing… One of the problems is not just in knowing who is anti-Semitic, but to know that there is a whole swath of people who don’t even know they’re anti-Semitic — but they are.”
One of the very few to offer concrete suggestions, Ben-Hur suggested an increase in interfaith education.
“Emissaries talk until they are blue in the face and there is no end to this discussion… In the name of religion, more people have been killed than in plagues or disasters. There is ignorance between religions: We are comfortable in our own boxes, but we need to show we are the sons of the same God, and not to murder in the name of the God who created us all,” said Ben-Hur.