'A spike in antisemitism follows each statement by Ben Gvir'

A leader of European Jews accuses Ben Gvir of exacerbating antisemitism

Critics hit back at European Jewish Congress president for his comments on far-right minister, accusing him of ‘sanctimony’ and ‘failed appeasement”

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

File - National Security Itamar Ben Gvir leads an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
File - National Security Itamar Ben Gvir leads an Otzma Yehudit faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Amid a surge in antisemitic hate crimes in Europe, a leader of the continent’s Jewish communities has accused National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of exacerbating the problem by speaking about resettling Israelis in Gaza, thereby making it more difficult to defend Israel’s position to critics.

“Each time that Ben Gvir makes these statements, you see a spike in antisemitism,” European Jewish Congress President Ariel Muzicant said last week during a visit to Israel, referring to remarks by Ben Gvir, a far-right firebrand, on reestablishing Israeli settlements in Gaza — where they existed until they were evacuated by Israel in 2005 — and encouraging Palestinian emigration from the Strip.

With Israel’s war against Hamas and Gaza passing its half-year mark, Muzicant’s unusual public rebuke of an Israeli official reflected both the pressures affecting Jewish communities bearing the brunt of a wave of antisemitism unleashed by the fighting, and divisions among pro-Israel Jews.

“Individuals from the government, such as Ben Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich, are not behaving responsibly at all,” added Muzicant, who lives in Austria and heads an umbrella group that represents more than 20 communities across Europe.

He added: “If you ask me whether I would meet Ben Gvir, my answer would be no.”

Smotrich, another far-right political partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shocked European Jews and others when he said in February that retrieving some 130 Israeli hostages who are still held by terror groups in Gaza is “not the most important thing.”

Austrian-Jewish leader Ariel Muzicant in Jerusalem, March 21, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Rabbi Menachem Margolin of the European Jewish Association, a Brussels-based lobby group, criticized Muzicant for slamming Ben Gvir.

“It’s unnecessary sanctimony to criticize and blame an Israeli cabinet minister, and publicly at that, even as Israel fights a just and existential war against Hamas terrorism,” Margolin told The Times of Israel.

Ben Gvir’s office did not reply to a request by The Times of Israel for comment on Muzicant’s allegations.

Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron and a former spokesperson for Ben Gvir, said that Muzikant’s remarks represent “a failed appeasement policy” that he claimed is especially dangerous and out of place in the Middle East.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin speaks at the annual European Jewish Association meeting held in Porto, Portugal on May 16, 2023 . (EJA)

The visit by Muzicant and members of the board of the European Jewish Congress was part of a joint mission to Israel by that organization and the American Jewish Committee. The visit included meetings with several cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Israel Katz.

Muzicant updated his interlocutors on the increase in expressions of antisemitism in Europe following Hamas’s October 7 assault, he told The Times of Israel. About 3,000 terrorists invaded Israel that day, killed some 1,200 people and abducted another 253, most of them civilians, while committing numerous atrocities.

Israel launched a ground invasion 20 days later into Gaza, where the fighting has led to the death of 33,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. The data do not distinguish between civilians and terrorists, of whom Israel says it has killed at least 13,000.

Traces of fire can be seen on a synagogue entrance door damaged by an incendiary device in Oldenburg, Germany, April 5, 2024. (Hauke-Christian Dittrich/dpa via AP)

The fighting has led to an explosion in antisemitic incidents, including in Western Europe. Recent incidents included the torching over the weekend of a synagogue in Oldenburg, Germany. In Chisinau, Moldova, a man accosted Rabbi Mendel Axelrod this week, shouting at him: “How come nobody took you out for what you’re doing to Palestinians,” Axelrod told police.

In the Netherlands, the local Jewish community’s main watchdog on antisemitism, CIDI, on Tuesday reported a record of 379 antisemitic incidents in 2023, 60% of which happened between October and the end of December last year.

Before October 7, European Jewry’s general attitude “was always like this: We live here, we like it here, we’re home here — and we have a life insurance policy, and that’s Israel,” Muzicant said. But October 7 is leaving many of them “at a loss of a compass, not sure of what’s going to happen. There is no clear answer to that at the moment.”

Part of the uncertainty, Muzicant said, is “because the insurance policy, apparently, wasn’t such an insurance” – a reference to how the onslaught, which caught Israel’s army unprepared, is making many Jews in Israel and beyond fear for the Jewish state’s very survival.

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