European Jewish group unveils plan to ‘beat anti-Semitism’ amid rise in attacks

Community leaders from European Jewish Association call on politicians to take more action against Jew-hatred; in shift, many say they’d welcome security support from Israel

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Consistoire President Joel Mergui addresses the European Jewish Association annual conference in Paris on February 25, 2020. (Yoni Rykner)
Consistoire President Joel Mergui addresses the European Jewish Association annual conference in Paris on February 25, 2020. (Yoni Rykner)

PARIS — A European Jewish organization unveiled its “plan to beat anti-Semitism” to dozens of leaders from across the continent on Tuesday, calling on them to adopt the strategy in their countries as an antidote to the rise in attacks on Jews in the region.

The plan introduced by the European Jewish Association at its annual conference in Paris calls on all European countries to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism; to appoint a special envoy on combating anti-Semitism; to mandate schools include lessons on anti-Semitism; and to legislate bans on anti-Semitic symbols in public, including Nazi imagery.

“We as Jewish communities cannot eradicate anti-Semitism on our own,” said the organization’s chairman, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, at the plan’s unveiling.

“After 20 years dealing with this subject, I’ve come to the understanding that no matter how many schools we visit, and no matter how many delegations we bring to Auschwitz, it’s all just a drop in the bucket,” he said. “Therefore we realized that the way to fight anti-Semitism is to pass on the responsibility to European governments.”

Margolin said that much of the role of Jewish community leaders going forward will be to lobby legislators to take action.

Attendees listen to a speaker at the European Jewish Association annual conference in Paris on February 25, 2020. (Yoni Rykner)

Over 200 people attended the two-day conference, including Jewish community leaders and members of European parliaments. Speakers included Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, UNESCO Assistant Director-General Stefania Giannini, US Special Envoy against anti-Semitism Elan Carr, France Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet and former NATO secretary general and Prime Minister of Denmark Anders Rogh Rasmussen.

The conference, titled “Jews in Europe: United for a Better Future,” was held at the European Center for Judaism, a $17 million community center that opened last October.

Margolin said that the new building in central Paris exuded “self-confidence” and made him hopeful for the future of Jews in France.

The entrance to the center is shielded by two sets of doors made of thick, bulletproof glass.

Attacks targeting Jews in Europe have been on the rise in recent years, a trend highlighted by the results of a survey presented to conference attendees.

In Great Britain, the number of hate incidents against Jews rose by 150 in 2019 to 1805, according to statistics compiled by the European Action and Protection League. In 2013, the number of hate incidents in Great Britain was 535.

Illustrative: A truck with the words ‘fuck off’ and another with swastika graffiti on it were found outside a Jewish school in a Hasidic neighborhood in London, November 14, 2016. (Shomrim N.E. London/Twitter)

In the Netherlands, the number of hate incidents climbed by almost 50 to 182 in 2019 — 82 more than the annual figure from 2013, when Action and Protection League began keeping track.

In France, home to roughly half a million Jews, last year’s total also rose by nearly 150, to 687 — nearly 250 more than in 2013.

The figures also showed a steady rise in Austria, where hate incidents climbed from 255 in 2014 to 547 in 2018.

The Action and Protection League also polled 16,000 adults in 16 countries across Europe on their feelings toward Jews. Fifty-one percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “Jews are more inclined than most to use shady practices to achieve their goals.”

Fifty-six percent either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “it’s always better to be a little cautious with Jews.”

Thirty-nine percent agreed with the statement “There is a secret Jewish network that influences political and economic affairs in the world.” The survey had a 0.8% margin of error.

While the community leaders at the conference did not downplay the severity of the trend — with some openly doubting that the Jewish populations of their home countries would remain there — many of the speakers made a point of including reasons for optimism.

European Jewish Association Chairman Menachem Margolin addresses his group’s annual conference in Paris on February 25, 2020. (Yoni Rykner)

UK anti-Semitism czar John Mann highlighted the overwhelming December electoral defeat of Labour Party chairman Jeremy Corbyn, who has been marred by charges of anti-Semitism.

“British voters demonstrated how our country feels about the issue,” Mann said. He also boasted that 641 of 643 members of British parliament had signed the IRHA definition of anti-Semitism, which includes “the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

Should the Jewish state help the Jews?

On the issue of Israel, The Times of Israel spoke with a handful of community leaders present, asking them whether they felt the Jewish state had a role to play in the fight against anti-Semitism in the Diaspora.

Many of them recognized that in the early 2000s, when anti-Semitism began to intensify in Europe for the first time in decades, they sought to distance themselves from Israel, not wanting to be equated to the Jewish state, which was becoming increasingly unpopular among their non-Jewish neighbors, particularly Muslim immigrants.

“But now, everyone knows that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism and there’s no reason to try and separate the two,” said Margolin. Indeed, French President Emmanuel Macron echoed that sentiment in a speech earlier this year.

Margolin argued that the State of Israel therefore has a “strong role” to play in helping Jews in the Diaspora combat anti-Semitism.

“Maybe there’s some risk,” he said, acknowledging that it might lead to the equating of Jewish communities of Europe with Israel and its policies, “but the reward that can be gained from its contribution is much higher.”

Irina Katz. (Courtesy)

Leaders of the small German Jewish communities in Freiburg and North Rhile-Westphalia, made up of less than 1,000 members, said that Israeli companies advise them on security issues, but that that the involvement of the official government is limited.

“I can’t say that there’s an obligation for the Israeli government to act on this matter, but we of course would appreciate it,” said Freiburg Jewish community chairwoman Irina Katz.

North Rhile-Westphalia Jewish community president Leah Floh asserted that Israel “has to play a special role to protect Jews in the Diaspora and vice versa. Unfortunately they haven’t played a role until now.”

Asked if her community had formally reached out to Israeli authorities, Floh — a cousin of Likud Minister Ze’ev Elkin — acknowledged that she had not, but contended that such assistance should not be dependent on official requests as Jerusalem is “aware” of the situation for Jews around the world.

“They have enough to to deal with in Israel, but maybe one day they will realize that it’s time to stand up,” she added.

Both Floh and Katz, whose German communities are made up largely of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, said that life has become increasingly difficult for their members due rising anti-Semitism, and that they might choose to leave if the trend continues.

North Rhile-Westphalia Jewish community president Leah Floh addresses the European Jewish Association annual conference in Paris on February 24, 2020. (Yoni Rykner)

“We will not wait like they did in the 1930s,” said Floh.

Katz speculated that members of her community would move to Israel or to the US if the situation deteriorated further.

David Liscia, president of the Florence Jewish community, said that the Israeli embassy in Italy has sent officials to teach members how to respond to anti-Semitic attacks. While he too acknowledged the sensitivity of Jerusalem’s involvement in the community, Liscia said Florence’s Jews face far fewer threats than neighbors in Rome or other large European  cities, and that they therefore have less to be concerned about.

Moreover, he argued that “those who would find an issue with Israel would find a different excuse to criticize if Israel was not involved.”

Joel Mergui, head of the Consistoire Communal Jewish organization that provides services to French Jews, said that receiving help from the Jewish state and being linked to Israel was not a concern, because “anti-Semites do that already.”

Consistoire President Joel Mergui addresses the European Jewish Association annual conference in Paris on February 24, 2020. (Yoni Rykner)

He argued that Israel should help strengthen the Jewish identity of French Jews, which had suffered in recent years due to assimilation.

He refrained, however, from saying that the Israeli government had a responsibility to protect Jews abroad from anti-Semitism because “the security of Diaspora Jewry is the responsibility of their respective countries.”

“European governments cannot be allowed to think that this is Israel’s responsibility,” Mergui added. “I’m not saying that Israel doesn’t have a role to play [in combating anti-Semitism], but it should not be an official one.”

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