WASHINGTON — For the small Israeli Jewish Congress delegation of 15 European and Israeli Jews, the three days of the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly were more than simply the largest Jewish event that many of them had attended. They were a chance to glimpse at a way forward for small European communities struggling under a triple burden of rising assimilation, dire economies and anti-Semitism.
A significant part of that way forward, European representatives said, was mobilizing the political weight of the US government behind pushing European governments to take growing anti-Semitism more seriously.
The Israeli Jewish Congress delegation went to Washington to participate in the third Trilateral Dialogue – a joint initiative sponsored by the IJC and JFNA to bring leaders of Jewish communities from Europe, North America, and Israel together for a roundtable discussion on key issues facing their respective communities. The initiative was launched in November 2013, and participants say this week’s session marked a key juncture.
“This is the first time in the US that the IJC and the JFNA have shown close and ongoing cooperation for the benefit of Israel, American Jewry and, of course, our people in Europe,” said Dr. Benjamin Albalas, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.
“The financial situation in Europe is not going well, and anti-Semitism is growing with extreme parties increasing their power in the last EU election,” said Albalas.
Albalas said his American counterparts are aware that problems Jews face in Europe are different from those in the US.
“Anti-Semitism in Europe is a multifactorial issue, and that is why it is difficult to confront it,” Albalas explained.
The trilateral gathering allowed delegates to share ideas about tangible ways in which the communities could support each other, including public relations in an increasingly media-savvy world, and security issues as European institutions face a potentially growing jihadist citizenry.
“The American Jewish community can help in practical ways. They have the know-how to face the mass media and social media — Google, Twitter and others. They also have the know-how to attract opinion leaders to change the atmosphere,” said Albalas.
Dialogue members hope the US government will now pressure European governments to take a stronger stance against anti-Semitism, Albalas said, and explain that “anti-Semitism is not just a problem for the Jews, but for their democracies.”
No single commission responsible
On the sidelines of the GA, the Israeli Jewish Congress delegation met with US Special Envoy for Combatting Anti-Semitism Ira Forman. The Europeans asked Forman to reach out to European parliaments – and particularly to assist efforts to push the European Union to set up a position similar to Forman’s to explicitly address anti-Semitism in Europe.
A request to establish an EU Special Commissioner to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and Racism was made this summer following May’s attack on Belgian’s Jewish Museum and the upsurge of anti-Semitic sentiment during Operation Protective Edge.
With the support of the Israeli Jewish Congress, Belgian Jewish leaders Baron Julien Klener, president of the Jewish Central Consistory of Belgium, and Eli Ringer, executive vice-chairman of the FORUM of Jewish Organisations, spearheaded a letter-writing campaign by heads of European Jewish communities to the EU, which in its reshuffle of commissions, does not have an office that directly deals with anti-Semitism.
Until recently, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding was the EU point person for the promotion of human rights and fighting racism, including anti-Semitism.
Under Reding, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) released a survey recording a major upswing in anti-Semitic activity in Europe — in November 2013, well before this summer’s record high of European anti-Semitism. Even in that 2013 survey, however, almost a quarter of Jews reported being afraid of self-identifying as Jewish.
Today, under Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission, which officially assumed office on November 1, 2014, Reding’s purview of combating racism and discrimination has seemingly been absorbed into three commissioners’ offices.
As a result, the heads of European Jewish communities are concerned there is no one commissioner tasked to combat anti-Semitism and intolerance, what they see as an enemy of all Europeans, not just Jews.
‘We as Jews are the canary in the coal mine for the democratic principles that are under siege’
“The human rights commissioner has disappeared. Europe clearly does not put focus on essential values, freedom, democracy… We are not only disappointed, but worried,” Ringer told The Times of Israel.
“It is clear that for a millennium and a half, anti-Judaism with its many veneers and ugly faces has encroached deeper and deeper into European society. There is of course anti-Semitism in Belgium, but it is the same all over Europe,” said Klener, the other initiator of the proposal.
“We as Jews are the canary in the coal mine for the democratic principles that are under siege,” said Klener.
Klener and Ringer were told their letters had been received and that the EU would make contact sometime in the future.
When asked for comment, the European Union wrote The Times of Israel that “the Commission rejects and condemns all forms and manifestations of racism and xenophobia. They are incompatible with the values and principles upon which the EU is founded.”
The spokesperson also sent a link to the EU’s new Juncker Commission make-up, which is obviously built to attack what it perceives as Europe’s enemy number one — a faltering economy.
Each European country faces a different challenge
In Washington, DC this week, Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome’s Jewish community, said that it was important to him for Americans to understand that “not all of Europe is facing the same situation” regarding anti-Semitism.
In Italy, he told his American counterparts, Jews are frequently caught between political factions, with both the far left and far right alternately courting them and demonizing them, depending on the issue at hand. Jews all over western Europe, he argued, are sandwiched between a resurgent nativist far right and a wave of Islamization – both of which spell danger.
On one hand, right-wing initiatives about ritual slaughter and circumcision, that Pacifici said primarily target Muslims, have serious implications for Jewish life – and Jews, Muslims, and left-wing politicians joined forces to combat them. But those allies, he complained, see Jews as “their enemy when we want to defend Israel.”
‘We know that we are not 15,000 but 6,015,000,’ with the assistance of the US community
“Our relation with American Jews changes our perspectives when we are in discussion with our authorities,” Pacifici said. “We know that we are not 15,000 but 6,015,000,” with the assistance of the US community, he added.
Like Albalas, Pacifici sees social media as essential in bringing together the disparate communities in a unified framework. “We can use these new technologies to think like one community,” he said.
French-born activist and journalist Jonathan-Simon Sellem said that his American interlocutors were very concerned with understanding the state of Jewish life in Francophone Europe.
“They really want to understand the situation in Paris – they have heard about it but they don’t know a lot about it,” he said. “The fact is that the situation is quite bad.”
Sellem pointed Americans to the fact that many French Jews are considering immigration to Israel as a result of the rampant anti-Semitism they experience in their homeland.
Sellem believes that in additional to financial support for small European-Jewish organizations on the frontlines of the fight against anti-Semitism, European Jews could use some North American expertise in offering leadership training for the next generation.
Pacifici also emphasized a renewed focus on European Jewish youth – and their future rather than their past.
“The big mistake in Europe is that the leaders – or a majority of them – invest in memory,” he complained. The grandson of a prominent rabbi who was murdered together with his wife at Auschwitz, Pacifici complained that it was often easier to find domestic funding for Holocaust memorialization than for funding Jewish educational programs targeting the next generation.
“To think that in Italy we spent probably 100 million Euro on three projects to commemorate the Shoah, when if I had five million Euros I can save a Jewish school in Rome or Milan,” he bemoaned.
Israel must ‘do its part’ for European Jewry
The delegation also included MK Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beyteinu) who said that – like in Israel – “the American community is not in complete denial, but they haven’t felt the anti-Semitic events recently” like their European counterparts. “After they had the opportunity to listen to our European representatives, they began to feel that the story is different. We saw it in the questions.”
Ohayon believes that modern-day anti-Semitism should be much higher on the consciousness of Israelis and North American Jews. Israel should do its part, he said, by educating its youth about the pressures that European Jews feel – and by fostering deep connections between Israeli and European Jewish youth, as well as between Israelis and Americans.
“American Jews need to not be connected [just] to Israel but also to European Jews,” Ohayon said. “The GA was willing to allow us to participate and to establish a good discourse, and that is the beginning.”
Ohayon, the head of the Knesset lobby on anti-Semitism, said that he is also attempting to engage international parliamentarians, particularly encouraging them to pass clear laws defining anti-Semitism and structuring penalties for anti-Semitic offenses. To this end, the Knesset will invite a broad swath of parliamentarians to Israel in January to discuss the growing threat of anti-Semitism and legislative recourses.
Ohayon hopes that the United States will continue to throw its weight behind efforts to combat European anti-Semitism. Ohayon pointed to the House of Representative’s bipartisan resolution condemning “the rising tide of anti-Semitism abroad,” which passed in September, as an example of US pressure.
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