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Jewish leaders skeptical of Europe’s tough talk on anti-Semitism

In Israel, community heads challenge EU leaders to call for a new ‘Nuremberg convention’ to save the continent’s Jews

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Israeli-Jewish Congress meeting at the Knesset with speaker MK Yuli Edelstein on Tuesday January 13, 2015 after the funeral of the four victims from the terrorist shooting at the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher. (Yossi Zeliger)
Israeli-Jewish Congress meeting at the Knesset with speaker MK Yuli Edelstein on Tuesday January 13, 2015 after the funeral of the four victims from the terrorist shooting at the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher. (Yossi Zeliger)

As world Jewry bowed its head Tuesday during the funerals of the four French Jewish victims of Friday’s terrorist attack at a Paris kosher supermarket, senior European Jewish leaders were in Jerusalem as part of a one-day solidarity trip to Israel.

Later, after a long day of meetings, in a series of post-dinner interviews with The Times of Israel, the visibly drained delegates from France, Belgium, Germany and Greece described feeling that European Jewry has entered a period of insecurity and uncertainty.

The day was organized under the auspices of the Israeli-Jewish Congress, an independent nonprofit founded by Russian philanthropist Vladimir Sloutsker that says it aims to promote Israel and the state of the Jewish people, and strengthen ties between Israel and the Diaspora. It brings delegates together during times of crisis as well as for regular meetings.

The leaders expressed frustration with what they see as empty rhetoric on the part of their elected officials, and demanded action to reassure their distraught Jewish communities that anti-Semitism and its more recent variant, anti-Israelism, were being addressed seriously.

Emphasizing the value of broad-scale public measures, Michel Gourary, the CEO of the Israeli-Jewish Congress, said European politicians were sending weak signals.

“Great expressions of sympathy are not sufficient,” he said, adding that after the murderous 2012 Toulouse attack at a Jewish school politicians had said there will be a “before Toulouse and after Toulouse.”

“It was all words, words, words,” said Gourary.

French President Francois Hollande greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the ceremony at the Jewish school in Toulouse. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90/JTA)
French President Francois Hollande greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at a ceremony at the Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90/JTA)

Gourary proposed calling for a symbolic new Nuremberg convention on September 15 in which European heads of state would mark 80 years since the Nazi adoption of the racial laws that began the systematic bureaucratic discrimination against the Jews.

He said the IJC and its partner Jewish communities across the world intend to use the historic gathering to push for more concrete steps to combat anti-Semitism in Europe, including more effective laws to outlaw hate speech and online incitement, as well as continuing to push for a full-time European envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

Gourary, a Belgian immigrant to Israel, said that Europe is “infected” with anti-Semitism, “like a cancer with a lot of metastases around Europe.” Just as doctors treat cancer with a strong cocktail of drugs, the European governments need to cure the roots of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, he said, including political parties, racist expressions and inflammatory media.

But as the community leaders expressed dissatisfaction with their governments’ ineffectual efforts to combat anti-Semitism, there arose the question of whether those countries even needed their Jews.

When pressed about why European leadership should cater to Jews, a minor segment of the voting population, Gourary said Jews and shared a common 2,000-year history with other Europeans and were among the continent’s leading citizens.

Australian teenage jihadist Abdullah Elmir threatens the west vowing that the Islamic State will 'not stop fighting until we reach your lands' (screen capture: YouTube)
Australian teenage jihadist Abdullah Elmir threatens the west vowing that the Islamic State will ‘not stop fighting until we reach your lands’ (screen capture: YouTube)

More importantly, the Islamist threat is hardly particular to the Jews, he said, noting that today there are over 3,000 trained jihadis in Europe “that we know about,” who are “terrorists, trained by terrorists to do terrorist attacks.”

A Jewish hive of shared experience

The representatives assembled to show support for the victims’ families, brainstorm how to combat what they see as a growing anti-Semitic and Islamist threat in their own communities, and meet with Israeli government officials.

German delegate Nathan Gelbart is unsure whether Europe is the right place to raise Jewish children. (courtesy Israeli-Jewish Congress)
German delegate Nathan Gelbart is unsure whether Europe is the right place to raise Jewish children. (courtesy Israeli-Jewish Congress)

The group participated in sessions with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and National Security Council Deputy Head for Foreign Policy and International Affairs Dr. Eran Lerman, as well as a dinner meeting with the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Ze’ev Elkin.

German delegate Nathan Gelbart, the head of Keren Hayesod Germany and a member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said he was well aware that the Paris attacks could be replicated at any Jewish “soft target” — schools, institutions, synagogues, shops — throughout Europe. He added that it was a “matter of coincidence” that the terrorism occurred in France. “It could be Germany and Switzerland tomorrow,” said Gelbart.

Gourary, a former Jewish Agency emissary to France, agreed, saying “there is a strong sense of a volcano that will erupt very soon” in Europe.

“I’m beginning to question whether Europe is the right place to raise Jewish children and grandchildren,” Gelbart said, adding it may be time to join the Jewish majority and leave behind the feeling of being in a “zoo,” which he claimed many Jews have as a minority in the Diaspora.

Greek delegate Benjamin Albalas says despite the headlines to the contrary which depict a massive surge of anti-Semitism and far-right extremism in Greece, these things are 'manageable.' (courtesy)
Greek delegate Benjamin Albalas says despite the headlines to the contrary which depict a massive surge of anti-Semitism and far-right extremism in Greece, these things are ‘manageable.’ (courtesy)

But Greek delegate Benjamin Albalas said anti-Semitism is not the main thing driving Jewish emigration from Greece. Albalas, the president of the European Council of Jewish Communities and a former president of the Jewish community of Greece, said that despite the headlines to the contrary, which depict a massive surge in anti-Semitism and far-right extremism, these things are “manageable.”

“We can overcome this difficulty in Greece,” he said, adding that Jewish community installations were guarded 24/7 by police. Following the recent attacks in Paris, the government has markedly increased police presence, he said, as it did during this summer’s war in Gaza.

What fuels Greek immigration to Israel, said Albalas, was the dire financial situation, in which some 52 percent of youth are unemployed.

“Everyone from Greece has family in Israel. It is easier to move here than to, for instance, Sweden,” he said.

However, for many French Jews, the impetus for immigration to Israel is a mix of personal and financial security. Ariel Amar, a senior adviser to French Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, is a pharmacist who said he has waited at least a decade for Israel to recognize his credentials so he will be able to enter the Israeli workforce.

French delegate Ariel Amar says, 'There are two principles in the Torah: go where you have your livelihood and your security.' (courtesy)
French delegate Ariel Amar says, ‘There are two principles in the Torah: go where you have your livelihood and your security.’ (courtesy)

“There are two principles in the Torah: go where you have your livelihood and your security,” said Amar, who explained that security was also a matter of medical care and education.

Amar said Diaspora Jews as a whole need to be strong and feel they can remain in place as proud and dignified Jews. Both he and Belgian delegate Eli Ringer resented insinuations made by the Jewish Agency for Israel head Natan Sharansky that time is running out for Europe’s Jews.

The decision to immigrate to Israel should be a “heart and intellectual decision” made without any outside pressure, said Ringer and Amar.

“Israel needs the Diaspora as much as the Diaspora needs Israel,” Ringer said.

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