Michel Gourary faces a daunting task every day. As the head of European Friends of Israel, it’s his job to persuade lawmakers to support the Jewish state at a time when public support for it seems to be in decline throughout the continent.

Yet judging from the 450 participants from 37 countries who arrived for its threeday policy conference at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyenei Ha’uma) that started on Saturday evening, the EFI seems to be quite successful.

There are four main reasons why the European politicians chose to come as guests of the EFI, according to Gourary.

“First, there is the matter of common values,” he said.

“Second, some are looking at Israel as a rare example of young democracy that in 62 years has made great achievements.

A third type are those concerned by the tragedy of the Holocaust, who are interested in preventing this from happening again. Maybe the fourth is the fight against global terrorism which Europe will have to fight maybe five or 10 years from now. They recognize Israel’s challenges are those that Europe will face.”

Gourary, 54, was born in Belgium, to parents who had moved there from Poland in the early 1930s. His father was a decorated member of the resistance during World War II. Gourary is the head of a consultancy firm, and joined the EFI when it was founded five years ago.

“European Friends of Israel is a parliamentary association mainly working with the European Union Parliament, but our scope has enlarged to include others,” he said.

“Established in 2006, we are there to give support to implement lawmakers’ grants and programs. We have nonpartisan representations from all over Europe including Liberals, Social Democrats even the Green Party.”

Who cares about Europe anyway, some critics may ask.

With its low birth rates and effete and disparate foreign policies, the nations of that continent are destined to lose whatever influence they have in the international arena, they say. But Gourary contends that Europe – not the US – may be the most important outside player in the Middle East.

“Nobody understands that Europe is key for the region, because of its bigger 22 billion euro trade with Israel, among other things,” he explained. “If Europe wants to be an honest broker then we need better relations, because Israel and Europe for centuries have many connections.

Israel is the most ‘European’ country in the region.”

Bringing hundreds of people to Israel for a three-day conference requires a big budget. From the number of plane tickets purchased, the hotel rooms booked and the glossy pamphlets published it seems that Gourary’s organization has deep pockets.

“We are entirely funded by private donations,” he said.

“Most are businessmen and women from the UK, Greece, Spain, Italy and Germany. We have more donors from Western Europe than we do from Eastern Europe.”

That isn’t to say it doesn’t have backers from the former Soviet Union. One of EFI’s biggest donors is Jewish Kazakh mining baron Alexander Machkevitch, who gives generously to Israeli and Jewish causes privately and through the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress that he heads. Several other donors contribute similar sums but they are more media shy, EFI’s spokesman said.

Since 2006, EFI’s mission has been to lobby on behalf of Israel, but not everyone’s support is welcome, Gourary said. In recent years nationalist politicians across the continent have been at odds with the growing number of Muslim immigrants. For various reasons, many nationalists have sought to ally themselves with local Jewish communities and Israel. Gourary is aware of the phenomenon but said he categorically would not accept such support “People with extremist positions are not welcome at EFI,” he said. “We are clear: We are not against Muslim immigrants in Europe.

Rather, Islamic terrorism. A few years ago Marine Le Pen [of France’s Front National] tried to attend a mission to Israel and we all agreed that her place was not with us, even if she wanted to join.

We want the mainstream, not the extremist parties.”

One country that will not be represented at the conference in Jerusalem is Turkey, until recently Israel’s closest ally in the region.

“This time nobody from Turkey is coming,” Gourary lamented. “The people who attended the previous event said they could not come this time because it will not be seen well by their colleagues.”

Gourary said he hoped the legislators use the conference to experience Israel’s relative stability in a volatile part of the world.

“The tragedy is that after 62 year of independence, many voices in Europe ask about Israel’s legitimacy,” he said. “I think the most important thing is for parliamentarians to come and see what’s on the ground. When they come here they see there isn’t a soldier on every corner and that Israel is not all about conflict.”

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