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
“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
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
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
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.”