(photo credit: REUTERS)
European Jewish organizations praised the choice of former British prime minister Tony Blair to lead a nongovernmental racism watchdog on Thursday, with many reiterating demands that the EU appoint an official to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
In a joint op-ed with European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor in The Times, Blair announced his accession to the chairmanship of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR), pledging to combat “the abuse of religion, which then becomes a mask behind which those bent on death and destruction all too often hide.”
He replaces former Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski, who headed the organization since 2008.
Stating that there is a great deal more complexity to the issue of hate than many think, Blair and Kantor called for “greater tolerance, understanding and legislative powers” in order to grapple with it.
In a subsequent statement, Blair said that he is pleased to take the helm of an organization doing such “crucial work” and that he believes extremism, anti-Semitism and surging nationalist forces threaten European freedom.
Citing a study by Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center, the pair noted that racism often starts with Jews but “never ends” with them, and linked rising levels of anti-Semitic violence with the instability they said usually accompanies economic malaise, citing dips of the European GDP to below one percent in 1913, 1938 and 2014.
Jewish organizations in Europe and elsewhere were quick to praise Blair for his strong stance against anti-Semitism but warned that without the appointment of a dedicated European Union, rather than civil society, official to monitor anti-Semitism, there is little hope of a long-term solution.
Several months ago, after a year of lobbying by Jewish groups, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini endorsed the idea of appointing a continental task force on anti-Semitism, but so far no progress has been announced.
In January, a delegation from the European Jewish Congress stated that in the wake of the recent Islamist attack that killed four Jews at Paris’s Hyper Cacher kosher market, the EU must ramp up its efforts to protect its Jewish citizens.
A similar demand was made by Belgian Jewish leaders after last May’s shooting attack at the Brussels Jewish museum.
Last summer, Eli Ringer, the immediate past president of Belgium’s Forum der Joodse Organisaties, demanded that “in the new Commission of Europe a commissioner should be appointed handling the problem of racism and specifically on anti-Semitism.”
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post last month, special envoy Ira Forman said that the United States had recently been pushing this idea with its European allies.
Blair’s appointment also elicited praised from the Conference of European Rabbis, Britain’s Community Security Trust, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland.
The former premier has a “unique understanding of the circumstances that lead to sectarianism and intolerance within communities,” said JRCI chairman Maurice Cohen, citing his efforts to broker peace in Northern Ireland.
“Many other European governments have spoken and acted strongly in recent months, but it is hoped that this appointment will help ensure the issues keep moving forward and that actions are taken where needed,” said the CST’s Mark Gardner.”
However, he warned, Blair’s appointment should not “be confused with ongoing discussions about the need for some kind of EU representative on anti-Semitism, nor with the need for existing legislation to be properly utilized in combating anti-Semitism and extremism.”
That sentiment was also shared by Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, who called for “setting up a special council to deal with anti-Semitism.”
“You would be hard-pressed to find another major European figure with more understanding of, and empathy for, Israel and the Jewish people than Tony Blair,” said the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper, calling him “erudite, tenacious and well informed.”
“Having said that, it is still imperative that the European Union mandate a special envoy on anti-Semitism. The United States has such a person, and Ira Forman – with his ability to travel to trouble spots, inform and interact with diplomats and activists the world over – is making an important frontline difference. While Islamophobia and the targeting of Christians are important issues as well, anti-Semitism too often gets swallowed in general statements about intolerance.”