European Jewry: A perfect storm of challenges

This year, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke out forcefully and movingly against antisemitism: “I did not think in my lifetime I would see again that Jewish citizens are afraid.

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April 6, 2019 12:53
Supporters of Greece's far -Right Golden Dawn party

Supporters of Greece's far -Right Golden Dawn party hold a banner during a protest against Turkey, in Athens on March 5 . (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Across Europe, antisemitism is rising – and sentiment against Israel with it. The sources are a dangerous combination of a radical minority of the increasingly large Muslim population on the Continent, and the far Left and far Right of the political spectrum.

The traditional threats to Israel’s security from the Arab world have significantly abated since US president Jimmy Carter negotiated the Camp David Accords and the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which I recount in my new book President Carter: The White House Years, and which just celebrated 40 years of unbroken compliance. We also broke the back of the Arabs’ commercial cordon of Israel when Carter championed the 1977 law that prohibited American companies from joining the boycott. Israel today is one of the strongest economic and military forces in the world, and the only democracy in the region. Now Israel faces new challenges, and must recognize that its own policies in the West Bank and internal political developments aggravate its ability to overcome these challenges, with major implications for Diaspora Jews everywhere.

Since 2015, a tide of more than a million Muslim refugees has emigrated to western European nations, from Sweden to Germany, as a direct result of the catastrophic civil war in Syria and the violence in Iraq, augmenting the continent’s already large Muslim population. Most of the Muslims in Europe want good jobs, a good education for their children and a secure environment that includes tolerance of their religion. But some of the new Muslim refugees, and others who came earlier, brought with them what they had been taught – a virulent hatred of Jews and Israel that did not distinguish between the Israeli government’s policies and the Jewish communities they encountered in Europe for the first time.

Between 1993 and 1996, I traveled widely throughout Europe from my base in Brussels as US ambassador to the European Union. I could always tell where the synagogues and Jewish schools were located because they were protected by concrete barriers and heavily armed police. In Germany, the recipient of by far the largest group of these new refugees, some Jews are now afraid to wear kippot for fear of attack. The children of close friends in Brussels have moved to Florida because of persistent Muslim harassment of their children. A carnival float in a Belgian parade of a local club carried larger-than-life images of stereotypes of hook-nosed Jews. It caused an outcry, but the club insisted it was permissible satire. In Malmo, Sweden, home to a large Muslim population, a series of attacks culminated in the 2013 bombing of the Jewish community center there.

There are many factors behind a resurgence of Europe’s far-right neo-Nazi parties – the stresses of globalism, economic trauma from the past decade’s financial crisis, and especially the new wave of Muslim immigrants since 2015. Greece has its Golden Dawn Party; Hungary its ruling Fidesz Party; Italy its Northern League, now in the government; Austria its Freedom Party, with neo-Nazi roots, now a partner in the government; and the Alternative for Germany Party is now the main opposition party, with particular strength in the depressed areas of the former East Germany. One of the AfD’s leaders recently declared that the Holocaust was a “mere speck” on Germany’s 1,000-year history.

Resentment on the European far Right against Jews is partly connected to what they consider disruptive globalization. Nationalist parties that dominate or hold the balance of power in central and East European nations have threatened the democratic values of tolerance, the rule of law, a free press, and an independent judiciary – all of which are critical to the safety of Jews in Europe.

Budapest's Great Synagogue: 'In Europe,' I could always tell where the synagogues and Jewish schools were located because they were protected by concrete barriers and heavily armed police.' (LENNART TANGE/FLICKR)

IRONICALLY, SOME on the far Right combine antisemitism at home with support for Israel, a country they view as a symbol of nationalism. The Israeli government has made common cause with many of those governments and their leaders, most notably Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary, who fans the flames of antisemitism at home, yet tries to improve his reputation by being photographed at Yad Vashem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While it is necessary to deal with conservative governments as a matter of state, the Israeli government should use its influence with these governments to urge them to confront antisemitism in their countries.

No longer is racial and religious violence a matter of some isolated lone madman. Internet-linked white-power advocates and neo-Nazis communicate with each other worldwide to murder Muslims in New Zealand, young Social Democrats in Norway, black worshipers at prayer in South Carolina, or Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue – anyone who in their eyes fits Martin Buber’s classic definition of “The Other.”

This resurgence is not simply a phenomenon arising from a radical Muslim fringe or Europe’s ultra-Right. The far Left has joined in to idolize the Palestinians as victims of what they call Israeli “colonialism.” At both these extremes, the falsehood resonates that Jews control the financial strings of the world. Some cheered the September 11, 2011, attacks in New York as an attack on the center of Jewish power and globalization. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, regards as friends Hamas and Hezbollah, whose goal is the destruction of the Jewish state. A handful of Labour members of parliament have deserted their party, and Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, has called Corbyn an “existential threat” to British Jews. British universities have imposed a virtual boycott on exchanges with Israeli professors who have almost no connection with the West Bank.

All this has taken a toll on European Jewry. In the largest survey of European Jews ever undertaken in 12 countries of the European Union last December, about a third said they avoid public events and venues in fear of their safety. And a similar percentage said they have considered emigrating in the past five years for the same reason.


France is the crucible of this lethal combination as the home to half a million Jews, the largest such community in Europe, as well as about five million Muslims, many of them refugees from the Algerian war for independence, and many never successfully integrated into French life or were accepted by the French leadership.

In 1980, in the first attack on Jews in France since World War II, the synagogue on Paris’ Rue Copernic was bombed, killing four people, including – in the obtuse words of Prime Minister Raymond Barre – some “innocent Frenchmen,” a phrase for which he was roundly mocked in a criticism that he blamed on the “Jewish lobby” to his dying day.  Anti-Jewish terrorism intensified in the next decade, and in 2012, a Muslim attack against a Jewish day school in Toulouse killed a rabbi and three school children.
In 2014, some 800 antisemitic incidents were reported in France, an average of two a day. The following year, a deadly attack on the Paris editorial offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo – for a disrespectful portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad – and simultaneously on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket brought antisemitic violence to a new height. In 2014 and 2015, a total of about 13,000 French Jews made aliyah. During one march, banners were hoisted saying “Jews, France is not yours.”
In 2018, the volume of antisemitic incidents in France increased dramatically, prompting Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to declare them “a daily occurrence.” For years, the authorities denied the problem, but now emigration has dropped significantly as the French police have begun to target antisemitic incidents.

THERE ARE now some 15 million Muslims in Europe, and only one million Jews, and the gap is certain to widen in the years ahead. European politicians can count, and are likely to take more anti-Israel positions to court the growing Muslim population. French President Emmanuel Macron has refused to visit Israel because negotiations with the Palestinians have stalled, thereby discounting Palestinian obduracy and placing the blame largely on Israel.

The BDS movement has particular resonance in Europe; it is grounded in public opinion. A BBC survey of 17 EU member states in 2013 found Israel’s impact on the world “mainly negative,” and standing fourth to last, just ahead of the pariah states of North Korea and Iran. Last December, a CNN poll of citizens in eight nations across Europe found that while only 10% viewed Jews unfavorably, roughly a third believed traditional antisemitic stereotypes that Jews have too much influence in government and finance; that Israel uses the Holocaust to justify its rule over the Palestinians, and accusations of antisemitism to block criticism of its policies. However, more than two-thirds of those surveyed supported commemoration of the Holocaust to help ensure genocide was not repeated.

Buffeted by these political crosscurrents, the EU and many of its member states have taken critical positions on major issues of importance to Israel, ranging from relations with Iran to labeling requirements for imports from the West Bank into Europe. The bloc also restricts research and development grants to Israeli universities and institutions that have no contact with the West Bank. Meanwhile, the conservative Israeli government has moved increasingly close to the Trump administration on such policies as pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran that is still supported by its European signatories. It has also made a political alliance with the Jewish Power Party, a successor to Rabbi Meir Kahane’s virulently racist Kach Party, creating further tensions between Israel and Europe.

All is not bleak in Europe. Europe is Israel’s major trading partner. Most Western European countries have an annual Holocaust Memorial Day. The European Union has gotten serious about combating antisemitism. The European Parliament has established a working group on antisemitism, formally condemned it, and outlawed Holocaust denial and antisemitic hate speech. The European Commission encouraged its 28 member states to combat antisemitism through its educational programs and established a code of conduct.

This year, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke out forcefully and movingly against antisemitism: “I did not think in my lifetime I would see again that Jewish citizens are afraid to express their support for their religion.” And this February, there was a huge rally in Paris against antisemitism.

In the Clinton and Obama administrations, and as special negotiator for the Jewish Claims Conference, I have negotiated billions of dollars of Holocaust-related compensation agreements with the Swiss, French, Germans, Austrians, with European insurance companies, and negotiated the Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art.

We cannot give up on Europe and European Jews. They deserve more support from American Jews and from Israel, which gives them almost no attention except as potential recruits for aliyah. The EU stands for respect for all religions, even when trends toward intolerance and worse are troubling and must be fought at every turn.

The writer served under various US presidents including Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Most recently, he was the Obama administration’s special adviser to secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry on Holocaust-era issues. The author of several books including Imperfect Justice, Future of the Jews and President Carter: The White House Years, he is the recipient of nine honorary degrees and awards from the governments of France (Legion of Honor), Germany, Austria, Belgium, the US and Israel. seizenstat@cov.com.

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