An Israeli umbrella group for world Jewry in an era of ‘dark clouds’ over Europe

The Israeli-Jewish Congress is reinforcing the bridge between the Jewish state and the Diaspora

There are many competing organizations that position themselves as representing the Jews of Europe.
Between the European Jewish Congress (a subsidiary of the World Jewish Congress), the European Jewish Parliament, the European Jewish Association, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and all of the national umbrella groups such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews and France’s CRIF, sometimes it seems as if there are too many to keep straight.
However, last September another group, based in Israel, was added to the list of organizations claiming to represent European Jewry in some capacity: the Jerusalem-based Israeli-Jewish Congress.
IJC CEO Michel Gourary, a Belgian immigrant to Israel, sat down over coffee with The Jerusalem Post to explain why Diaspora Jewry needs another group to represent it, and what differentiates the IJC from its contemporaries.
Why do we need an IJC when we have all these competing groups? First of all, we are an Israeli-Jewish congress, based in Israel, consisting of Israelis. We are not competing with any European organization, not at all. Our role is to say that we have many Israelis who are concerned by the fate of the Jewish communities abroad, especially in Europe, because Europe is at the frontline of all the anti-Semitic attacks and all the delegitimization attacks against Israel.
Basically, we came out and actualized the idea of the Israeli Forum, an initiative that I was part of about 15 years ago. The Israeli Forum, like the IJC, said very clearly that we would like to show that we have Israelis who are concerned about the Jewish communities abroad, because we are one people. [We are here] to reinforce and build a bridge between Israel and the Diaspora.
You mostly focus on Europe? For the moment yes, but in November we have a partnership with the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. We are a partner of the GA.
Why? Because we say we are with all the Jews.
Why especially Europe for the moment? Because Europe is the frontline of a lot of problems regarding anti-Semitism [such as the proposed] ban on circumcision and ritual slaughter, and delegitimization of Israel.
You have approximately 700,000 Israelis who already have European citizenship, or who are entitled to get it, so we say this is the most natural link that we have [to European Jewry].
We are now in the 21st century.
What we said 20 years ago about Zionism and about emigrants and dual citizenship has changed. Do you know how many French citizens who are also Israeli citizens are voting in the French parliamentary elections? 70,000. Do you know how many Italian people voted for a representative of Italy? 11,000. You have at least two countries in Europe, France and Italy, that have deputies representing their citizens living in Israel.
Imagine all the kinds of leverage you can have in the global world.
One idea we are exploring now with MKs is that at some stage the Knesset can have two or three or four members representing Jews or Israelis living abroad.
A few years ago, I asked the French ambassador what France was doing to combat the missile attacks on French citizens in the South. He said, ‘You made a mistake, they are Israelis.’ ‘Mr. Ambassador,’ I said, ‘you have 10,000 French citizens living in the South.’ He said, ‘Wow, you are right,’ and that changed everything.
That is the type of leverage we can have. When [EU foreign policy chief] Baroness [Catherine] Ashton is coming here [we can do the same].
We would like to keep the IJC as a platform to build this bridge with Israelis’ former communities in Europe.
Will this be a member-based organization? For the first year it was based on professionals...
but we approached organizations representing new immigrants, and we invite them to a lot of our activities and hope to have an open membership.
All Israelis who would like to be involved and to be active, our doors are open to them.
You recently held an event in which communal leaders from several countries met with MKs. Doesn’t the world Jewish Congress bring Jewish communities in Europe into contact with Israeli authorities? What you had until now was good contact with the leadership of the organizations with MKs, but there was no platform or caucus to have a common meeting between the leaders of the Jewish communities abroad with MKs.
On November 12, we will have a big meeting of [many] MKs with the leaders of [a number of] Jewish communities.
There is a disconnect between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. What can be done to connect the two groups? We have memoranda of understanding between the IJC and the Jewish communities in Europe. This morning, I just signed an MOU with the Bulgarian community. Basically, in the MOU we said that we have a partnership, we are their partners in Israel, they are our partners when we have any project in Bulgaria.
We have this type of agreement with the CRIF in France, with the Greek Jewish community, with the Hungarian Jewish community, with the Slovak Jewish community, and we will sign very soon with the Spanish and Italian Jewish communities.
So it is a question of process. They say, “For the first time we have a partner in Israel.”
Until now it was only on the governmental level, and it is not convenient for every Jewish community to have that as its only connection with officials in Israel.
They said, we want some contacts with Israeli society.
For example, in Hungary we organized a joint [meeting between] MKs and Hungarian parliamentarians, to say that we are concerned by the [neo-Nazi] Jobbik party and anti-Semitism.
In August, there was a Jewish festival that was an excellent showcase for Israel in Budapest, and we sent a delegation of young ambassadors from Israel.
We have sent such delegations to Paris, to London, to Prague, and now we are organizing the same in Brussels.
That is one example of bringing young Israelis to meet their counterparts in Europe. It is not to bring Jews from Europe to here, it is [for us] to bring Jews from Israel to Europe, part of a larger mission.
My dream is to have Israelis volunteering in the Jewish communities [of Europe].
Why not partner with the communities themselves to bring Israelis as emissaries? It is to show solidarity.
It is not just that Diaspora Jews have to support Israel, but that Israelis have to support Diaspora Jewry. That’s new.
What is the main challenge facing European Jewry? Is it the ritual- slaughter issue, anti-Semitism, attacks on Israel’s legitimacy or attempts to ban circumcision? It is all of these together, but something even more pernicious. If one country in Europe is banning shechita [ritual slaughter] it could cause a domino effect.
Freedom of religion in Europe is not equally and evenly implemented. In only 13 countries out of the 28 do you have legislation against the denial of the Holocaust. It’s incredible. In some countries you have certain parameters for the restitution of looted assets. In some countries you receive only a certain percentage, in some countries it’s only public assets, it some countries it’s only private assets – but there is no EU regulation of all that.
Shechita is also the same. Poland can ban it, but you also have some calls to do it in Denmark and the same in Holland.
It can be the domino effect.
What is your view of the future of European Jewry? The question has to be asked of the Jews there and their leaders. You have some leaders who say no, they don’t see any future there, like the head of the Jewish community in Rome. Some don’t say it openly, but when I meet them I think some of them believe there are dark clouds on the horizon.
There are too many dark clouds on the heads of the Jews in Europe.
Meaning? There are too many challenges and because of that, we have to strengthen relations with Israel.