PARIS (Jan. 5)
Just last month, they thought they had turned over a new leaf. But now it seems that relations between the European Union and Jewish leaders have sunk to a new low.
On Monday, the European Commission said it would postpone a conference on anti-Semitism — announced after break-the-ice talks last month — after two senior Jewish leaders wrote an Op-Ed accusing the European Commission of anti-Semitism.
Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress, wrote that anti-Semitism could be expressed by both action and inaction.
“Remarkably, the European Commission is guilty of both,” they wrote in the Op-Ed, printed Monday in Britain’s Financial Times.
The anti-Semitism initially was manifested by the release of “a flawed and dangerously inflammatory poll which purported to name Israel the greatest threat to world peace,” Bronfman and Benatoff wrote.
It was then compounded by the commission’s decision to withhold a study by an E.U. monitoring center “that reported on the involvement of Muslim minorities in incidents of mounting anti-Semitism,” they wrote.
“Let us not mince words: Both of these actions were politically motivated, demonstrating a failure of will and decency,” the Op-Ed said.
Reijo Temkinnen, senior spokesman for the European Commission, sharply denied the allegations.
“We have never, ever censored a study into anti-Semitism, and you won’t find a single person who will tell you otherwise,” he told JTA.
The study was ordered not by the commission but by E.U. member states, Temkinnen said, though he admitted that the commission was represented on the board of the Vienna-based research body that oversaw the study.
Similarly, he pointed out, the poll the Jewish leaders cite, which found that 59 percent of Europeans regard Israel as a threat to world peace — more than any other country — “is a reflection of public opinion, not of E.U. policy.”
Temkinnen also said he was “shocked” by the timing of the article by Bronfman and Benatoff.
“I don’t know where it comes from,” he said in a telephone interview from Brussels. “They were present at the meeting” with the European Commission’s president, Romano Prodi, in Brussels last month.
Jewish leaders had requested the meeting following months of disagreements between the European Jewish Congress and the European Union. A delegation led by Benatoff agreed with Prodi that the commission would convene a special seminar on European anti-Semitism in February.
However, Temkinnen said Prodi now wished the seminar “to be put on hold,” since “the atmosphere is not conducive.”
“It takes two to tango,” Temkinnen said. “The basis for dialogue is not to accuse one another publicly.”
Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, denied that the article by Bronfman and Benatoff had backfired.
“Quote the contrary — it was a wake-up call, and a necessary one, to the unchecked threat that anti-Semitism is posing to Europe,” he said.
“Soothing words at this point are insufficient,” he said. “The defense of the Jewish people is not taken lightly, and we are facing the greatest surge of violent anti-Semitism outside of Israel since the Second World War.”
The call to postpone the seminar stunned EJC heads in Paris, especially as it appeared to contradict directly Temkinnen’s own comments to a Brussels news conference minutes earlier.
Agence-France Presse reported that Temkinnen said the seminar would go ahead as planned “to offer to the different parties the occasion to debate the theme of anti-Semitism, following the different commentaries which have arisen in recent months.”
After learning from JTA of Prodi’s threat, the EJC’s executive director, Serge Cwajgenbaum, contacted the European Commission, which confirmed the postponement.
Steinberg in New York said Jewish groups still had several options: They could hold the seminar on their own, without the European Commission. Alternatively, Italy had expressed a willingness to sponsor it, he said.
Cwajgenbaum said the Op-Ed by Bronfman and Benatoff had not personally accused commission members of anti-Semitism.
“The commission, as the executive branch, is collectively responsible for the inaction in taking a stand on anti-Semitism over a period of three years,” Cwajgenbaum said. “We are saying they are collectively responsible, not collectively guilty.”
However, while “we have some good friends on the commission,” he said, “some commissioners have been very negative concerning Israel.”
Cwajgenbaum wouldn’t specify which commissioners he considered hostile, but it’s known that some senior figures — such as External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten — have angered Jewish leaders by blocking their demands.
Last year, Patten personally lobbied European political leaders to block a motion by more than 150 European Parliament members to enforce strict controls on E.U. funds to the Palestinian Authority, said French E.U. legislator Francois Zimeray, who sponsored the demand.
“They systematically condemn Israel,” Zimeray said, “while closing their eyes to the abuse of human rights in Arab states, such as the Syrian anschluss of Lebanon,” a reference to the Nazi invasion and occupation of neighboring Austria.
But Zimeray also stopped short of accusing commissioners of anti-Semitism.
“Nobody can say that their hearts and minds are anti-Semitic, and I’m sure the very idea revolts them,” Zimeray said. “But they should be judged on facts, not just feelings.”
Bronfman and Benatoff’s “article is very strong, but very true,” he added.