BRUSSELS (Feb. 22)
His tone was full of New York swagger, and clearly there was no intention of softening it for European sensibilities.
Speaking about the president of the European Commission after an unprecedented E.U. conference on anti- Semitism last week, the chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Israel Singer, was very clear.
“Romano Prodi says he’s gonna monitor anti-Semitism. Well, we’re gonna be monitoring him,” Singer told JTA.
The blunt-spoken Singer came to Brussels to take part in the E.U. conference, where Prodi, the E.C. president, pledged to fight and monitor anti-Semitism in Europe.
But some in Europe think U.S. Jews may already be speaking loud enough.
Many participants at the Feb. 19 conference said they believe that European governments have been prompted to take tougher stands against anti-Semitism less because of the demands of local Jews than by pressure from U.S. Jewish leaders.
A British newspaper columnist, The Independent’s Mary Dejevsky, went even further in an Op-Ed piece published the day of the conference.
It is “hard to escape the impression that it suits the U.S. administration to depict Europe, especially France, as deeply and incorrigibly anti-Semitic,” she wrote.
Dejevsky said the U.S. administration and U.S. Jewish groups were playing with fire and running the risk of “provoking the very racist backlash they purport to be trying to prevent.”
Only last month, Singer had rushed to Brussels to put the conference back on track after the WJC’s president, Edgar Bronfman, and the president of the European Jewish Congress, Cobi Benatoff, accused the European Commission of “active and inactive” anti-Semitism — prompting Prodi to put the conference on hold temporarily.
Among other things, those accusations stemmed from a decision by the European Commission to withhold the results of a study on anti-Semitism. That study showed rising anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants in Europe, and it blamed them for growing anti-Semitism in Europe generally.
The report eventually was released and the conference was put back on track. The conference originally had been slated to examine wider issues of tolerance and human rights in addition to anti-Semitism, but the controversy forced organizers to focus solely on anti-Semitism.
The conference was co-sponsored by the European Jewish Congress and the Conference of European Rabbis.
At the conference, Prodi admitted that Europe had a problem with anti-Semitism.
“Let us be clear,” he said. “We do hear expressions of anti-Semitic prejudice. We do see vestiges of the historical anti-Semitism that was once widespread in Europe. We do see attacks against synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and physical assaults on Jews.”
But Prodi strongly denied any echoes of the anti-Semitism in Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, saying that such comparisons “insult the memory of the Shoah’s millions of victims by putting their sufferings on a par with today’s manifestations, as serious as they undoubtedly are.”
Prodi also stopped short of condemning what European Jewish leaders regard as the principal source of today’s anti-Semitism in Europe, namely, hostility toward Jews by Europe’s millions of Arab and Muslim immigrant communities.
Some Jewish leaders criticized the European Commission’s president for appearing almost to excuse this new form of anti-Semitism by saying that it feeds “on the unresolved conflict in the Middle East,” which fuels “the social frustrations of new minorities established through immigration in many member states of the union.”
Many Jews argue that much of the hostility toward Israel in today’s Europe is simply thin cover for age-old anti- Semitism.
Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews, said Europe has acted with “indifference” to the problem of anti-Semitic attacks by young Arabs and Muslims in Europe, as if the attacks were just “a conflict between two minorities, Jews and Arabs.”
Cukierman said, “In truth, there is not an intercommunal problem; there are unilateral attacks because the Jews have not attacked any mosque or any imam in Europe.”
Prodi said a commission would be set up to examine this anti-Semitism and that it likely would include Jewish leaders in addition to European Commission members.
That proposal remains the only tangible outcome of a conference that offered only cosmetic, rather than practical, benefits, Singer said.
“The sin is anti-Semitism and the sinner is Europe, but conferences don’t solve sins,” Singer said.
Not all participating Jewish organizations were as critical as the WJC.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, praised what he called as the “real significance of coming together to discuss the issue.” Foxman said, “This seminar marks the end of the period of denial.”
He said the European Commission showed “the moral authority” of the European Union in its desire to combat anti-Semitism.
Foxman, who argues that anti-Semitism today is at its worst point since the 1930s, said he always has been troubled by the question of why so many people were silent in the lead-up to the Holocaust.
“We’re not silent anymore,” Foxman said.
The ADL’s national director also said he is reassured that “the model now exists” for coming to grips with anti-Semitism, citing recent moves by the French and Italian governments to set up ministerial committees to handle the problem and cooperate closely on the issue with Jewish groups.
While Prodi called on participants at the conference to do more than just beat their breasts about anti-Semitism, it soon became clear that Jews were just talking to Jews, said Henry Grunwald, president of Britain’s Board of Deputies, a Jewish umbrella group.
The conference — and the appearance of Dejevsky’s controversial column — also came just days after the opening of a new Jewish think tank in Brussels, the American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute. The institute is aimed at strengthening bilateral relations between Europe and the United States — and benefiting Jews in the process.
Jewish leaders in Europe have been wary of criticizing publicly U.S. Jewish organizations and their methods — epitomized by Singer’s outspokenness — though three senior European Jewish community leaders told JTA of their opposition to the attacks by U.S. Jewish leaders on the European Commission.
Foxman said U.S. Jewish groups were merely following the line of European Jewish groups, not leading the fight.
“We can’t do this without them,” Foxman told JTA.
The chairman of the WJC, however, had his own ideas.
Getting to the microphone during virtually every conference session, Singer warned European leaders that there “would be no more playing by other people’s rules.”
The Americans are “proud to be partners,” he said. “We will listen to the way you do things here — but we will use some of our own clout.”