Threats, opportunity for Europe’s Jews

Protesters of construction on land believed to be part of the largest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius picket in July in front of the European Commission in Brussels. ()

Protesters of construction on land believed to be part of the largest Jewish cemetery in Vilnius picket in July in front of the European Commission in Brussels. ()

PRAGUE (JTA) – For European Jewry, it was a year of the good, the bad and the ugly.

The good: The election of a French president seen as sympathetic to Israel, the opening of new Jewish institutions and increased opportunities for Jews from eastern countries that have joined the European Union.

The bad: Boycotts and threats of boycotts boiled over in England, with fears that similar anti-Israel efforts would spread elsewhere in Europe.

The ugly: Alarming levels of anti-Semitism. Several organizations and individual country reports revealed a marked rise of anti-Semitic incidents across Western Europe in the second half of 2006.

These incidents were primarily the result of the prolonged negative reaction in Europe to Israel’s two-month war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, say observers.

The mood in Europe was stoked by media coverage “that was one-sided, focused only on Lebanese casualties and implicated Jews in general,” said Ilan Moss, political counselor for the Paris-based European Jewish Congress.

In Britain, the Community Security Trust reported the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents since it began monitoring in 1984, with a 60 percent increase in the second half of the year. In France, the country’s main secular Jewish umbrella organization, CRIF, recorded a 24 percent rise in anti-Jewish incidents in general, and a 45 percent increase in violent incidents.

There was also an upsurge in anti-Semitic attitudes, according to research conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in May. The ADL found that 44 percent of those surveyed in France, Poland, Germany, Italy and Spain agreed with the statement that “Jews have too much power in international financial markets,” while 39 percent believed “Jews have too much power in the business world.”

Human Rights First, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization, took European governments to task in June for their lack of a coherent response to the problem of anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

“Today the parallels with the 1930s include the seeming indifference of many governments and broad sectors of public opinion to the rising violence and fear that once again threatens European Jews, and with them members of other minorities,” said the Human Rights First report.

In many of the countries where anti-Semitic violence was on the rise, the perpetrators, according to police, were of Arab descent.

“This year made it even clearer that in the coming years, the issue of minority coexistence is one of the greatest challenges of the continent,” said Tomer Orni, executive vice president of the London-based European Council of Jewish Communities.

As communities press governments for greater security and programs to better combat anti-Semitism, Moss said Jewish leaders are also focused on the boycott of Israel proposed by Britain’s largest teachers’ union. The University and College Union voted May 30 to consider an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

Almost immediately after the UCU move, the country’s largest trade union decided to consider a boycott motion at its upcoming conference. While UCU represents 120,000 members, UNISON has more than a million. Another proposed boycott by a British journalists’ union was ultimately rejected.

“We are worried about these kind of boycotts spreading throughout Europe. We don’t sees it as directly anti-Semitic, but since there are no such boycotts against any other country in the world, you have to wonder about the motives,” said Serge Cwajgenbaum, the EJC’s general-secretary.

As always, European policy toward Iran and the Middle East was a source of concern for Jewish leaders, Cwajgenbaum noted.

The European Union was a faithful member of the Quartet, the international body seeking resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that also includes the United States, Russia and the United Nations. The Quartet has agreed to isolate Hamas until it renounces terrorism and recognizes Israel’s right to exist, but there were signs that some E.U. member states wanted a softer position on Hamas, on funding for Palestinians in general and a tougher line on Israel.

In July 10, for instance, European foreign ministers, led by France, posted an open letter in the French daily Le Monde calling for Israel to make more concessions for peace.

But there were other political developments in Europe that gave Jews a hopeful outlook.

In France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, a president viewed by most as sympathetic to Jewish and Israeli causes took office in May.

Nicolas Sarkozy, a right-leaning centrist whose grandfather was Jewish, received overwhelming support from the country’s Jewish voters, according to JTA interviews. Many applauded his tough stance against anti-Semitism in his previous post as Interior Minister.

Sarkozy was and is widely expected to be more sympathetic to Israel’s need to protect itself from Palestinian aggression than his long-serving predecessor, Jacques Chirac.

As commentator Frederic Encel put it, Sarkozy is “by far the most pro-Israeli French presidential figure Israel could have hoped for. However, in the long term, some analysts observed that Sarkozy has in the past supported closer ties between France and Syria, which might mean increased pressure on Israel to evacuate the Golan Heights in return for a peace deal with Syria.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel continued to reinforce her reputation as a champion of Jewish and Israeli causes.

“We will fight the new anti-Semitism along with the old. Germany and the European Union are committed to the security of the citizens of Israel,” she said on a visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in April.

The most heated political event among Jewish communities in 5767 was the election of the Russian Jewish Congress president, Moshe Kantor, to the helm of the European Jewish Congress.

Kantor, the first Eastern European elected to the post of EJC chairman, beat the French incumbent Pierre Besnainou in May, with support from a wide majority of the delegates representing 41 European Jewish communities.

Kantor recently made his first trip as EJC president to Israel, where he was warmly welcomed by Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, despite lingering concerns that his closeness to the Kremlin will keep him from speaking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support of Iran’s nuclear program or his soft stance on Hamas, whose leaders Putin welcomed to Moscow.

Kantor’s election was viewed by many of Europe’s communities as uniting EJC, which has previously shown the strain of battles between East and West.

This tension was reflected within a single European capital: Berlin’s Jewish community split this year as a new group was formed in response to the growing influence of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

After months of angry exchanges pitting Albert Meyer, an attorney and former president of the Berlin Jewish community, against representatives of the new Russian majority, Meyer announced in mid-April that he had joined with historian Julius Schoeps to form a breakaway group.

Ultimately, observers say, the split is about the need for new power structures in the German Jewish community, which has quadrupled to more than 120,000 since 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Within Europe, meanwhile, greater unity was heralded among Jews as Romania and Bulgaria were accepted Jan. 1 into the now 27-member European Union.

For Jews, about 8,000 in Bulgaria and 15,000 in Romania, the move means greater hope for the future as their economies strengthen and they can obtain jobs at home, or work abroad without barriers.

“We have negative aliyah – young people who were already in Israel are coming back to Bulgaria because the economic situation is improving,” said Emil Kahlo, a former president of Shalom, the largest Jewish organization in Bulgaria.

There were other large celebratory occasions for European Jewry.

The Ohel Jakob synagogue and community center was inaugurated in Munich on the symbolic date of Nov. 9, the 68th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Hitler’s terrible release of anti-Jewish violence in the same city and across Germany.

Also last November, a Holocaust survivor from Munich, Charlotte Knobloch, officially was elected as head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany after assuming the post several months earlier, following the death of her predecessor, Paul Spiegel.

Next door in Poland, Jews in February heralded the renovation and re-opening of he Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin, the largest yeshiva in Europe before World War II. Members of Poland’s small Jewish community hope the 1930s building and synagogue will attract tourist groups, worshipers and religious students from around the world.

And as a sign of the diversity of even Poland’s small Jewish community, Rabbi Burt Schuman of New York was installed as Poland’s first full-time Progressive rabbi at Beit Warszawa last October

In May, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews broke ground in Warsaw. To be completed in 2009, the museum will be the largest Jewish institution of its kind in Europe, commemorating the 1,000 years of history of what was the largest Jewish community in Europe before World War II.

But in Poland as elsewhere in Europe, Jewish life coexisted with the ugly resurgence of anti-Semitic incidents and attitudes.

A Polish member of the European Parliament, Maciej Giertych, published a pamphlet in February that said Jews were unethical, unable to integrate into society and are a “tragic community” because they don’t accept Jesus as the messiah.

A controversial Polish Catholic priest continued to attract condemnation after allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks. Tadeusz Rydzyk, founder of the Catholic Radio Station Radio Maryja, was quoted by Wprost magazine in July as calling Jews greedy and criticizing Polish President Lech Kaczynski for supporting the establishment of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Rydzyk, whose radio station has a history of anti-Semitic commentary, was later welcomed by Pope Benedict XVI at his summer residence outside of Rome, much to the chagrin of Jewish groups.

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