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A New Year Dawns for European Jews, a Year of Cooperation and Security Fears

September 22, 2006
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European policies toward Israel, Iran and the Palestinian territories played a central role in the life of European Jewry in 5766. These international issues, along with the continued growth of extremism in Europe’s Islamic communities, were focal points for Jews — particularly in Western Europe, where a spate of anti-Semitic attacks against individuals and synagogues left Jews worried about their safety.

“In Western Europe the violence is related to Islamic radicalism. In Central and Eastern Europe, it’s the rise of nationalistic movements,” said Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress. “There was a slight decrease in anti-Semitic violent attacks, but there was no reduction of anti-Semitism.”

Perhaps the most dramatic anti-Semitic incident was the February murder in Paris of Ilan Halimi, 23, by a gang who tortured him for several weeks in a suburban apartment building.

The suspects reportedly told police they targeted Halimi because “all Jews are rich” — although Halimi’s family is not wealthy, the kidnappers demanded an exorbitant ransom — and they put out cigarettes on Halimi’s face because, they said, “he was Jewish and we don’t like Jews.”

Most of the suspects are Muslims of North African or black African origin.

The number of Jews contacting the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Paris office to inquire about aliyah reportedly doubled after the Halimi murder. French aliyah soared to record levels after the incident, despite a drop in the overall number of anti-Semitic incidents in France in 5766.

In addition, anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment fed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq intensified when Israel and Hezbollah went to war over the summer.

“We are undoubtedly in the middle of a huge and growing problem of the radical Islamicization of many European countries,” said Jonathan Joseph, president of the European Council of Jewish Communities. “The effect of this is increased anti-Semitism and attacks, but I believe that hides a much greater issue: Throughout many communities, groups of radical Islamists are succeeding in de-legitimizing Jewish people among governments.”

The implication was that some Muslims had made anti-Semitism an acceptable sentiment for those already critical of Israel.

In Great Britain, where a crisis over Muslim integration was highlighted by July 2005 subway bombings carried out by Islamic extremists, concern over security is at an all-time high.

Mark Gardner, spokesman for British Jewry’s Community Security Trust, estimated that anti-Jewish incidents rose 25 percent after the Israel-Hezbollah war began in July.

European Jewish communities are not sitting idly by in the wake of anti-Semitic activities; in fact, 5766 may be a record year for European Jewish political activism.

The European Jewish Congress is ensuring that its 41 member communities keep up the pressure on their European Union representatives to combat anti-Semitism, maintain positive attitudes toward Israel and take a tough stance on Hamas and toward Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The congress has had its greatest success on international issues. At its annual meeting in February, president Pierre Besnainou had the rare chance to lecture Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for external affairs, before a packed room of Jewish leaders.

“I just saw a woman from the Hamas election list on Israeli television saying that she was proud that her son killed Jews,” he said. “Should we imagine you will have discussions with such terrorists?”

The European Union eventually found a way to keep sending massive amounts of humanitarian aid to Palestinians without engaging in talks with Hamas, which took over the Palestinian Authority after winning parliamentary elections in January.

Cwajgenbaum sees the refusal by European politicians to harshly condemn Israel during the conflict with Hezbollah — in contrast to the negative attitude of much of the European public and media — as a positive sign, which he credits to Israel’s August 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

“Since the disengagement in Gaza, the image of Israel changed. We have seen in the last couple of months tremendous interest from Israel toward Europe and Europe toward Israel,” he said.

On the community-development level, one landmark was an April meeting in Paris among the 10 largest pan-European Jewish organizations, chaired by the EJC, the ECJC and the Conference of European Rabbis.

It was not only the first time such a meeting took place, but the first time they pledged to actively work together to so that their agendas did not conflict, as was often the case in the past.

“It has been a year of unprecedented cooperation between the pan European organizations,” said Joseph of the ECJC. He said new initiative, like joint mailing lists and a committee to review progress on key issues will make their work more transparent to Europe’s 1.6 million Jews.

On the national level, there were some memorable milestones, celebrations and memorials: British Jews and politicians marked the 350th anniversary in 2006 of the readmission of Jews to Britain, following their mass expulsion several centuries earlier.

The Czech Republic and Poland held several unique commemorations, with a memorial to Holocaust victims in the Czech Republic’s Usti Nad Labem unveiled in October. A six-pointed star, partly submerged in the ground, pays tribute to 1,000 victims and has been hailed as one of the most moving Jewish-themed sculptures in the country.

The Prague Jewish community, which had been immersed in political upheaval for two years, settled down: A November election for the Jewish community council brought new leadership and saw the reappointment of Karel Sidon as Prague chief rabbi. Sidon was reinstalled at the Old New Synagogue, where a Chabad rabbi had been temporarily posted by the previous community chairman.

In Poland, German-born Pope Benedict XVI paid his first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May to memorialize its victims. His otherwise eloquent speech about suffering there was roundly criticized because he failed to mention anti-Semitism, a fact he attempted to compensate for in subsequent addresses in Rome.

Poland was perhaps one of Europe’s most politically colorful countries this year, and its struggle to form a majority in Parliament spilled over into Jewish-related events.

In April, the League of Polish Families, an extreme-right Catholic party, joined the governing coalition. The party has its roots in the pre-World War II national democratic movement, which urged members to assault Jews and throw them out of universities.

Compounding concerns over the coalition was an April program by the Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja in which a commentator excoriated Jews for “humiliating Poland” and engaging in “Holocaust business” by trying to extract compensation from the state. The station, which has millions of listeners, has a long history of anti-Semitic commentaries and has been censured by the Vatican and the Polish Catholic Church.

In May, just prior to the pope’s visit, Poland’s chief rabbi was hit on the shoulder as he was leaving the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw by a man yelling “Poland for the Poles.” But amid all of these highly visible events, the Polish president and prime minister repeatedly expressed support for Jewish causes and pledged that anti-Semitism had no place in Poland.

Progress continued on the government-funded Museum of the History of Polish Jews — slated to open in 2008 — and numerous initiatives on the governmental and non-governmental level promoted Polish-Jewish relations.

On the religious front, Poland welcomed four new rabbis in August in time for High Holidays celebrations in Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw, including the first Polish-born rabbi since the end of communism and the first liberal rabbi since before World War II.

Germany also experienced a revolution: Most of the country’s 20 Progressive congregations were finally welcomed into the Central Council of Jews’ state branches. The change means that Reform congregations will have greater access to the millions of dollars the government doles out to support Jewish life in Germany.

The move is being closely watched by other Reform groups in Europe — particularly in Spain, Italy, Austria and Hungary — where the Reform are not yet seen as legitimate religious movements by Jewish authorities.

Germany also saw a strengthening of its government’s relationship with Israel and perhaps with Jews in general when Angela Merkel became Germany’s first female chancellor in November. Merkel made a deep impression on Jews in Israel, Germany and elsewhere in the Diaspora with her commitment to the Jewish state.

In a Nov. 30 speech, her first to the Parliament as chancellor, Merkel stressed her commitment to Israel and said that Iran — whose president has repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction and denied the Holocaust — must cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Merkel’s government also has made combating anti-Semitism part of its political platform. Deidre Berger, head of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, said the new chancellor had “demonstrated considerable interest in a positive and dynamic relationship with the Jewish world” over the years, according to the American Jewish Yearbook.

Also in Germany, 5766 ended on a high note: The Abraham Geiger College in Potsdam, Germany’s progressive Jewish seminary, will ordain four rabbis, the first ordained in Germany since 1942.

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