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As Europe’s Jewish Leaders Meet, Anti-semitism Still Tops the Agenda

November 11, 2004
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As Jewish leaders from the farthest corners of Europe gathered to assess the past and plan for the future, the fight against anti-Semitism remained their No. 1 priority. “In the last year our efforts were concentrated on issues of anti-Semitism, which have been very serious again in Europe. It is a serious issue everywhere,” Cobi Benatoff of Italy, president of the European Jewish Congress, said in a news conference Sunday at the group’s annual meeting.

Also on the agenda were issues related to the enlargement of the European Union, the E.U. constitution, the proposed admission of Turkey into the union and the E.U.’s relationship with Israel.

Representatives of some 25 countries, including several new E.U. members, attended the conference, which was held at a Jewish community center here.

In a Sunday news conference held after the group’s morning session, Benatoff said the EJC is planning to meet with E.U. education ministers to “find ways of introducing into the curricula in Europe subjects that will act as a vaccine against prejudice in our younger generations.”

Also essential in the struggle against anti-Semitism is a dialogue with European Christian and Muslim leaders. Roger Cukierman, an EJC vice president and head of the French Jewish communal organization CRIF, said his group has been actively involved in such dialogue with moderate and less moderate Muslim groups. Perhaps as a result, the leader of one Muslim group issued a statement this year saying that attacks on Jews are like attacks on the Koran.

While Muslim anti-Semitism is a source of great concern, there recently has been a “rise of the more traditional anti-Semitism, from right-wing extremist groups,” Serge Cwajgenbaum of France, the EJC’s general secretary, told JTA. “We can imagine it will continue and even increase.

He suggested that the increase is directly related to the opening of European borders. Recent vandalism against Jewish, Christian and Muslim cemeteries in France’s Alsace region has been attributed to German and French right-wing extremists.

In Germany, three extreme right-wing parties have joined forces in hopes of maximizing their support on the European level.

“The more we see the integration of new countries into Europe, the more nationalistic issues will appear,” Cwajgenbaum said. “They will use anti-Semitism as a tool to assert their nationalistic view and attitudes.”

Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, stressed the rise in anti-Semitism among left-wing and intellectual circles.

But there is hope for a united front against anti-Semitism, said Henry Grunwald, an EJC vice president and head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Grunwald praised meetings on anti-Semitism this past year with the European Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and suggested it was time to follow through on the “Berlin Declaration,” a commitment from the OSCE meeting in April to improve monitoring and combating of anti-Semitism across Europe.

“We feel that both European and national authorities have become pro-active in the fight against anti-Semitism,” Benatoff said, “though they are not acting as fast as we would wish.”

Despite concerns about anti-Semitism, several Jewish communal leaders stressed in their reports to the EJC that relations with government leaders are positive. Representatives of Ukraine and Lithuania said recent political campaigns there seemed relatively devoid of anti-Semitic content.

But several speakers said they were deeply troubled by attacks on synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and schools.

Charlotte Knobloch, a vice president of both the EJC and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said she was deeply troubled by the level of popular anti-Semitism in the Baltic States and Poland.

“The EJC has a responsibility and a job to do” in educating new E.U. member states, Knobloch said at the press conference. She recently had learned that one of the few historic synagogues left in Poland, in a city outside Krakow, had been razed and that villas were being built on the spot.

In the afternoon session participants raised other issues, including proposed restrictions on shechitah, or kosher slaughter, and circumcision, in hopes that the European Jewish body would put them on its agenda for the coming year.

One year after the bombing of two synagogues in Istanbul, Daniel Navarro of Turkey reported that there had been no personal attacks on Jews in Turkey. Of greater concern, though, was a subtle change in official attitudes toward Israel, he said.

“Relations with Israel were at the highest level two years ago, and now they were reduced to a normal working relationship,” he said. “Turkey is following the attitude of the European Union governments, while wanting to talk about joining the E.U.”

In his statement to the press, Benatoff stressed the role that Europe might play in helping bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“The roots of the state of Israel are in Europe, and as Europeans we would like to see Europe take responsibility” to help resolve the conflict, he said. “We believe that it can only do so if it has a more balanced approach.”

Meanwhile, Flo Kaufmann, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said in an interview that anti-Semitic attacks in England sometimes have corresponded with events on the ground in Israel. She said new figures are about to be released showing an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Great Britain over the past year.

Yet “Jewish life goes on, and that is what is quite extraordinary,” Cwajgenbaum said.

“We haven’t seen the phenomenon,” he said, “of Jews hiding their Judaism. This is absolutely not the case with French Jews. Jewish life goes on and continues in opposition to those attacks.”

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