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E.u./jewish Relations Better, but the Improvement May Not Last

December 22, 2003
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The European Union is finally beginning to address the concerns of the continent’s Jewish leaders — if admitting the existence of a problem is halfway to solving it.

Coming on the heels of stinging criticism from Jewish leaders after the failure of the 15-member bloc to publish a report on anti-Semitism, last week’s meeting between the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and a joint delegation made up of the European Jewish Congress and the Council of European Rabbis, appeared to be a step forward.

Following the meeting with Prodi, European Jewish Congress President Cobi Benatoff told JTA that the European Union had started to become “sensitized” toward anti-Semitism.

“Before, they refused to even acknowledge the existence of the problem,” Benatoff said.

He added that Prodi had promised to convene a seminar on anti-Semitism in Brussels early next year “and we will insist that its session is held in public.”

The seminar, likely to be held in Brussels in February, will involve religious and community leaders from across Europe as well as E.U. officials, Benatoff said.

The meeting with Prodi also comes after a EJC request to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that the E.U.’s heads of state and government condemn anti-Semitism as part of a closing statement at last week’s E.U. Council in Brussels that marked the end of Italy’s presidency of the body.

That request was upheld, as the European Union expressed “its deep concern at the increase in instances of anti-Semitic intolerance” and condemned “all manifestations of anti-Semitism, including attacks against religious sites and individuals.”

Although the condemnation from the heads of state represented only a few lines in a closing statement addressing more than 50 separate items of E.U. policy commitments, its significance was not lost on the EJC.

According to the EJC’s vice president, Pierre Besnainou, Jewish leaders were appreciative that E.U. leaders were able to relate to the problem of anti-Semitism “despite the heavy agenda devoted mainly to the European Union constitution.”

The statement is also symbolic.

At the last E.U. Council in September, the EJC had blasted the E.U. heads of state for refusing to condemn anti-Semitic remarks by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir.

Reports at the time suggested that French President Jacques Chirac and his Greek counterpart, Costas Simitis, had blocked the inclusion of a condemnation, although Chirac later denied this.

Since then, relations between the European Union and European Jewry have gone from bad to worse, with the publication of an E.U. poll showing that more Europeans see Israel as a threat to world peace than any other country. Also, the European Commission temporarily refused to publish a study that largely blamed Islamic and pro-Palestinian elements for the dramatic increase in anti-Semitic attacks on the Continent.

The report, compiled by the Center for Research and anti-Semitism at Berlin’s Technical University for the E.U.’s Vienna-based European Monitoring Center for Racism and Xenophobia, was withheld after the E.U. body claimed it “lacked empirical evidence” to back up its findings.

Nevertheless, the EJC — together with the France’s CRIF Jewish umbrella organization — decided to publish the report over the Web. It was then released by the European Union.

Benatoff told a news conference following his meeting with Prodi that the report’s findings merely reported the deteriorating situation regarding anti-Semitism in Europe.

“In the last three years, violent actions against Jews have increased on the streets of Europe,” Benatoff said, and added that many of those involved are of Arab, North African and Islamic origin.

The improved relations between the European Union and European Jewish communities have come at a time when the European Union has been presided over by Berlusconi, generally regarded by Israel as one of the Jewish state’s most committed supporters on the continent.

Berlusconi has been highly critical of Islamic fundamentalism and has strongly backed the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq, a policy which has met widespread opposition in Europe.

The Italian leader’s often-independent positions have tended to marginalize him in European forums, and his standing received another heavy blow at the E.U. summit with his failure to broker a deal on the E.U. constitution.

Nevertheless, his strongly pro-Israel line has won strong praise from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who only last week told a delegation of Italian Jewish leaders that Italy was “Israel’s best friend” at the European Union.

But with Italy now handing over the E.U. presidency to Ireland for the next six months under the body’s rotating system, relations may be less friendly.

Last week, Dublin sponsored a resolution at the United Nations condemning anti-Semitism, but its position on the Middle East conflict is unlikely to be as supportive to Israel as that of Rome.

That was perhaps exemplified this summer when both Berlusconi and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen visited the region.

While Berlusconi drew Israeli plaudits for refusing to meet with Yasser Arafat, Cowen was boycotted by Israeli officials for meeting the Palestinian Authority president.

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