Jewish leaders to Europe: Seek our help when planning for our communities

Jewish leaders to Europe: Seek our help when planning for our communities

Jewish youth leaders discuss building communities in Europe at the European Jewish Association conference in Porto, Portugal, May 15, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/EJA.

By David Isaac - JNS

The European Jewish Association (EJA) delivered a straightforward message to Europe’s leaders at its annual conference, held in Porto, Portugal on May 15: When planning for the future of Europe’s Jews, let us have a say.

The conference’s title, “Shaping the Future of European Jewry Together,” captured that message.

“As we meet, leaders of the European Union and European governments are discussing and moving forward with their plans to combat antisemitism and plan the future of European Jewry,” said EJA chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin in his opening remarks. “But how many of you were directly contacted by a diplomat or politician to ask: ‘What do you think should be the plan?”

“As you can see, not nearly enough,” said Margolin after a show of hands. A situation where European leaders didn’t consult the “more than one hundred representatives” of Jewish communities in attendance was unacceptable, he added.

Several European officials addressed the conference. Margaritis Schinas, European Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life, said, “Unfortunately, Jewish institutions across the continent are required to invest more and more in security. The data shows that approximately 38% of Jews have at some point considered leaving Europe precisely because they do not feel safe.”

Schinas went on to state that he was “very pleased” that 14 E.U. member states had already adopted national strategies to combat antisemitism, noting that at the 2022 European Council all member states had agreed to do so.

Elise Fajgeles, general secretary of the French inter-ministerial delegation for the fight against racism and antisemitism, said that her department works with more than 90 associations engaged in the fight against racism and antisemitism in France.

While France faces antisemitism from both the far right and the far left, she said, it was on the latter that it was “the most visible and vocal.” However, she continued, on the far right, “prominent political figures want to ban ritual slaughter that will eventually prevent Jews from practicing their own religion and consequently jeopardize their very future in France.”

Antisemitism has been allowed to fester in Europe because European leaders have other pressing issues and the Jewish community is tiny, Margolin explained to JNS. “Our work is to make sure that the governments pay more attention to this phenomenon.”

EJA Chairman Menachem Margolin. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/EJA.

Margolin rated it a “great success” that European leaders now speak about the importance of Jewish life in Europe, and that there are plans to fight Jew hatred. Though modest about EJA’s contributions, Margolin admitted that the idea of European coordinators to combat antisemitism came from his organization.

The EJA, founded in 2000, has a multi-pronged mission: to fight antisemitism, promote Holocaust remembrance, ensure freedom of religion, strengthen Jewish identity in Europe and improve Israel’s image in Europe.

In the battle against antisemitism, the EJA warns when it sees pitfalls ahead. It passed a resolution by a unanimous conference vote declaring that “antisemitism is unique and must be separated in national plans from other forms of hate.” It called on Jewish groups to reject “intersectionality,” a theoretical framework that separates groups into “oppressed” and “privileged,” and which typically puts Jews into the oppressor category.

“There is little to no solidarity or empathy towards Jewish communities from other groups affected by hate when antisemitic atrocities occur or when Israelis are murdered in terrorist acts,” the resolution states. “Other target groups against hate do not recognize antisemitism as racism but instead [as] a form of discrimination. Jews are additionally accused of ‘privilege’ or ‘leveraging’ the Holocaust.”

EJA had decided to focus on this topic in its resolution, said Margolin, “because the plans of the different governments in Europe did not really identify antisemitism as a unique phenomenon. We have no doubt that if antisemitism is placed together with other discriminations, it won’t get the attention it needs.”

Panels included community representatives from across Europe, who outlined the situation in their respective countries. One of the bleaker assessments came from Holland. Ellen Van Praagh, chairwoman of the Inter Provincial Chief Rabbinate for The Netherlands (IPOR), said that the media in Holland is anti-Israel and “on top of this, we have quite a few parties in our parliament that are opposed to Israel.” Jews are leaving Holland, she said, for Israel, the United States, “or anywhere in the world except Holland.”

Chief Rabbi of the Netherlands Binyomin Jacobs said that the Dutch have a skewed view of their actions toward Jews during the Holocaust, viewing themselves in a heroic light when, in fact, the Netherlands had the highest number of Jewish victims in Western Europe; that it was the Dutch police, not the German police, who rounded up the Jews, and that “the Jews who came back were not welcome at all.”

Jacobs told JNS that Dutch Jews are facing several issues, including anti-Israel hostility from the Dutch Protestant Church, (the Catholic church, he said, is much better in this regard), and a large Muslim population (about 5% of the total), which leads Dutch politicians to take anti-Israel positions.

“Anti-Zionism is growing and very strong in Holland,” he said. “It’s antisemitism, the same virus with another name,” he said, adding, “I’m not optimistic for the future of Jews in Europe.”

Reports from U.K. representatives were more encouraging. Steven Winston, managing director of the National Jewish Assembly, said that there are definitely “signs of improvement” as the Labour Party distances itself from its descent into antisemitism led by its former head Jeremy Corbyn.

The government is sending favorable signs with talk of legislation targeting BDS, said Winston, noting also that the United Kingdom has “widely accepted” the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Winston said his organization “is developing some very fruitful connections with members of parliament and other key figures.”

Poland’s Jews also presented a more reassuring report. Edward Odoner, chairman of the review board of TSKZ (Social and Cultural Society of Jews in Poland), noted that Poland recently commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising’s 80th anniversary, with the main organizer of the event being the Polish government.

Poland has been unfairly faulted for not doing enough to combat antisemitism, he said, as criticism is based on how much Poland spends to keep Jews safe, overlooking the fact that Polish Jews aren’t threatened. It was due to this, he said, that “the government expenditure when it comes to the safety of the Jewish community is very minimal.”

Klaudia Klimek, vice president of TSKZ, warned that European politics were changing and that right-wing parties would gain still more ground. It was imperative for European Jewry, therefore, to make sure it remains able to reach decision-makers regardless of which side is in power. “It’s up to us if we are going to see this as an opportunity or a threat,” said Klimek.

With its eye to developing future Jewish leaders, the EJA announced a campus leaders academy and scholarship program. Offering a course, training camps and a stipend, the program’s goal is to give Jewish students the “necessary tools” to confront antisemitism.

“Some might ask themselves, ‘Isn’t it better I stay quiet and keep my head down?’ This is the worst possible outcome and exactly what our opponents want—scared Jews,” said Juan Caldes Rodriguez, the EJA’s E.U. Affairs Officer.

“Universities, places that were once the site for exchanging different ideas, have become the latest casualty in the battle of ideas, and it is brutal out there if you’re Jewish and a Zionist,” he added.

A conference attendee visits the Jewish Museum of Porto, Portugal, May 16, 2023. Photo by Yoav Dudkevitch/EJA.

On the second day of the conference, attendees took a tour of Jewish Porto, including a museum commemorating the community’s history, its Holocaust museum and the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue, the largest synagogue on the Iberian Peninsula, which was inaugurated in 1938.

The community, which largely disintegrated after an antisemitic campaign against its founder, Capt. Arthur Carlos Barros Basto (1887-1961), a decorated Portuguese army officer who fought in World War I, revived in the last decade thanks to a determined and energetic leadership.

Margolin recognized the community’s achievements in an impromptu speech at the synagogue in which he said that if all of Europe’s Jewish communities were like that of Porto, then the European Jewish future was assured.

Their success isn’t found in the buildings and museums, he said, “It’s about, first of all, having their heart in the right place, having this agenda to reach every Jew in the city, and to make sure that every Jew will feel proud, that every Jew will feel welcome, that every Jew will have everything he needs in order to lead a Jewish life. I really admire you, the leaders of the Jewish community of Porto.”

Source: David Isaac, JNS