After several years of mounting criticisms and increasingly harsh condemnations, American Jewish groups are rushing to praise European governments for their efforts to combat antisemitism and strike a more “balanced” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the wake of a high-level parley in Brussels last week to deal with European antisemitism, Jewish communal leaders commended several countries, especially France, for their stepped-up measures. European Union leaders are also drawing praise for their decision to side with Jerusalem in arguing that the International Court of Justice should not rule on the legality of the Israeli security fence in the West Bank, and their increased scrutiny of the use of E.U. funds by the Palestinian Authority.
“We are seeing a shift from a traditional European pro-Arab bias towards a more even-handed stance,” said Elan Steinberg, executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress. “They realized that this is becoming a problem and that it is endangering their own citizens.”
Steinberg also hailed last week’s parley, which was organized by the WJC’s European arm and the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive body. He described it as a “watershed” event, noting that in addition to issuing strong condemnations of antisemitism in Europe, participants mapped out concrete measures for tackling the problem.
During the conference, which was attended by top European, Israeli and Jewish leaders, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, publicly acknowledged that Europe had an antisemitism problem and urged all E.U. members to follow the lead of France and Italy in setting up specialized intergovernmental task forces to deal with issue. Prodi promised that the E.U. would take concrete steps to fight antisemitism.
The seminar marked “the end of the period of denial” by European governments, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Things are changing in Europe and we need to recognize it,” Foxman said.
Foxman locked horns with French President Jacques Chirac late last year when the ADL leader accused the French president of blocking a forceful E.U. condemnation of antisemitic remarks made by then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But last week Foxman and the ADL’s national chairperson, Barbara Balser, sent a letter to Chirac commending his efforts to protect the Jewish community. Foxman told the Forward that his organization was planning a trip to Paris to personally thank Chirac for his actions. “France went from denial to becoming a model,” Foxman said.
In another sign of thaw, France recently hosted Israeli president Moshe Katsav, the first such visit in 17 years.
Efforts to reach out to Israel and Jewish groups come at the same time that European leaders are increasing their scrutiny of Palestinian finances. Last month, a French prosecutor launched a preliminary investigation into whether Suha Arafat, the Paris-based wife of the Palestinian leader, received about $1 million a month over the course of a year from Swiss bank accounts allegedly controlled by the P.A. The investigation is believed to stem from a larger probe by the E.U.’s anti-fraud office, known by its acronym OLAF, into the possible diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars of European aid by P.A. officials.
The probe started last fall after European lawmakers pressured the European Commission to look into the use of some $250 million disbursed by the E.U. between the fall of 2000 and late 2002.
In the summer of 2002, Israel handed European officials documents seized by the Israeli military from the P.A. headquarters allegedly showing how Arafat was diverting European funds toward the Al Aksa brigades, which have taken credit for numerous attacks on Israelis. After an E.U. team visited Jerusalem in January, the German daily Die Welt reported in early February that the investigators had authenticated the Israeli documents. But last week, the French daily Liberation said the probe would show Arafat did not divert the E.U. money to help the al Aksa Brigades or any other terrorist group.
Gemma Sanchez, a spokesman representing the E.U.’s OLAF unit, told the Forward that the Liberation report was correct in asserting that no evidence of misused European funds had turned up so far — but, Sanchez added, the probe is still ongoing.
P.A. leaders appear to be feeling the pressure to become more accountable. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei reportedly threatened to resign last week after Arafat refused to allow more transparency in the payment of members of the P.A.’s security forces, according to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. Qurei, who had just returned from a trip to Europe, reportedly told Arafat that such cooperation was a key condition to additional European funding.
“The European countries are looking more closely at how the money is spent and at the issue of incitement,” said Harriet Mandel, the director of Israel and international affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “They realize that brazen attacks on Israel can also feed the antisemitism in Europe.”
Mandel said that the shift was also borne out of self-interest.
“They realize they have a problem with radical Muslims groups who they increasingly perceive as shaking the foundations of their societies,” she said. “Their tougher response to antisemitism is a sign of their awareness of those new threats and that they need more accountability and firm policies in the field of justice, police and education.”
The need to implement such reforms was the main focus at last week’s conference, which featured Prodi, Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nathan Sharansky, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel. The event received widespread media coverage in Europe.
Prodi and European Jewish leaders initially agreed to hold the seminar after a controversial EU opinion poll in November labeled Israel the biggest threat to world peace. But then Jewish groups were infuriated by the subsequent decision of an E.U. monitoring group to shelve the publication of a report that showed a rise in antisemitic attacks carried out by Muslims and pro-Palestinian groups in Europe.
Following that decision, World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman and the president of the European Jewish Congress, Cobi Benatoff, accused the European Commission of “active and inactive” antisemitism in an op-ed in the Financial Times of London. In response, Prodi announced that he was canceling the seminar. After several European leaders criticized the op-ed and a WJC delegation met with Prodi last month, the event was reinstated.
During the conference, Prodi called on E.U. governments to adopt a continent-wide law against racism and xenophobia, which would classify antisemitic acts and denials of the Holocaust as crimes. In another small shift, he announced that the E.U. would work toward passage of a stalled resolution on antisemitism at the General Assembly of the United Nations. The resolution, put forth by Ireland, has not been able to garner enough support and until now the E.U. was divided on the issue.
European countries “now by and large say the right things,” Steinberg said. The WJC official added: “They are beginning to act and we need to make sure they follow up.”
Jewish communal leaders said that the next step would be a late-April meeting in Berlin of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a body that can direct its 55 member states to enact legislation. And, in another sign of American Jewish efforts to become more involved in European affairs, the American Jewish Committee announced the opening of its Brussels-based think tank.
While American Jewish leaders were feeling vindicated by their earlier protests, some European Jewish leaders were worried that heavy-handed meddling from U.S. groups could eventually backfire.
Steinberg, for one, said he was not bothered by such complaints.
“I sense a change in the way European Jewish leaders behave,” Steinberg said. “They sound more like American Jews, they are more assertive, and I believe this is remarkable.”