Europe’s Leaders Confront Antisemitism

By Marc Perelman

Published November 21, 2003, issue of November 21, 2003.

The recent bombings of synagogues in Turkey and an attack on a Jewish school in France appear to have jolted European leaders into action against antisemitism.

After the school near Paris was burned down last week, French President Jacques Chirac announced the creation of a special inter-ministerial entity to deal with antisemitic incidents. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told a delegation of the European Jewish Congress this week that he would call on his counterparts to take up the issue at an upcoming European summit next month. In addition, Romano Prodi, head of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has agreed to hold a seminar in the next few weeks on how to confront antisemitism in Europe, according to Serge Cwajgenbaum, the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress.

Meanwhile, during a visit to Brussels Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom proposed the immediate creation of a joint Israel-E.U. ministerial council to fight antisemitism. Cwajgenbaum distanced himself from the proposal, arguing that the fate of Jews in Europe was the responsibility of the European governments. His stance reflects a general wariness among European Jewish leaders about what they see as Israel and American Jewish heavy-handedness in intervening in European affairs.

Shalom was one of several Israeli officials to claim that the antisemitic climate in Europe had facilitated the bombings in Istanbul, which left 25 people dead, including six members of the Turkish Jewish community.

Israeli charges of European antisemitism were fueled this month when a controversial opinion poll carried out by the European Commission found that 59% of Europeans see Israel as a threat to world peace, more than any other country. A main target of Israeli and Jewish criticism has been Chirac, who some detractors claim failed to condemn in strong enough terms the antisemitic remarks of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The French president quickly and firmly condemned antisemitism following the recent arson attack that gutted a Jewish secondary school in Gagny, a suburb of Paris. The incident took place at night and no one was injured.

Chirac immediately convened top-level ministerial talks on fighting antisemitism in France. He ordered Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin to set up an inter-departmental commission with the ministries of Interior, Justice and Education. The commission will meet on a monthly basis to assess the situation and make recommendations.

After the Cabinet meeting, Chirac met with several French Jewish leaders to outline his government’s new plan to fight antisemitism. Haim Musicant, the director-general of the CRIF, the umbrella Jewish organization, told reporters after the meeting that he was satisfied that Chirac had decided to clamp down on antisemitic acts.

In recent years, Jewish leaders have often lamented what they say has been the cautious approach of French authorities when dealing with attacks on synagogues and Jewish schools. Most of these attacks, have allegedly been perpetrated by impoverished Muslim teenagers enraged by Israel’s handling of the Palestinians.

“You get the feeling that, finally, there is a serious reaction,” said CRIF spokeswoman Edith Lenczner. She said the bombings in Istanbul and the school arson drew unprecedented levels of condemnation from the French media and political class.

Lenczner said no evidence existed to show that any of the antisemitic incidents that have taken place in France, including the latest one in Gagny, were coordinated by a group. But French authorities are worried that a major terrorist attack could be carried out against a Jewish site, Jewish officials said.

Cwajgenbaum said that while he welcomed Chirac’s moves, his organization had recommended a similar proposal to the French government several months ago, but to no avail. Cwajgenbaum said that the Jewish congress would like to see the European Union adopt similar measures.

“Over the past two-and-a-half years, we have heard many declarations against antisemitism but very little action,” said Cwajgenbaum, in a phone interview from Geneva, where he was preparing for a meeting with the Swiss foreign minister. “The authorities need to face their responsibilities.”

The European Jewish Congress has reached an agreement with Prodi, the head of the European Commission, to hold a seminar on antisemitism in Europe in a few weeks, Cwajgenbaum said. The seminar will discuss different proposals to set up an E.U.-level structure dealing with antisemitism.

Cwajgenbaum hailed Berlusconi for his strong support. Berlusconi, who also holds the E.U.’s rotating presidency, pledged Monday to a European Jewish Congress delegation in Milan to call for more concrete action against antisemitism at the next E.U. summit on December 12.



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