In 1970 an international conference on Soviet Jewry in Brussels became a turning point in the campaign to liberate Jews in the Soviet Union.
Future historians may well conclude that the recent European Union-sponsored seminar on anti-Semitism, also held in Brussels, was a milestone in stemming the resurgence of the longest hatred we are now witnessing.
For the first time, the European leadership publicly conceded that the virulent new form of anti-Semitism poses a real threat to society. The unprecedented overwhelmingly positive coverage by the European electronic and print media was in itself a refreshing novelty.
The event was sponsored by the EU, which provided all facilities including provision of kosher meals to all 700 participants. It was an impressive gathering of political leaders, diplomats, academics and Jewish leaders of all persuasions. Representatives from the major religious denominations also participated including Cardinal Barbasin, the archbishop of Lyon and Dali Boubakeur, the imam of the largest mosque in Paris.
Prior to the conference it was presumed that European Commission President Romano Prodi would downplay the prevalence of anti-Semitism. Indeed, a month earlier he had threatened to abort the program, alleging he had been defamed in a Financial Times article, jointly written by World Jewish Congress president Edgar Bronfman and European Jewish Congress president Coby Benatoff, which charged EU leaders with inaction and indifference in relation to anti-Semitism.
However, Prodi surprised the gathering. In his opening address he denied that current levels of anti-Semitism were comparable to conditions in the 1930s, but conceded that Judeophobia did represent a real threat to society. He called on EU justice and interior ministers to introduce tougher penalties against attacks on Jewish targets and other anti-Jewish crimes.
He specifically appealed for preemptive action in the field of education, calling for the introduction of specific campaigns to overcome prejudice. Most importantly, he deplored “criticisms of Israel inspired by what amounts to anti-Semitic sentiments and prejudice.”
In what could politically be a major breakthrough, President Prodi also called on member states to support a World Jewish Congress initiative to reintroduce an Irish resolution condemning anti-Semitism initiated at the United Nations General Assembly, but withdrawn in the face of fierce Arab opposition.
The presence of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel gave the gathering a unique veracity. This Holocaust survivor of world renown, whose very features have become a symbol of conscience, touched the hearts of all when he conveyed this wake-up call: “The European disease has returned if Auschwitz didn’t cure the world of anti-Semitism, what will?
“My Jewish friends [in Europe] live in real fear They do not ask, ‘Should we leave?’ but ‘When should we leave?'”
Wiesel also courageously confronted the issue of demonization of Israel, highlighting the double standards and hypocrisy of those who exploit the Jewish state as a surrogate for individual Jew-hatred.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer delivered a passionate address denouncing the new anti-Semitism and admitting that certain attacks on Israel had exceeded legitimate criticism. This was also taken up by Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Natan Sharansky, who focused on the nexus between anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel. Sharansky stressed that nobody challenged anyone’s right to criticize Israel, but delegitimization of the Jewish state was crass anti-Semitism.
THE BANE of such conferences is always the large number of speakers. Yet on this occasion people sat and listened throughout. They heard British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passionately castigating those employing double standards in their criticism of Israel and urging leaders of other faiths to ensure that Jews not be left to fight the hate alone.
Avraham Burg did not repeat his recent attacks on Israel and Zionism. However, the former Jewish Agency chairman did create a stir by urging European Jews to remain in Europe, asserting that aliya under such circumstances would simply represent a victory for the anti-Semites.
By that logic, Sharansky, after his release from the Gulag, should have remained in the Soviet Union and Burg’s father should have stayed in Germany.
Coby Benatoff, the soft-spoken chairman of the European Jewish Congress, emerged as the new Jewish leader who paved the way for European Jews to move out of the closet demanding equality under the law with European citizens. He conveyed a consistent and effective message from the podium and at press interviews:
“The monster is with us once again Anti-Semitism has returned What is of most concern to us is the indifference of our fellow European citizens The time for action is now.”
Even rabbis traditionally inclined toward shtadlanut – silent diplomacy rather than public protest – came to the podium demanding action.
The self-confidence and assertiveness of European Jewry that emerged for the first time in Brussels is a significant new phenomenon. The challenge will be the determination and ability of Jewish leaders to continue shaming and exposing Europeans who remain silent in the face of Jew-baiting.
This being a European seminar, the World Jewish Congress remained largely in the background. But preparatory work behind the scenes was crucial. Without intensive WJC input the EU might well have convened an asinine seminar on “Racism and Xenophobia” instead of a full-thrusting meeting on anti-Semitism.
The ultimate test of the long-term political impact of the seminar will be the effectiveness of the joint EU and European Jewish Congress working groups that were announced in Brussels.
If the recommendations by President Prodi and other EU officials are genuinely implemented at the member state level, this assembly may truly be remembered as a turning point in stemming the tide of anti-Semitism.