One doesn’t have to be very vigilant to realize European Jews are in crisis mode. The tragic May attack at the Jewish Museum in Belgium where four people died; the grisly shooting at the Hyper Cacher market in France in January that claimed an additional four lives; and repeated incidents of beatings, harassment and vandalism of Jewish sites point to one alarming trend: Anti-Semitism is on the rise and EU officials are scrambling to find ways to combat it.
Given everything he has witnessed in his storied career as a politician, statesman and human rights activist, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky is not panicking when faced with such a grim reality. His observations are measured and his solutions – he hopes – are realistic.
“I believe the biggest challenge is anti-Semitism coming back to all these areas in the free world,” he said during a frank discussion with the editors of The Jerusalem Post earlier this month. “I think, while people know about it and write about it, they underestimate its power.”
Sharansky said current European anti-Semitism stems from two sources. The first is classical anti-Semitism – where the undercurrent of nefarious anti-Jewish sentiment has always had a presence on the continent. The second, and perhaps more worrying, comes from liberals who oppose Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. As the European protests during the Gaza war last year demonstrated, he said, anti-Israel rhetoric can turn anti-Jewish within the blink of an eye.
“It’s absolutely accepted in liberal France that Israel is one of the biggest violators of human rights in the world,” Sharansky said, referring to France’s abstention last month at the UN Commission for the Status of Women – where Israel was condemned for its treatment of Palestinian women, while countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia weren’t even mentioned. Out of the 42 voting countries, 27 voted in favor of Israel’s condemnation, 13 abstained and the US and Israel were the sole voices against.
While France turns a blind eye to the passing of anti-Israel moves in international bodies, it is at the same time advocating for task forces to combat anti-Semitism. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, for example, called for the establishment of such a task force just last month.
So while there is sympathy in Europe for flagrantly violent anti-Semitic acts, Sharansky said, some Europeans see the actions perpetrated by the Israeli government as just as despicable, if not worse.
“There is liberal France where it’s natural that Jews are one thing, but the Zionist state is the major aberration of the normal free world,” he said. “It is inevitable then, that anti-Israel attitudes will transform into anti-Jewish ones.” At the very least, he added, it puts many Jews in the uncomfortable position where they are pressured to divorce themselves from any allegiances they have toward Israel.
“So it suddenly becomes uncomfortable,” Sharansky continued. “And these meetings about the delegitimization of Israel, which came from a very different place than classical anti-Semitism, make it difficult for Jews to be a part of modern France.”
Sharansky recalled speaking to a young Belgian woman after the Jewish Museum attack in Brussels. When asked if she felt there was still a future for Jews in Europe, she replied: “Absolutely, yes. But we have to convince those around us that we have nothing to do with Israel.”
The current atmosphere leaves many European Jews at a crossroads where they are forced to either make aliya or assimilate – a choice that is far from easy.
Despite its potential hardships, Sharansky says, the decision to make aliya is the optimal choice.
“With European Jews – we have to show them why Israel is the best possible solution,” he said. “I remember it was controversial when people said how we at the Jewish Agency don’t repeat what politicians say about coming to Israel immediately. I want all of them to come! And I do believe the best way to do it is through aliya.”
But when politicians tout aliya for European Jews, Sharansky said, it can raise red flags over the connection between security threats and starting a new life in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s beckoning thousands of French Jews to make aliya in the wake of the Hyper Cacher attack may be counter-productive, he implied.
“I think it’s harmful when Jews connect aliya to anti-Semitism, to threats, and they think of Israel as a shelter,” Sharansky said, though he was careful not to specifically reference the prime minister as a direct example of such pleas. “When we speak of aliya of choice – and no doubt, French aliya is one – coming to Israel should not be a response to anti-Semitic acts.”
Israel, he argued, should be a beacon to all Jews looking to solidify their connection to Judaism and ensure their children are raised to do the same.
In the immediate aftermath of the Hyper Cacher attack, the Jewish Agency projected that 15,000 Jews will leave France for Israel in the coming year. Now, three months after those predictions were made, Sharansky acknowledged that such a forecast is “risky.”
“I’m taking account not only velocity, but acceleration,” he said. “If you look at open cases, there are twice as many open in this period than there were the year before.”
Open cases – meaning those families who have approached the Jewish Agency to begin the aliya process – while encouraging, don’t present the whole picture, Sharansky said. It is quite possible, and even likely, that many families may change their minds about moving to Israel based on the climate in Europe in the next few months.
“With all these awful killings, and tense climate of sending soldiers to schools, people may think they are safe and not come,” he said, adding that more accurate numbers will be available in the summer, once children are out of school and parents are better positioned to make such a big decision.
“French Jewish communities are very Jewish and are very connected to tradition, to their history,” he said. “They find themselves in a place where more than half of them are thinking to leave and the figures speak for themselves.”
Last year, a record-breaking 50,000 French Jews turned to the Jewish Agency asking for information about immigrating to Israel, and 7,000 actually went through with the process, the organization said.
Most of the French Jews who do come are traditional and less assimilated, Sharansky said. “This aliya is not assimilated, he said.
“They build on their connection to history – they may not kiss mezuzot but they have a lot of respect for tradition and for Israel.”
The Jewish Agency leader was also quick to negate the common misconception that all the French Jews coming to Israel are affluent. He recalled a conversation he had with a French father who was desperately trying to save enough money to be able to make aliya. “These people can be brought in the next two to three years,” he said. “We need to not simply tell them to come, but give them the incentives to come.”
The government has recognized the need for such incentives, announcing programs in February seeking NIS 600 million per year for the Immigration and Absorption Ministry to boost aliya.
Sharansky admitted that the organization’s methods were not perfect and that the refusenik in him comes back to life when asked about Jewish Agency failings.
“I have a long history of fighting the Jewish Agency and fighting against the establishment,” he said. “So I tell people all the time, don’t join me, fight me! Jewish Agency as part of the establishment has to be pressed and criticized. “If activists want to succeed, you have to criticize, but you also have to know how mobilize the establishment and handle the money and influence,” he said. “And to take all the credit. Then you know you’ve won.”