Actualité Juive: Dr. Moshe Kantor: “Jewish Identity is an essential part of European identity”

On May 9th, 2021, EJC President Dr. Moshe Kantor gave an Interview to the French Jewish newspaper “Actualité Juive”. You can read the English translation below.

For decades, he has worked to preserve Jewish life in the Diaspora, to protect European Jewry and to strengthen its position on the international scene. At 67 years of age, Dr. Moshe Kantor, re-elected President of the European Jewish Congress in October 2020, is one of the most active leaders in the contemporary Jewish world. Founder of the World Holocaust Forum, which hosted the largest diplomatic event in the history of the State of Israel in January 2020 at Yad Vashem on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Moshe Kantor is also the President of the Luxembourg International Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophes and the founder of the European Council for Tolerance and Reconciliation, an NGO composed of former European Heads of State and Nobel Peace Prize laureates, which aims to promote understanding between peoples. The son of a Jewish soldier in the Ukrainian Red Army, who lost many family members in the Holocaust, this philanthropist, businessman and art collector believes in the promise of Europe and is committed to promoting the historic and multi-millennial heritage of the Jewish people on the Old Continent. Through the European Jewish Fund, which he established in 2006, Moshe Kantor promotes Jewish life in Europe and supports educational and leadership programmes to strengthen Jewish identity, culture and tradition. Spearheading the fight against antisemitism, he also founded the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University, which publishes an annual report on anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the day after the publication of the 2020 report, last April, that he answered the questions of “Actualité Juive”, exclusively.

1/ The Kantor Center of Tel Aviv University has just published its annual report on anti-Semitism in the world in 2020. It reveals a decrease in anti-Semitic attacks against individuals, but a significant increase in conspiracy theories linking Jews to the spread of the virus. How do you analyse these results?

The year 2020 was a ground-breaking year in many ways. However, I would like to emphasise the social disorder and deep polarisation we have witnessed globally. In particular, the pandemic has provided fertile ground for anti-Semitism, racism and extremism to flourish.

The Tel Aviv University Kantor Centre’s report on the state of anti-Semitism in the world did indeed show a decrease in physical attacks in 2020. This is easily explained by the series of confinements and severe restrictions that have been put in place across Europe. People have mostly stayed at home.

I would like to give you some figures in this respect. The number of violent anti-Semitic incidents decreased by 18.6%, from 456 in 2019 to 371 in 2020. In addition, the number of physical injuries has decreased by 37.1%, from 170 in 2019 to 107 in 2020, and damage to private property has also been reduced by 35.4%.

However, as in all times of crisis, anti-Jewish hatred proliferated, but this time online. There was a proliferation of conspiracy theories claiming that Jews, the Jewish people or the State of Israel were behind the pandemic, or were profiting from it. The constant emphasis on the role of Jews in world events shows that antisemitism still occupies a central place in conspiracy theories.

Another element worth highlighting is that the use of Holocaust imagery around the coronavirus has become endemic. Confinements are compared to ghettos and concentration camps; vaccines are described as cruel medical experiments, and people who refuse vaccines claim to be persecuted and sometimes wear yellow stars.

Such inappropriate comparisons with the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust have been seen in Germany for example. This country in particular has seen a significant escalation of 24% in the total number of criminal offences motivated by antisemitism, reaching 2,275 (compared to 1,839 in 2019) – including 59 violent incidents, the highest number recorded since 2001. This situation requires constant vigilance.

At first glance, the reduction in violent acts seems to be reassuring, but the rise in antisemitic acts in some countries on the one hand, and the spread of online hatred during confinements on the other hand, push us to remain very alert. We welcome the initiative of the creation by the Crif in February 2020 of an observatory of antisemitic hate online. Undoubtedly, this kind of tool will have to be multiplied in the near future to effectively deal with cyber-hate.

2/ The study reports that cyber-hate has spread less on the most popular social networks due to greater vigilance and measures taken by the net giants, but you fear that this online hate is moving elsewhere, notably on the darknet, so what should be done?

I am very concerned about the spread of this cyber-hate to the population, and in particular to the younger generation.

Young people, already more connected than average, have been forced to stay locked up for a significant part of their formative years, exposing them 24 hours a day to anti-Semitism, manipulation and misinformation online.

Stronger national legislation against online hate and some awareness on the part of the internet giants have led to a decrease in the number of antisemitic incidents on the most popular platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.

However, as you pointed out, the new challenge lies in the so-called “darknet”, the bowels of the Internet. A lawless area that is said to be home to everything illegal and therefore attracts anyone who wants to surf anonymously. Legislators at both European and national level will have to tackle this dark area of the web, because the message remains the same: what is forbidden in real life, must also be forbidden online. This applies to hate messages inspired by racism, anti-Semitism or any form of intolerance. The European Jewish Congress intends to contribute to this awareness in order to obtain concrete results in the fight against this cyber-hate, the consequences of which unfortunately do not remain confined to the virtual world.

3/ The number of attacks against Jewish sites and community property rose from 77 in 2019 to 96 in 2020. Your survey also shows a 24% increase in the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and vandalism of Holocaust memorials. How can the security of Jewish buildings be reinforced?

There has indeed been a worrying increase in the desecration and damage of Jewish sites. This increase is all the more pronounced when the place in question does not enjoy any particular surveillance, such as cemeteries.

The correlation between the lack of surveillance of these places and the increase in their degradation seems obvious. We are therefore exploring the possibility of equipping these places with surveillance cameras that would be directly connected to a ‘control room’ of the local police.
As for the justice system, it must ensure that once apprehended, the vandals are effectively brought before the courts and sentenced to exemplary penalties.

4/ You have called on European countries that have not yet done so to adopt the IHRA working definition. How can this text help to fight anti-Semitism more effectively?

The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is an essential tool in the fight against hatred of Jews. It should be recalled that this definition has already been adopted by 31 countries, including France, and is used by governments, law enforcement agencies, educational institutions, NGOs, and even football clubs around the world.

This definition, which I remind you is not legally binding, has created an unprecedented near-consensus on what constitutes anti-Semitism. It was formulated by leading international experts in coordination with civil society and takes into account the real experiences of victims of anti-Semitism in its various forms. In particular, it recognises that in some well-defined cases an attack on the State of Israel is in fact a disguised form of antisemitism, such as questioning the legitimacy of the State of Israel or making nauseating comparisons with the Nazi regime.

The IHRA definition has already borne fruit. It helps judges, police officers and educators to identify incidents of antisemitism in a concrete way. This identification is absolutely necessary in order to achieve a greater conviction of crimes motivated by antisemitism, which is an aggravating factor in most European countries. The application of this definition goes hand in hand with an awareness and education campaign, but it is fundamental and should be encouraged at all levels.
The European Commission, in collaboration with the IHRA, has recently published a guide to illustrate best practice in the application of the definition. This guide also offers a series of concrete tools for its proper use by all the actors concerned.

5/ The global pandemic has literally brought the world to its knees, overturning our lifestyles, beliefs and values. What do you think the “next world” should look like?

As the late Lord Jonathan Sacks said, there will be a world before and a world after the Covid-19 pandemic.

I obviously share this concern and this observation. We have to recognise that a new reality is emerging.

Our system based on democracy and liberalism has been strongly criticised. The pandemic has been a real accelerator in many areas and has exacerbated extremism on all sides and hatred in general.

Moreover, the impact on the economy will be felt for many years to come. There is every reason to believe that the first victims of this economic and financial disaster will be the young people, as unemployment rates and job insecurity will increase dramatically in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

Unemployment represents a serious economic and social threat to political stability. And this idle youth is the ideal prey for populist and extremist ideologies. That is why we must do everything to prevent these destructive ideas from becoming the norm.

Let us remember that the Great Depression and the rise to power of extremist parties came after the appalling Spanish flu pandemic. These circumstances led to the tragedy of the Second World War.

We must therefore do everything possible to offer our young people prospects for the future and reaffirm our European values.

6/ One year after the crisis, how are Jewish communities in Europe doing? What impact has the downturn in community activity had on European Jewry?

As in the rest of society, Jewish communities in Europe have obviously been hit hard by the pandemic and its disastrous consequences, on a human, social and economic level. In the face of this, they were forced to reorganise quickly, to be innovative and to review their priorities.

An extraordinary surge of solidarity has also been noted, aimed in particular at protecting our elderly but also at helping isolated young people and families who find themselves in a precarious or psychologically vulnerable situation. Services in the synagogues could not be held with the desired regularity or presence. But none of this has weakened the spirit and values of Judaism that animate us.

In some countries where the pandemic is beginning to recede, there is renewed energy and a desire to resume community activities with vigour, perhaps even more so in some respects than before.

Paradoxically, the pandemic that caused us to isolate ourselves physically from each other had an unexpected consequence. Indeed, rarely have people in communities been so close to each other. The outpouring of solidarity was particularly remarkable.

7/ How did the European Jewish Congress act during the crisis to help the most vulnerable communities? Are any communities threatened today?

When we realised the extent of the pandemic, I immediately mobilised the European Jewish Fund, of which I am the founder and president, so that all the funds would be made available to the communities and their humanitarian needs as a priority.

We also sent tens of thousands of surgical masks and other health materials to meet the immediate needs of our communities. We were in regular contact with each community to understand their specific needs.

Fortunately, no community is now in danger of disappearing. However, many organisations had to find alternative sources of funding and postpone their recurrent or long-planned activities. Some have finally gone online.

The remarkable resilience of our communities prevailed over the pandemic, despite the loss of life and the distress experienced by so many members of the European Jewish family.

8/ Philanthropic initiatives have emerged to help the Jewish community fabric cope with the crisis. We are thinking, for example, of the Fonds Myriam in France, launched by the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, the Fondation Rothschild, the Harevim fund and the Fondation Sacta-Rachi. Is this exceptional sponsorship, for the Jewish leader that you are, an example of responsibility in the biblical sense of the term – we are “the guardians of our brothers”?

Of course it is. I can only rejoice at this exceptional mobilisation and the solidarity that this impulse shows. I fear, however, that these initiatives will have to continue for some time to allow our communities to rebuild themselves and look to the future with greater serenity. I am thinking especially of the younger generation. It is imperative that we continue to provide opportunities for Jewish education and encourage leadership programmes to ensure the succession and continuity of our communities in Europe.

9 / During the health crisis, Israel was for the first time in its history inaccessible to the Jews of the world. How did the organised Jewish world experience this upheaval? What strategic lessons can be drawn from it?

First and foremost, Israel once again demonstrated its remarkable ability to respond to a large-scale crisis situation. The Israeli government, as in all countries, had to take exceptional measures to deal with this unprecedented pandemic that cost the lives of so many loved ones. I obviously have a special thought for the survivors of the Shoah who left us after weeks of loneliness, moral distress and suffering.

Despite this extremely difficult situation, especially in relation to its neighbours, Israel has set an example with an extremely diligent and well organised vaccination campaign.

The results are there today. Israel is the first country where citizens are regaining their freedom and almost normal life. We can all be proud of this victory, which is recognised worldwide.

This necessary break with the Diaspora was obviously painful and many families were separated for a long time. However, with hindsight, we understand today that the drastic measures taken by Israel were necessary and have borne fruit. Soon reunions and trips to the country we love so much will be possible again.

10 / In January 2020, you stated at the “World Holocaust Forum” that you were organising in Jerusalem that the Jews were disappearing in Europe at a rate of 3% per year and that if this trend persisted, without any action being taken to reverse it, they would disappear in 2050 from a continent where they have lived for thousands of years. Why should we not stop believing in Europe?

I have always been and continue to be a strong supporter of Europe and its Jewish community. Otherwise what would be the purpose of the European Jewish Congress? We want to maintain and prosper Jewish life on this continent where our presence goes back thousands of years.

The aim of our organisation is to ensure that any Jewish family or individual who wishes to do so can remain in Europe in safety and with pride in their origins. We also understand those who choose to leave Europe for various reasons.

This means combating anti-Semitism in the same way as racism and all other forms of hatred. We must also ensure the safety of our Jewish citizens in Europe, but not only that. We have just received a major grant from the European Commission for a project initiated by SACC by EJC, which deals with security and crisis management in our communities. This project has the merit of involving the Christian, Muslim and Buddhist communities in an unprecedented joint initiative to ensure the safety of places of worship. It is very important for us to share our expertise in this area. By working together, we can contribute to a safer and more tolerant Europe.

At the same time, it is important to recall and explain the contribution of Jews to Europe, to its history, its values and traditions that we have made our own. This education must be done from a very young age.

Manuel Valls had declared that France without Jews is not France. Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament at the time, took up this idea by declaring that “Europe without the Jews is not Europe”. Let’s hear it…!

11/ How would you define European Jewish identity, and yours in particular?

European Jewish identity is obviously multi-faceted. It transcends religious, national, cultural, ethnic or political factors.

One thing is certain, it is not new. It was built on 2000 years of Jewish presence on the European continent, which explains the deep attachment of Jews to what Europe represents.

This identity cannot be anchored solely on the Shoah. It is also the result of a kind of patchwork made from multiple local specificities, which makes it so unique, so rich. We should not forget that it was Europe that allowed the emancipation of Jews as full citizens and the development of its many communities. Jewish identity is a substantial part of European identity. Europe’s Judeo-Christian traditions are a perfect illustration of the fact that Jewish identity and European identity are intrinsically linked. The contribution of Jews to the development of European societies and to the creation of Europe as a political entity is undeniable.

For me, my Jewish identity is the result of a history and transmission similar to that of many Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe. Jewish tradition and culture are deeply rooted in me. Also, my Zionism goes back to my youth. I am very attached to Israel. I do my best to pass on our values and traditions to my children and grandchildren.

12/ Threats to religious freedoms are recurrent throughout Europe. We are thinking of shechita – ritual slaughter – and circumcision. What do these threats mean and what is the role of the EJC in ensuring their safety?

In recent years, we have seen a worrying increase in the number of challenges to certain religious practices, such as religious slaughter and circumcision, which are in fact jeopardising the Jewish presence on our continent.

It is true that battles are being waged in some places such as Belgium, Finland and Denmark.

It is obvious that the European Jewish Congress wishes to contribute to the defence of our religious practices, notably through its Task Force for Religious Rights. This task force brings together experts and community representatives and works hard to secure these rights.

Although we have suffered some setbacks, our determination remains total and we will not give up. The fundamental freedoms guaranteed in our laws and in the founding treaties of the European Union are at stake. The Jewish communities of Europe will continue to assert and protect their fundamental rights with all the tools at their disposal under European and national law.

On Sarah Halimi

13/ You declared, the day after the Cour de Cassation’s decision in the Sarah Halimi case, that it was a “considerable failure of the French judicial system and a dangerous precedent for the rule of law”. What does this whole case and what follows today inspire you?

It is clear that the Sarah Halimi case is generating a lot of emotional and angry controversy. The flagrant injustice resulting from the absence of a trial cannot be swept away by the assertion that the law has been applied. It seems to me schizophrenic to retain the antisemitic character of the crime and at the same time declare the murderer criminally irresponsible because of the abolition of his discernment.

14/ Numerous demonstrations took place in France, Belgium, Italy but also in Israel and the United States last weekend. Do you have the feeling that there is a “momentum” running through the Jewish communities?

It is undeniable that the Sarah Halimi affair was a shock for many French people but not only. Many people were affected by this decision in Europe and beyond. Between anger and incomprehension, the blow was hard for all of us. All the more so as this is happening in the country of the Enlightenment, which hosts the largest Jewish community on the continent. The mobilisations that we have seen bear witness to this shock.

The issue of mobilisation of Jewish communities is not new. We have been alerting our leaders to the problem of anti-Semitism for several years. I think this is more of an alarm signal. One more. We are waiting for civil society to take action. We hope that it will become truly aware of what is happening and above all of the impact it can have if nothing is done. It is our duty to keep up the pressure to move the lines and this is what we are trying to do at the European Jewish Congress. To this end, I have sent an open letter to President Macron, which I invite you to read in this newspaper.

Open – letter (Full translation below the interview)

15/ At the end of April, the EJC, in partnership with the Christian, Muslim and Buddhist communities, obtained a 3 million euro grant from the European Union to protect places of worship. Was your request a joint request and if so, what was the meaning of this approach?

Yes, from the beginning it was a joint request with recognised organisations from the Christian, Muslim and Buddhist communities. The result of this partnership is the Safer and Stronger Communities in Europe (SASCE) project. It is important to note that this grant is the first of its kind to be awarded by the European Commission to ensure the security of places of worship, which we believe is a very good signal.

We have seen many times in the past that violence that starts by targeting Jews ends up targeting other minorities and society as a whole. It is therefore obvious that by joining forces, the fight would be more effective.

Over the years and through the tragedies of the Jewish community in Europe, we have acquired, fortunately or unfortunately, some expertise in the security field and we believe that sharing best practices with our fellow citizens of other faiths will not only improve security, but will also allow us to continue to work closely with them. In our case, it is a question of contributing to the improvement of the security of our communities and our society, promoting exchanges between religious communities and building bridges to make Europe an even more open and tolerant space.

OPEN LETTER

Dear President,
Dear Mr Macron,

On behalf of the European Jewish Congress, the umbrella organisation for 42 Jewish communities across Europe, and on my own behalf, I would like to express my deep gratitude for your unwavering republican commitment to combating antisemitism, racism and all forms of hatred.

This commitment has once again manifested itself in a very concrete way through the willingness you have expressed to see the law governing the conditions under which the criminal responsibility of an individual may or may not be retained amended following what we will henceforth call with deep sadness “the Sarah Halimi affair”.

The shock felt by the French nation after the announcement of the decision rendered by France’s highest court was shared by the entire European Jewish community and well beyond by all those who are driven by a desire for justice and by the values that we hold dear. As the President of the CRIF, Francis Kalifat, so rightly recalled, the Court of Cassation, by confirming the criminal irresponsibility of her murderer, definitively deprived Sarah Halimi’s family of a trial that was essential to their mourning process, but also deprived France as a whole of a necessary trial of antisemitism.

The flagrant denial of justice in this case has exacerbated the importance not only of amending a clearly flawed law but also of fighting with all possible vigour against the nauseating and extremely dangerous ideologies that animated the murderer of Madame Halimi, for he was indeed first and foremost an antisemite of unprecedented violence.

Your determination in this fight places France as a beacon in the concert of nations. You reminded us at the last World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem that we must not give in to antisemitism. That antisemitism is first and foremost the problem of others, because each time in our history it has preceded the collapse, it has spoken of our weakness, the weakness of our democracies.

For all these reasons, we must educate the younger generation about the dangers of antisemitism and racism from the earliest age. In addition, appropriate legislation must be introduced and fully implemented. These laws are not, however, immutable, as they must at all times achieve their intended purpose.

The demonstrations of this Sunday 25 April 2021 in France and in many cities around the world reminded us of this imperative of justice and sent a salutary message of solidarity, unequivocal and encouraging for the future. This appeal by thousands of people has transcended religions and nationalities.

We can therefore only welcome with great relief the decision of the Minister of Justice to propose a new legislative text so that such a crime never again meets with the same fate.

In this respect, we wish to associate ourselves with the wish expressed by Mr Bernard-Henri Lévy to see this new law bear the name of Mrs Sarah Halimi. This highly symbolic name will perpetuate the painful memory of this woman who was murdered in France because she was Jewish.

Once again, allow me to thank you for your determination to defend republican and European values.

Please accept, Mr President of the Republic, the expression of my highest consideration.

Dr Moshe Kantor
President, European Jewish Congress

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