In May, two Chicago-based European consuls general- France's Guillaume Lacroix and Germany's Herbert Quelle- presented to JUF's Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). Topics included rising anti-Semitism in Europe, Israel's security, the E.U.'s stability, and their country's reactions to the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.
JCRC Chairman, Bill Silverstein opened the meeting by highlighting JCRC's longstanding commitment to engaging with the local diplomatic corps and advocating on issues of importance to this community and to Israel. "One such area of significant importance," reflected Silverstein, "is the future of Jewish communities throughout Europe. Shifting political winds including the rise of populist right-wing movements and, with it, anti-Semitism emulating from the Far Left and Far Right, and from Muslim and Arab refugees and European citizens is a cause of grave concern."
French anti-Semitism "is a problem, but not a new problem," Lacroix said. He then distinguished between Vichy-era anti-Semitism and a new social media-based version.
The old version, which he grew up around, "has not disappeared, but its extent is limited, and it is vanishing." The new variety of anti-Semitism, meanwhile, has been "imported from outside" France. While clarifying that Islam is not anti-Semitic by definition, this shift is being faced across Europe, he said, as "all Western E.U. countries" now have a large percentage of their populations with "Muslim backgrounds."
While he said he personally wishes for people of "all religions"-as well as those "who have no religious affiliation"-to live in France in peace, "that is not entirely the case" in reality, he said. "…French citizens are being killed because they are Jewish by other French citizens." There have been an unprecedented 11 murders of French Jews in 12 years.
Other unsettling factors, he added, were the feeling that, for the first time, children would not have better lives than their parents. When people "feel that their prosperity is threatened," he noted, they turn to scapegoating. They feel frightened of their own neighbors. Further, there is the sense that the major 20 th Century powers were being replaced in the 21 st Century.
It is one thing if these dissatisfactions are expressed through the democratic process, Lacroix said. But violence and disorder, which show a distrust in this process, are a "disease," he said. "If we don't have shared values, then what is our future?"
In response, he called upon France to address today's situation with today's tools. He said the first priority is that there can be "no denial" of the nature of an anti-Semitic attack- "It must be registered as such." To that end, he said, police need to be trained to recognize the signs that an attack is anti-Semitic in nature, including cases involving Holocaust denial. Further, judges must be given the tools and empowerment to prosecute those responsible, he said.
On the preventive end, he said that "every child needs to feel he or she has a place in society," and says education is key to promoting tolerance. While hate propaganda is being disseminated online, he noted that "the Internet and social media are not the problem. The people [using them] are the problem." Their posts threaten security and the fabric of society, he said.
Quelle tied the rise of European anti-Semitism to the economic downturn of 2008, from which the E.U. is only now-a decade later-recovering. One issue that remains unresolved is unemployment.
Throughout history, financial crises have led to a rise in populism, he said. As to this specific time, he noted that today's issues also include terrorism and mass migration, which are destabilizing. Germany, he noted, has taken in more refugees and asylum seekers than any other country in Europe, adding that today full 20 percent of German citizens do not have a German background.
To respond to the rise in anti-Semitism, he said, Germany has created a new federal-level commission to deal with the problem. One of its first actions was to recognize anti-Israel rhetoric as anti-Semitic. The government of Germany is also boycotting an anti-Semitic group known as AFD, which stands (in German) for "Alternatives for Germany."
Quelle noted that, since many of the immigrants come from countries with histories of discrimination, teaching them tolerance is a challenge. Rather than focus on anti-Semitism initially, German schools begin with teaching about racism and xenophobia in general, and then move to teaching about the specifics of anti-Semitism.
As to the continued viability of the E.U., both consuls general were optimistic. In a recent poll, 60 percent of Europeans and 79 percent of Germans were pro-E.U.
Both consuls general agreed that their countries are friends and allies of Israel . France's top priority for Israel, said Lacroix, is "security in its borders. Israel needs to be safe. We have no problem with Israel acting in self-defense."
Both consuls general also felt that, while imperfect, the Iran nuclear deal was basically sound and should have been upheld.
Silverstein closed the meeting pledging JCRC's continued engagement with these and other European consuls general on issues facing world Jewry.