Many Jews have long criticized the European Union for being anti-Israeli, favoring the Palestinians, and being weak on Iran and other Arab threats. The Israeli government itself likes to say that there is no long-term future for Jews in Europe and encourages them to make aliyah.
Katharina von Schnurbein is working hard to change this perception. She’s the first-ever European Commission Coordinator on combating anti-Semitism. A German citizen and mother of four, Von Schnurbein was raised in an observant Protestant family whose connection with Jews started as a young girl living in a small community in Germany.
She spoke to me earlier this week in our first-ever European Union of Progressive Judaism (EUPJ) webinar, held at the EUPJ Brussels office. The topic, “Is the EU Good for Jews?” ensured an interesting and informative discussion.
After explaining her personal journey, which started in Bavaria (she relayed a fond memory of visiting a synagogue of Shoah survivors as a child and being encouraged to make noise in a place that hadn’t heard children for many years), led to Bonn and Prague for her studies, and later to Brussels, Von Schnurbein made a compelling case that the EU is making a strong effort to protect and promote Judaism. In her view, only a Europe with Jews will fulfill the European Union’s goal of a liberal, tolerant multi-ethnic and multi-national Europe.
“There is no Europe without the Jewish community” is the line that she often repeats in conversation. Under her leadership, the European Commission has pressed internet companies to combat online antisemitism. She calls out countries for trying to rehabilitate Holocaust war criminals and minimize their own guilt. And she has unlocked millions of euros in grants to fight antisemitism and finance interfaith initiatives.
Such strong Brussels support of European Judaism is new.
In 1999, European Commission President Romano Prodi visited Auschwitz. He gave a speech with no mention whatsoever of Jewish victims. Prodi wanted to mention Jews, but Commission officials involved believed that the issue was “too sensitive”.
In 2004, Prodi canceled a conference on antisemitism after Jewish groups accused Brussels of “moral treachery” for suppressing an EU-financed study that found Muslim minorities were at the heart of growing antisemitic attacks in Europe.
Despite the EU’s stepped-up offensive against antisemitism, Von Schnurbein admits that anti-Jewish hatred is rising in Europe. In 2016, she commissioned a groundbreaking EU survey of more than 16,000 European Jews, which found that about a third of the Jews polled in 12 European countries fear for their safety. A similar number said they have considered emigrating in the past five years because they did not feel safe as Jews.
European antisemitism “has become more visible in recent years” from both sides of the ideological spectrum, Von Schnurbein said. As evidence, she cited extremist Muslim terrorism and the right-wing attack on a synagogue in the German city of Halle. She worries that the COVID pandemic has fueled antisemitism.
“We have seen the conspiracy theories about how Jews are behind the virus,” she says. “These conspiracy theories against the Jewish community have increased and become more outspoken.”
Her warnings do not enjoy unanimity in Brussels. The pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has launched an offensive against Von Schnurbein, denouncing her as an apologist for Israel who “has made false and malicious allegations against Palestine solidarity activists”.
Despite the criticism, she persists, saying that BDS activists often are guilty of antisemitism. She is proud of her role in helping convince the European Parliament to adopt the definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The IHRA definition details how anti-Israel positions often fall into antisemitism.
Most European countries continue to recognize followers of Orthodox Judaism as the only representatives of the Jewish people. Orthodox communities alone receive government support. State support should also go to non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Although Von Schnurbein says that European institutions attempt to avoid intra-Jewish politics, she holds regular meetings with a broad range of Jewish groups, including Progressive communities.
For her, the future is not just about combating antisemitism. It is also to promote the deep Jewish contribution to Europe. Asked if Jews “are good for Europe”, she mentioned that she attended the 100th anniversary of the renowned Salzburg music festival over the summer.
Why was she invited? “Because it was started by Jews,” she says. “This whole festival would not have been possible without Jewish directors, musicians and conductors. All of this shows just one tiny aspect of the cultural heritage that Europe carries with its Jewish community.”