Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t skip a beat as he pivoted from condemning the terror attack in Denmark this weekend to calling for the “mass immigration” of European Jews to Israel.
But members of the Jewish community in Denmark and some leading Jewish advocates around the world rebuffed Netanyahu’s unabashed call on Sunday for Jews to leave Europe, which come as European leaders are trying to stand up to the increasingly visible face of anti-Semitism.
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which combats anti-Semitism around the world, called Netanyahu’s comments “ill-advised” in an interview on Monday.
“I think what he should be saying our arms are open to you whenever your want to come … I don’t think he should urge them,” Foxman said. “No, I don’t think we should so easily grant Hitler a posthumous victory.”
Foxman said Netanyahu and other Jewish leaders should instead focus on bolstering democracy in Europe to ensure that Jews who wish to continue living in Europe can do so safely and without fear. A Holocaust survivor, Foxman added that he is grateful that Jews now have a “place of safe refuge” that didn’t exist during World War II.
And to ensure that Jews can continue to live in Europe, Foxman said European leaders need to beef up security for Jewish communities and buildings, while also continuing to publicly proclaim “that Jews are not the other, that Jews are in fact France or Denmark.”
It’s a script the Danish prime minister is following in the wake of the attacks, echoing similar assertions by French leaders after a Kosher grocery store was targeted in Paris last month.
“An attack on Denmark’s Jews is an attack on everyone,” Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said. “The Jewish community is an important part of Denmark. We will stand together and continue the everyday life we know. We stand together as Danes.”
Denmark’s former Chief Rabbi Bent Lexner also sounded off on Netanyahu’s comments, saying that they didn’t come at “the right time.”
“I don’t think it was the right way to say it,” Lexner said Monday on CNN. “I hope that there are a lot of Danish Jews who want to live in Israel but I think that if they are going to Israel, it’s because they want to live in Israel, not because they’re afraid of living in Denmark.”
Former Israeli President Shimon Peres made similar comments at an event organized by the Times of Israel on Sunday, rejecting “political” calls by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders for mass Jewish immigration to Israel.
“I would like every Jew who wants to come to Israel to please come,” Peres said. “Don’t come to Israel because of a political position, but because you want to come and live in Israel. Israel must remain a land of hope and not a land of fear.”
The fear, though, is rising in Europe and compelling more and more European Jews to leave Europe for Israel. About 7,000 Jews in France alone immigrated to Israel in 2014, double the previous year’s figures.
The numbers come as a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe has become more and more visible: synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been defamed, anti-Semitic rhetoric has spilled over amid demonstrations against Israel and the targeting of a kosher grocery store in January being a reminder – and not a first – of anti-Semitic violence. Indeed, in 2012 a gunman opened fire at a Jewish school in southern France and last spring a four were killed at a Jewish museum in Belgium’s capital.
And so Netanyahu, in January, reminded Jews that “the State of Israel is also your home” and announced that Israeli officials would convene to “advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism.”
As Netanyahu repeated this call after Copenhagen – perhaps even more explicitly – other Jewish advocacy leaders said the Israeli prime minister was just doing his job.
“I think it’s understandable that any Israeli prime minister would tell the Jews of Europe if you no longer feel safe, if you no longer feel comfortable you have an option,” said David Harris, the head of the American Jewish Committee, which also has offices in major European cities.
And Jewish National Fund President Jeffrey Levine said Netanyahu is acting to bolster the state of Israel, which could benefit economically from the immigration of high-skilled workers from Europe.
At the end of the day, Harris said, Jews will make a personal decision as to where they should live, regardless of what the Israeli, Danish or French heads of state say.
But if Jews are to feel safe in Europe, Harris said it will take more than speeches from European leaders to reverse what he called a 15-year wave of anti-Semitism in Europe.
It’s something French leaders have finally sought to address in the wake of the attacks in January, deploying soldiers to guard synagogues and Jewish institutions around France. And French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivered a rousing address before Parliament where he rejected anti-Semitism and insisted that an attack on French Jews amounted to an attack on France and its core values.
But Harris and other Jewish advocacy leaders who spoke with CNN on Monday said European leaders will have to take serious action after this latest wake-up call in Denmark to protect Jews in Europe – and ensure they stay in Europe.
“I could write a book on our frustration in literally hundreds of meetings with European leaders who, however otherwise well intentioned, refused to grasp the problem staring them – the anti-Semitic problem staring them in the face,” Harris said. “They ducked it they avoided it … and now 15 years later the problem is so big and so deadly and so rooted that it’s going to take a lot more than one eloquent speech by a president or a prime minister.”