“When the canary no longer sings, Europe is in crisis”

Newly appointed EU coordinator on anti-Semitism- Schnurbein_ECI3Brussels, December 4th, 2015 – On Tuesday, December 1st, the European Commission appointed its first ever coordinator on combating anti-Semitism. Two days later, on Thursday December 3rd, the newly appointed coordinator, Katharina von Schnurbein, gave her first official speech at an ECI symposium in the European Parliament in Brussels on “Jewish contributions to European culture and values”.
In her speech she compared the situation for Jews in Europe with that of the canary in the coalmine. “When the canary no longer sings, Europe is in crisis”, she warned.
The expression refers to the historical role of canaries in the mining industry. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners knew the air supply was safe to breathe. If the canary died, the mine was immediately evacuated.

At the symposium von Schnurbein spoke about the threat to Jewish life in Europe and the need for an early warning system. She will report directly to the first Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who announced his decision to appoint two coordinators, one for anti-Semitism and another one for anti-Muslim hatred, at an EU colloquium in Brussels in early October.

The new office will be an EU contact point for anyone who has experienced anti-Semitic incidents and the office will also develop strategies to combat anti-Semitism in Europe. Von Schnurbein reminded the audience that the problem is not with the EU.  She pointed out that “although the EU has outlawed Holocaust denial, only 13 member states out of 28 have implemented the directive”.

In other speeches, EU officials and Members of the European Parliament gave numerous examples of Jewish contributions to European culture and values.

Conference host MEP Hannu Takkula warned that when Jews are afraid in Europe, this is no longer Europe. He asked for better protection for the Jewish communities in Europe as well as good and strong relations with the modern state of Israel.

The Vice-President of the European Parliament, MEP Ryszard Czarnecki, reminded the audience of the long history of Jewish life in his native Poland. According to some sources, the name “Poland” means “safe dwelling” in Hebrew and this helps to explain the fact that at one point in time over 80% of the worldwide Jewish population lived in Poland. During the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, Poland lost 90% of its Jewish population. However, after the war, Poland was the only country to let the Jews make aliyah to Israel without needing a special visa. Since these early days Poland and Israel have had strong ties, irrespective of party affiliation, and Jewish life has returned to Poland, Czarnecki explained.

Also Ambassador Felix Klein from the German government could testify that his country is experiencing a revival of Jewish life and culture. After the war, most Jews believed that life in Germany was over, but today there are over 200,000 Israelis living in Germany and new synagogues are being opened every other month, he explained. He hoped that this unique experience of successful migration could also be of use in today’s migration crisis.

The new EU Head of Unit for the Middle East, Raoul Fuentes Milani shared about Jewish history in Spain. He acknowledged that Spain lost much of its former glory and identity when the Jews were expelled in 1492. Spain recently decided to grant citizenship to Sephardic Jews who can prove their Spanish ancestry from this time period. He quoted the King of Spain who, when addressing the expelled Jews around the world, announced: “We missed you.”

Although all speakers agreed that Europe is richer with flourishing Jewish communities and warm relations with the State of Israel, there was clear disagreement on whether Israel is being fairly treated by the EU today, as demonstrated by the labelling directive that was issued two weeks ago. Whilst the EEAS Director for the Middle East and Northern Africa, Christian Berger, called the decision “a technicality”, Israeli Deputy Ambassador Shuli Davidovich accused the EU of double standards.

Due to a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the week, she was not permitted to comment on the peace process from which the EU has been sidelined.

Conference host, ECI Director Tomas Sandell expressed his disappointment with the labelling directive and promised that ECI will contact member state governments in time for the next council meeting in Brussels on December 14th with a request that the decision be revised.

“When Europe was paralyzed by the terrorist attack in Paris three weeks ago, Israeli intelligence officers were the first to come to our aid and help prevent further attacks in Hanover and elsewhere in Europe”, he said.

“Europe is always better off with good relations with Israel and the Jewish communities. This is not only true for our history but also for our common future”, he concluded.