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Kansas City leader discovers why Brussels matters

BRUSSELS — A recent festive gathering in the capital of Belgium, saluting the vital importance of the relationship between Europe and the United States, highlighted the unique role of one Jewish organization, AJC, in deepening those ties. The occasion was the 10th anniversary celebration of the AJC Transatlantic Institute (TAI).

“We are here tonight to celebrate our shared values,” TAI Director Daniel Schwammenthal told the audience of more than 250. Dozens of European Parliament members, ambassadors to the EU and Belgium, Jewish leaders from across Europe, and civil society partners, as well as AJC leaders from across the United States, participated in the gala, which took place in the same hotel ballroom where AJC, the global Jewish advocacy organization headquartered in New York, launched its Brussels operation in 2004.

“Brussels is the political nerve center of Europe,” said Harvey Kaplan, a long-time leader in the Kansas City Jewish community, who traveled to Brussels for the celebration and related meetings with European policymakers. “Understanding what takes place here, what the European Union does, is enormously important for us because it touches directly on the challenges that confront Jews, indeed democratic countries, worldwide.” Kaplan is a member of the board of directors and former chair of the JCRB/AJC.

Before the gala, the large AJC delegation spent two and a half days in intensive meetings with European parliamentarians, Jewish leaders and policy analysts, discussing the Iranian nuclear threat, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the impact of Muslim immigrants on Europe, and anti-Semitism.

Ambassador Pierre Vimont, executive secretary general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), briefed the AJC group on current EU foreign policy priorities. The EEAS supports EU Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton in conducting the common foreign and security policy of the 28-member state regional bloc. In that capacity Ashton has been the lead interlocutor on behalf of the P5+1 in talks with Iran on its nuclear program.

The AJC group also visited the European Parliament to discuss EU-Israel Relations. “It was gratifying to hear directly from a Dutch member of the European Parliament, Bastiaan Belder, who chairs the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with Israel,” said Kaplan. 

But rising anti-Semitism across Europe, revealed in a penetrating EU survey last year, was a disturbing theme percolating throughout the mission. “Our conversations with the leadership of the Brussels-based European Union of Jewish Students, who shared the challenges confronting Jewish students on campuses across Europe, were eye-opening and worrisome,” said Kaplan.  

So is the potential outcome of the European Parliament elections, slated for May. A significant percentage of the parliament’s 766 members could be representatives of fascist, neo-Nazi parties. That would pose a challenge to the values of European democratic societies for the next five years.

Launching TAI in 2004 fulfilled a vision of AJC Executive Director David Harris, who has led the expansion of the organization’s global reach over the past 24 years. TAI was made possible by the visionary support of Rhoda Baruch and her late husband, Jordan. Establishing a permanent presence in Brussels was a prescient move, indicative of AJC’s global mission. EU membership has grown from 15 states to 28 over the past decade, an expansion that AJC has supported.

During its first 10 years, TAI has informed a broad range of European leaders in Brussels on a number of pressing issues of concern to the transatlantic community, including Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Arab peace process, terrorism, human rights, energy security, integration of immigrants, and, not least, anti-Semitism in Europe. 

“Hate crimes are a growing problem in Europe,” Cecilia Malmström, European commissioner for Home Affairs, said in her keynote address to the TAI gala. “It is time for the EU and its Member States to act firmly against it.”

The EU has reported a rise in hate crimes against gays, Muslims, and Jews. “Anti-Semitic hate crime was experienced by one in every four Jews in Europe,” according to a recent EU survey, Malmström said. “Young Jews are afraid to go to school, even in my own country of Sweden.”

All EU Member States are “obliged to ensure that hate crimes are investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted,” she added.

Other speakers at the gala included Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders; Francois-Xavier de Donnea, chair of the Belgian Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee; Israeli Ambassador to the EU David Walzer; and U.S. Acting Chief of Mission to the EU Robert Wood.

“Transatlantic cooperation today is vibrant, and the AJC Transatlantic Institute is making an important contribution to the strengthening of this relationship,” said Donnea.