The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has provoked a "mixed reaction" among European Jews, said Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow and the current president of the Conference of European Rabbis, the primary Orthodox rabbinical alliance in Europe.
"I think that, in general, European Jews look at the United States and the elections in the United States not so much as what happens to the United States but how those changes will affect Europe, and how those changes will affect the lives of the Jews in Europe," Goldschmidt said in a phone call from New York last week. "On the other hand, I'd say Israel is much more central to European Jews than to American Jews."
Goldschmidt's comments came during a wave of debates about what a Trump presidency means for the world's Jewish community. While Trump has a close relationship with his Orthodox son-in-law and has spoken in strong pro-Israel terms, his campaign has frequently been linked with anti-Semitic fringes.
Stephen K. Bannon, the former editor of the fiery anti-establishment website Breitbart News who left for Trump's campaign and will soon become a chief White House strategist, has been accused of making anti-Semitic comments. Perhaps more alarmingly, members of the alt-right community have openly praised Trump with messages clearly inflected with neo-Nazi rhetoric.
"Hail Trump!" Richard Spencer, a prominent member of that movement, said during a recent event to celebrate the election.
Goldschmidt, who was born in Zurich and became chief rabbi of Moscow in 1993, said there was a clear difference between Jews in Western Europe and Britain, who seemed worried about Trump, and those in Eastern Europe and Russia, who were more hopeful. The split was somewhat similar to one seen in the United States, he said. "I think most of the Jews in the United States had voted for Clinton, and there were two distinctive groups who voted for Trump, the Orthodox Jews and the Russian-speaking Jews," he said.
There have been rising reports of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe over the past few years, with thousands of Jews in Western Europe choosing to leave their homes and move to Israel. Goldschmidt said that the memories of the 20th century are still defining for many Jews in Europe, in contrast to Americans.
"One of the basic differences between European Jews and American Jews is American Jews feel very secure, saying what happened in Europe can never happen in America," he said. "While Jews in Europe always keep their eyes open that one day, you might have to get out of here."
Over recent years, the situation for Jews in Europe has become especially fraught, Goldschmidt said. "I usually use a metaphor for the situation of Jews in Europe. A person standing on train tracks and in both directions trains are coming towards this person at great speed," he said. "One train is the train of Islamic radicalism and terrorism which has created havoc in us. I am speaking of [the terror attacks in] Toulouse, Paris, Copenhagen, Brussels."
"And on the other side there is the reaction of old Europe against this onslaught of terrorism," Goldschmidt said. "The radical right comes with these anti-immigration measures which are mainly directed at the Muslim immigrants, but we the Jews are the collateral damage."
Goldschmidt said that despite similarities in the momentum of the far right in Europe, he still thinks that European parties, such as France's National Front, have key differences compared with Trump's success. "Those parties were founded by Nazi collaborators, to some extent," he said. Although some of them have now distanced themselves from anti-Semitism, he noted, they do not have close Jewish advisers or family as Trump does.
But suggestions by Trump's team for potential policies targeting Muslim extremism — such as a database of Muslim immigrants — give Goldschmidt pause. "Here we are talking about registering American citizens based on their religious practices," he said. "I don't even know if it is constitutional."
"I as a European do not want to tell Americans what to do and how to keep their country safe. However, any generalization based on religion I think goes against the core of American values," Goldschmidt said. He added that Trump's proposals targeting Muslims were a result of how hard it has become to draw a line between radical Islam and mainstream Islam. "We have to look to our Muslim colleagues to create this line, create this red line, in order that the Muslims do not suffer discrimination."
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