Prodi promises to fight rising anti-Semitism in Europe

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The European Commission president, Romano Prodi, yesterday promised to do more to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitism, at a meeting called to repair relations with Jewish leaders following a dispute.

Tension rose last year when an opinion poll commissioned by the European Commission found that Israel was seen as the biggest threat to peace.

The seminar in Brussels yesterday had been postponed when the leaders of the World Jewish Congress and the European Jewish Congress accused the commission of anti-Semitism. It heard harrowing accounts of intimidation, firebomb attacks on synagogues and desecration of graves - incidents linked to the intensification of violence in the Middle East.

Mr Prodi promised to focus efforts on fighting anti-Semitism within the commission and to urge European justice and education ministers to hold meetings on measures to tackle the problem. But he also urged Jewish leaders not to equate political criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

In an impassioned speech, Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, argued that there was no inconsistency in seeking a just solution to the disturbances in the Middle East, and refusing to tolerate anti-Semitism. "We must never have a situation where an anti-Semitism can threaten Jews without the majority standing up and protesting," he said. "We are resolved not to allow anti-Semitism any chance." Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Jewish Congress, said the rise in anti-Semitism in some EU countries threatened to bring about a repeat of the 1930s. "Anti-Semitism and prejudice has returned, the monster is here with us again," he said. "We see today that history is repeating itself. The history of Europe is a continuing series of prejudice and persecution against Jews." That analysis was rejected by Mr Prodi, who cautioned against comparisons with the past. "Today's Europe is not the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s," he said, while acknowledging that Europe carries a "heavy burden of guilt".

Jewish organisations have argued that political attacks on the Israeli government have developed into a "demonisation" of Israel. They link EU countries' support for the Palestinian cause with Muslim immigration into Europe and the rising number of anti-Semitic attacks in countries such as France and Belgium. Yesterday they urged the EU to set up a monitoring group and to back a UN declaration against anti-Semitism drafted by Ireland.