Conference of European Rabbis president: ‘Antisemitism has once again become politically correct’

Ahead of the publication of a memoir on his time in Moscow, which he left in protest of the invasion of Ukraine, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt says Russian Jews should leave immediately to wherever they can go

LONDON — Last fall, news photographers snapped away as Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt proudly hammered a mezuzah to the doorframe of the new headquarters of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) in Munich, Germany.

The umbrella group of Orthodox European rabbis had not had a permanent base since its establishment in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when its stated aim was to revive the vanquished Jewish communities of Europe. Then in 2023, the alliance of more than 700 rabbis accepted an invitation by the Bavarian government to lay down roots in the state capital, the very same city where Hitler’s Nazi party was born and blossomed. 

At the official opening ceremony, Goldschmidt — alongside a host of local dignitaries including Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor and president of the Jewish Community of Munich and Upper Bavaria — spoke of the renaissance of Jewish life in the city and their hopes for the future.

“Munich, a place with a tragic history, today shows a flourishing Jewish life,” he said. “This development is proof that antisemitism will not succeed.” 

Nobody could have known just how poignant those words would prove to be. Less than three weeks later Israel was struck by a seismic terror attack when Hamas killed around 1,200 people and injured, raped and kidnapped many more.

Initial sympathy for Israel proved short-lived and antisemitism quickly soared. As the war against Hamas continues, barely a day goes by without news of an anti-Jewish incident somewhere around the world — not least in Europe.

“Antisemitism has once again become politically correct,” Goldschmidt told eJewishPhilanthropy

“We are witnessing a wave of antisemitic attacks against individuals and communities,” he said during a recent visit to London, just days after two shocking incidents in Paris and Zurich, Switzerland. These, he said, involved “Jews who were about to go into synagogue or who left the synagogue when they were brutally attacked.” 

Goldschmidt spoke with eJP ahead of the publication of his new book, Moscow Memoirs, which is due out later this year. It tells the story of his time in Russia — and his decision to leave the country in order to openly and unequivocally criticize its leadership over the invasion of Ukraine and human rights violations. The book is due to appear first in Hebrew before publishing in English — but curious readers will have to be patient. The first translator working on his book died before completing the project, while the second was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces after the Hamas attacks. 

Back in September, Goldschmidt described Munich — the location of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923 and the epicenter of Kristallnacht some 15 years later — as a “beacon of Jewish life in Europe.” 

Jewish life in Germany has fallen prey to hatred and intimidation in the months since the current conflict broke out with reports including Stars of David scrawled on Jewish properties, gas bombs thrown at synagogues and graves desecrated. And the situation has been replicated across much of Europe. 

“People are afraid,” said Goldschmidt. “One of the questions rabbis have been most asked in Europe, by families, is if they’re allowed to take their mezuzah off the doorpost in order not to identify that a Jewish family lives there.”

In sharp contrast to the proud smile he wore outside his Munich office in September, five months later he is unsurprisingly downhearted. “It’s a sign of the times,” he said. 

“There are ways to put the mezuzah inside the door, alternative places where it can be put,” he explained. “However, in general, we’re afraid of encouraging Jews to hide their identity. In the long run I think it’s counterproductive.”

The CER has not stepped into the shadows since Oct. 7. The office is “working at full throttle,” according to Goldschmidt. 

He was in Israel for the High Holy Days when Hamas attacked. In the immediate days and weeks that followed, he helped mobilize Haredi volunteers to support the national crisis efforts.  One aspect of their work, he said, was to organize “a whole regiment of housewives” who prepared meals for the many thousands of soldiers who dropped their civilian lives on Oct. 7 to join as reserves. 

“Then the country was flooded with funerals,” he added. “A whole group of volunteers, guided by us, organized that people should show up at those funerals and afterwards set up tents for a shiva for those families… many of them who had been evacuated and were not in their own homes.”

His team also recruited religious women to fill gaps in the employment market left by the massive military call-up — including in agriculture. 

“We had 27,000 volunteers from the Haredi community who volunteered their time, their money, their kitchens to help the national effort… so that Israel should get back on its feet.”

Soon afterwards, Goldschmidt traveled to the Vatican where he met with Pope Francis, who he urged to use his “moral voice” to help bring those taken hostage by Hamas back to Israel and to discuss rising antisemitism in Europe. (Israeli and Jewish leaders have been ambivalent on, and in some cases critical of, Pope Francis’ response to the Oct. 7 terror attacks and war in Gaza as he has often opted to simply denounce both sides of the conflict.)

The pair had met previously to discuss equally pressing concerns in 2022. At the time, top of the agenda was the war in Ukraine. Goldschmidt had been chief rabbi of Moscow until Russia’s invasion, but felt it necessary to leave  the country in order to full-throatedly criticize the country’s president, Vladimir Putin. 

“It’s exactly two years since I left Moscow,” Goldschmidt told eJP. 

While he still harbors hopes of one day returning to the country where he spent more than 30 years, he is not overly hopeful — especially given his continued pushback against Putin. 

Upon hearing of the death of Alexei Navalny in prison last month, the rabbi tweeted his condolences to the former opposition leader’s family, saying: “This is a sad day for all those who believed in a future democratic Russia. Navalny’s heroic life and struggle will remain in the hearts of all those, who have not lost their hope for freedom and liberty. His death is a dark reminder to all Europeans, which regime lives next door.”

Expanding on this point, he said: “The situation is getting bleaker and bleaker. Even in Soviet times, the regime did not kill dissidents — they sent them to prison, to the gulag. Today it has turned into a totally totalitarian state which is also a separate challenge and danger to the Jewish community.”

In the two years since leaving Moscow, Goldschmidt has repeatedly issued calls for the roughly 150,000 Jews living there to leave the country. They should leave for “wherever they want to go and can go,” he told eJP this month, adding: “Not too many places are open to them besides Israel.”

Since his memoir was published, he and the “Jewish people in Europe” were awarded the Charlemagne Prize. The award, given in recognition of “work done in the service of European unification,” was last year bestowed upon the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and has previously been given to popes and top world leaders. 

Then, in February, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a ban on religious slaughter without pre-stunning imposed by two Belgian districts did not infringe human rights. 

Goldschmidt and his alliance have obviously been frustrated by the ruling and have been vocal in their opposition. 

“This was another hurtful moment for the community because the European Court of Human Rights did not support the community’s right to fundamental human right of freedom of religion,” he said. “The court saw animal rights as more important than human rights.”

Without any legal recourse, as the tribunal serves as a supreme court, the only hope for the observant community — which now must import kosher meat — is to work “with politicians, governments and legislators all over Europe to convince them to let the Jewish and Muslim communities continue their right to prepare animals for food as prescribed by their religions.” 

This is not impossible as, overall, he feels that the powers that be do listen and have done much to protect the Jewish community from antisemitism. 

Of Britain, he said: “I think that from what I hear the Jewish community is worried. However I understand that the government has shown its support and increased support to the key structures of the community and its security, which I think is important.”

He is reluctant to single specific nations out, saying “the threat is different in every country,” however he does add that some like “Germany and Belgium could have done more.” 

He added : “We’re very thankful to the European governments for what they have done but we want to see more from civil society — from academia, for the community of performers and artists, we feel that we did not get enough support for fighting antisemitism.”

As for Israel, there is only one way forward: to free the hostages. 

“I hope that there will be a deal,” he said. “Everyone wants a cease-fire, however Israelis are going to continue fighting and there’s a consensus in Israel — total consensus, from the left to the right — that unless the hostages are given back the war is going to continue. So the best way to achieve a cease-fire is by returning the hostages.”