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Who is Charlemagne Prize honoree Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt?

May 9, 2024

Once rabbi of Moscow, he fled Russia over Putin's war on Ukraine. Now, as head of the Conference of European Rabbis, he warns of an "explosion of antisemitism" in Europe and said "hatred of Jews must not be tolerated."

Pinchas Goldschmidt
Pinchas Goldschmidt has been president of the Conference of European Rabbis for more than a decadeImage: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

The International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen is considered one of Europe's most respected awards, given to people or institutions who have made outstanding contributions to the unification of Europe. Since its inception in 1950, recipients have included the founding fathers of a common Europe; kings and heads of government; presidents and popes; the opposition in Belarus; and the Ukrainian people.

On May 9, 2024, the prize will go to a rabbi for the first time.

Pinchas Goldschmidt has been president of the Conference of European Rabbis, which includes around 800 Orthodox Jewish scholars, for almost 13 years. At age 60, Goldschmidt is now probably the most prominent rabbi in Europe.

"With this accolade, the Charlemagne Prize Board of Directors wishes to broadcast the message that Jewish life is a natural part of Europe, and that there is no place for antisemitism in Europe," the prize organizers said in a statement.

'A significant part of the Jewish community has left Russia'

'Explosion of antisemitism since October 7'

"Unfortunately, the reality is exactly the opposite," Goldschmidt told DW. "We have seen this explosion of antisemitism in Europe since October 7."

The Hamas-led terror attacks against Israel on that day resulted in the largest mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust. Around 1,200 people were killed, thousands were injured and some 240 were taken to the Gaza Strip as hostages. Israel responded with a large-scale military offensive in Gaza, which has killed tens of thousands over the past seven months, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

Since that offensive began, hatred of Jews has grown around the world. Goldschmidt said Jewish parents are afraid to send their children to school. Jewish men, young people and children are afraid to walk in public with a yarmulke on their head. Jewish life in many places is taking place under police protection.

Antisemitism "became politically correct again," said Goldschmidt, adding that this must be reversed. Governments must make it clear that hatred of Jews must not be tolerated, "not in schools, not on the streets, not in cultural life." As long as open hatred of Jews is tolerated, he added, "we have a serious problem."

Murky myths behind antisemitism

With "we," Goldschmidt wasn't speaking only about Jews. For him, it's all about Europe's future.

The European history of Goldschmidt's family includes the horrors of Auschwitz. Goldschmidt was born in Zurich in 1963; his grandparents relocated from Vienna to Switzerland in 1938 — just in time to save themselves — because his grandmother was ill.

However, the rabbi said his maternal great-grandparents, their siblings, his grandfather's sisters and brothers and more than 40 of his relatives were murdered in the German concentration camp.

Escaping Putin's war of aggression

Goldschmidt was chief rabbi of Moscow from 1993 to 2022. Just a few days after Russia's full-fledged war on Ukraine began in February 2022, he fled Russia because the Kremlin was forcing religious representatives to align with its program.

Since Goldschmidt left Moscow, he said more than a 100,000 Jews have also left Russia. "The political situation in Russia is becoming increasingly difficult. The country is returning to complete isolation — to the Soviet Union, without communism. And antisemitism has again become part of government policy," he said.

Goldschmidt and his wife, their seven children and numerous grandchildren moved from Russia to Jerusalem, to a country that changed dramatically on October 7, 2023. "We fell from one war into another war," he said.

He describes war as "terrible — one of the most terrible things that humanity has invented." Of course, like every country, Israel has the right to defend itself, he said, pointing out that Israel is not fighting a all-out war on an army in Gaza, but rather, on a guerrilla force.

Is it time for Russia's Jews to leave the country?

Goldschmidt brought up Iran's role in supporting Hamas and the Hezbollah militia — both are classified as terrorist organizations by the EU. "This is Europe's hour. Europe must defend itself against these attacks — these attacks against democracy and freedom that are coming from Russia on one side, and from Iran on the other," he said.

The rabbi is multilingual, and a master of dialogue. He is in contact with many leading politicians, and has often been a guest at the German Chancellery and even visited Pope Francis several times.

Since becoming president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Goldschmidt has established an ongoing dialogue between leading rabbinic scholars and Muslim imams from European and North African countries. The Conference of European Rabbis is now based in Munich, in southern Germany.

Islam 'can become a valuable part of Europe'

"Instead of fighting radical Islam, the Islamic religion itself is being fought. That is a big — a very big — mistake," said Goldschmidt. Radical Islam must be countered, but at the same time, it's also clear that "Islam, as such, can become a valuable part of Europe — if its believers and representatives actively live European values, such as freedom, democracy and tolerance."

Germany honors leading rabbi

Goldschmidt was pleased to hear that he was the 2024 Charlemagne Prize honoree. "For me, personally, and for the Jewish community in Europe, it is a nice sign. Because we would like to see more support for Jewish communities from civil society. That is so important."

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C