When representatives of European Jewry gathered here earlier this month to begin charting a common future, the event represented a historic milestone.
“Jews have never lived in Europe in conditions of such unprecedented freedom,” historian Diana Pinto told the conference, which was titled “Planning for the Future of European Jewry.”
“This is a momentous moment,” she said.
Envisaging a valid future for European Jewry is a concept that for decades seemed problematic, if not paradoxical, to many.
A postwar conference on European Jewry in 1946 could do little more than evaluate the wreckage left by the Holocaust.
And because of the Iron Curtain no East European Jew could attend a “Conference of Hope” in London in June 1955.
At that time, the question raised was whether Jews remained in Europe simply because it was the easiest thing to do, or because there was a real, valid future for them on the continent.
Times have changed dramatically since then, particularly after the fall of communism five years ago, which reunited Europe and brought freedom to Jews who had suffered under Communist Oppression.
But the path into the 21st century will still be obstructed by many problems, challenges and contradictions.
This month’s conference, the first such forum since the end of the Cold War, was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the London-based Institute of Jewish Affairs and the European Council of Jewish Communities.
It was held under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The council, representing 32 European nations, seeks to promote democracy and human rights.
The conference brought together 200 Jewish community leaders, policy-makers and academics from two dozen countries across Europe as well as representatives from Israel and the United States.
The meeting’s goal was to seek ways to develop thriving Jewish communities in Europe and to discuss how these communities could play a full role in a new, more unified Europe — not just as Jews, but as conscientious citizens of free, democratic countries.
“There is a parallelism of the situation of Europeans as a whole and the situation of Jews in Europe,” said conference co-chairman Dominique Moisi, head of the Paris-based French Institute of Foreign Affairs.
“Europeans are looking for a positive identity now that the Soviet threat has disappeared. Jews in Europe are also looking for a positive identity not defined by outside threats,” Moisi said.
Another key concern was how to make the voice of European Jewry heard in the world forum as a “third pillar,” alongside Israel and American Jewry.
“European Jewry wasn’t able to participate freely and fully until after 1989,” Israeli professor Daniel Elazar told the conference.
“The U.S. and Israel missed the European voice even though they didn’t know it,” he said. “Europe must take its place along with the Israelis, American Jew and others in the common world Jewish effort.”
The conference was not aimed at formulating concrete strategy or making decisions, but rather as an exchange of ideas and experiences that could lead to the identification of common challenges.
The challenges and problems that emerged were found to be more universal than many expected, affecting large and small communities in both Western and Eastern Europe.
“We thought that you in the West were healthy and we were sick,” Yohanon Petrovsky of Ukraine told a conference session. “But I see you are suffering from the same diseases we are, so it seems that we are healthy, too.”
These “diseases” include the problem of defining Jewish identity and Jewish community, making Jewish identity relevant in an increasingly secular world, coping with assimilation and a more than 50 percent rate of intermarriage, addressing issues such as nationalism and anti-Semitism, and defining Europe’s role in world Jewry.
“We are now in a Judaism that is purely voluntary,” said French Jewish educator Jean-Jacques Wahl. “For the first time in Jewish history we are Jews because we have so chosen.”
“The only Jews who remain Jews will be those who find a reason to choose to do so,” he said.
One of the aims of the Prague conference was to serve as what was termed a “marketplace of ideas” in order to define and identify problems and develop both dialogue and “a culture of policy-planning” to confront them.
“The signal characteristic of the conference is that it denotes the remarkable sense of promise for what a few decades ago was most unpromising,” said Robert Rifkind, president of the American Jewish Committee.
“There is also a sense of freedom, that European and Diaspora Jewry hold their destiny in their own hands and must plan for the future, take decisions,’ he said. “Jews are in the position to determine what their own future will be in an essentially free world.”
Jews from about a dozen former communist countries in the ex-Soviet Union and Eastern Europe attended the conference.
In all these countries — which before the Holocaust represented the cradle of European Jewish culture — remnant communities or secularized communities have begun reconstituting themselves.
“We are the real Jews, here in Eastern Europe,” said Slovak Jewish leader Pavel Traubner. “We stayed in spite of all the suffering. We wanted to stay and be Jews. The Westerners could leave if they wanted. We spent 50 years underground.”
Polish speaker Konstanty Gebert called these communities “shipwrecked Jews,” who were struggling to reclaim a Jewish identity that had been submerged under communism, and in many cases did not know which way to turn.
In their efforts at revival, these Jewish communities are being helped in many cases by several Jewish organizations, including the Joint, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
“In communities like mine that have been robbed of their identity, a religious identity will constitute the base only if we shipwrecked Jews can relate in a positive way to Jewish heritage,” Gebert said.
“The basis of a religious identity has to be flexible,” he added.
The relationship between these growing, newly emerging communities and well- established Western communities that in many cases are losing membership through assimilation, will be a dominant theme in charting European Jewish developments.
Alberto Senderey, an official of the Joint, warned that the deep paradox in these relations must be kept in mind.
In the countries of Western Europe, “where since the war Jews had all the advantages, people are leaving Judaism,” he said. “In the countries where communism imposed silence, people are entering Judaism.
It is rather ironic, he said, that those in the West “are now trying to sell to Eastern Europe what does not work for us.”