European Jews bear the burden for shaping their own future. This is the sentiment that emerged at a weekend meeting in Berlin among representatives of American Jewry’s central umbrella organization and Jewish leaders from 18 European countries.
European Jews must revamp their institutions, forge stronger links, coordinate policy and set common political agendas in order to become a significant force in world Jewish affairs, participants said.
“It’s time for European Jewry to get its act together and start really rising up to the task of becoming the third pillar of world Jewry, alongside American Jews and Israel, that everyone is talking about,” said Gideon Bolotowsky, president of the tiny Jewish community in Finland.
“They realize now that the onus is on them,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
More than 2 million Jews live in Europe, including 1 million in the former Soviet Union. The communities range in size, from 1,500 people in Finland to 30,000 in Italy to 600,000 each in France and Russia.
The fall of communism more than a decade ago led to a revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and created new opportunities, conditions and challenges for European Jewry.
The Berlin conference was the latest in a series of meetings aimed at examining Jewish potential in Europe and exploring the role international Jewry can play. It took place against the backdrop of looming challenges for European Jews.
These include rising xenophobia, a fast-growing immigrant Muslim population and a sharp erosion of support for Israel in Europe and in international organizations since the outbreak of Palestinian violence last September. Holocaust denial and hate on the Internet are major concerns, as is the electoral success of far-right political parties and a growing tolerance for anti-Semitism.
“You don’t just hear anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism on the street, but also at cocktail parties,” said Michel Friedman, deputy chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
Media in some countries have displayed what many feel is a pronounced anti- Israel bias, and there has been a wave of vandalism against synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish sites. In Germany, for example, more than 290 anti- Semitic crimes were reported in the third quarter of 2000, about twice as many as in the same period in 1999.
“We are woefully unprepared to deal with these challenges,” David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, told the conference.
Nonetheless, European speakers said the most pressing problems for Jewish survival in Europe do not come from outside the Jewish world.
“The most important challenges are the internal ones,” said Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Council of Jewish Communities. “Our institutions are such that unless we change them, the projections for Jewish life in Europe are pessimistic.
“Our institutions today are a failure. If we look at demographic projections, that is a failure, too,” said Benatoff, from Milan, a city whose 10,000 Jews are split into sometimes hostile factions.
“Our current institutions and ways have not won the battle of assimilation,” he said. “They must give a positive motivation for Jews to continue Jewish life.”
Such comments, echoed by others, represent a new frankness – and frustration – on the part of some European Jewish leaders. They also represent a new recognition of European responsibility.
According to many observers, the ECJC failed to capitalize on the momentum produced by its 1999 General Assembly in Nice.
That meeting drew some 600 Jews from across Europe and was celebrated as a landmark in the emergence of a strengthened, self-confident European Jewry that could take its place as a creative force in Europe and a “third pillar” in global Jewish affairs.
But follow-up to the assembly was limited.
Some observers see the upcoming ECJC General Assembly, to be held in May in Madrid, as a potential turning point, for better or worse.
Benatoff and other organizers want the Madrid General Assembly to serve as a springboard for new Jewish institutions and new directions. They also hope it will give a boost to organizations, groups and movements that are active outside, or at the fringe of, official communal structures.
“Our vision is to move on, not to be a defender of the old structures,” said Alberto Senderey of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The Berlin meeting marked the second time the Conference of Presidents has met with European Jewish leaders.
In addition to recognizing the potential for strengthening European Jewry’s voice, the meetings reflect the growing importance of the European Union as a geopolitical and economic power. The previous meeting took place two years ago in Brussels, the E.U.’s headquarters.
Hoenlein said the purpose of this month’s forum was to air problems, establish communication with European Jews, introduce European issues to the American leaders and begin to assess how American Jewish organizational experience can be used to bolster European Jewry.
“We’re not looking to establish an institutional presence here, we’re looking for results and how we can use our experience to help get them,” he said. “The collective voice of European Jewry can be organized.”
For example, Hoenlein said, the development of the European Union and its integration of former Communist states gave European Jews a key reference point for lobbying and other collective political activities.
Such skills, however – and others like fund-raising and public relations – are still largely undeveloped in Europe.
Bolotowsky, the Finnish Jewish leader, said learning to become more proactive is a priority.
“We react to anti-Semitism, to xenophobia, to threats against Israel, etcetera, and that is important,” he said. “But if collective Jewry is only preoccupied with reacting, how do we find the energy to formulate common strategies and the like?”