5763: Strength Amid Strife Europe’s Jews Seek Identity Independent of Anti-semitism

The past year marked an important milestone in Europe, at least in Jewish terms — 13 years since the fall of communism.

Consider it free Europe’s Bar Mitzvah.

Like individual Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, the occasion represented a symbolic rite of passage for the more than 2 million Jews in Europe, particularly those in former Communist states.

It provided an opportunity to reflect on the dramatic accomplishments since the end of the Cold War, which enabled a Jewish revival in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as to consider the dangers and questions that still lie ahead.

“We have to stress the anti-Semitism we see and other dangers, but why not also celebrate?” Diana Pinto, a Paris-based historian, asked in December at a conference on the way the fall of communism had affected European Jews.

Those dangers, of course, were what captured international headlines — a grim litany of global challenges that included rising anti-Semitism, international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Holocaust revisionism, widespread support for the Palestinian cause and a demonization of Israel.

Fallout from the war in Iraq was a further cause for concern, as Jews themselves were torn by left-right politics and anti-Semitism often became mixed with anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism.

The impact of these challenges and the consideration of how Jews should respond were the subject of intense debate in Op-Ed pieces and at synagogue services, at international conferences and at local community meetings — and around the Shabbat table.

So intense was the debate, in fact, that it tended to mute any cause for celebration among European Jews.

Last fall, for example, in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, writer Judith Tydor-Baumel went so far as to assert that “a great wave of anti-Semitism has washed over Europe, reinstating the taboo on anything that smacks of Judaism.”

Attitudes like this made many Jews in Europe bristle.

“We tend to let outsiders set our agenda,” historian Michael Brenner, a professor at the University of Munich, complained at one point.

He noted that there was a danger of focusing Jewish debate on “the threats to the Jewish world, rather than the Jewish world.”

“There is an enormous disconnect between what American Jewish organizations and the Israeli press are writing about European anti-Semitism and the reality on the ground here,” said Edward Serotta, an American photographer who has chronicled Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe for nearly 20 years.

“If there is an atmosphere of fear among Europe’s Jews, I haven’t seen evidence of it,” he said. “What you don’t see are Jews leaving, except for Jews from the former Soviet Union choosing to live in Germany.”

In one of the more notable statistical trends to emerge this year, figures showed that in 2002 Germany outpaced Israel as the main destination for Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union. Germany absorbed 19,262 such immigrants that year, compared with Israel’s 18,878.

Those immigrants have tripled Germany’s Jewish population in the last decade, bringing the number of Jews in Germany to about 100,000 in 83 German congregations, up from about 30,000 in 1989.

Even in France, some observers said, overt anti-Semitism appears to be a fringe phenomenon: The wave of anti- Semitic incidents that erupted last year appeared mainly to be carried out by disaffected Muslim youths.

Meanwhile, France’s new conservative government took measures to counter bias crimes. France’s Education Ministry in February launched a campaign to stamp out anti-Semitism and other types of racism in schools. The plan included the creation of a monitoring committee in Paris, the appointment of a team of mediators for egregious cases and the publication of an educational booklet to be distributed to schools.

“France is not more anti-Semitic than America,” the head of the French Jewish umbrella organization CRIF declared in an interview with the Forward in July.

Aliyah from France — and Europe in general — was not expected to skyrocket, particularly given the continent’s economics.

“We are, after all, a ‘homo economicus’ like everyone else,” said Serotta, who directs the Vienna-based Central European Center for Research and Documentation. “Hungary, the Baltics, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are all getting ready to join the European Union, and Jews are far more focused on the opportunities that will avail them than thinking of leaving.”

Indeed, Jews welcomed the landmark decision in December to invite 10 new countries — all but two of them post-communist states — to join the European Union. That step formally abolished the East-West bifurcation that had divided Europe since the end of World War II.

It also helped validate the emerging Jewish communities in these countries as part of the European and Jewish mainstream.

“These changes in Europe itself highlight the issue of Jews feeling part of an enlarged E.U. as a minority group,” Mario Izcovich, the Barcelona-based director of Pan-European Programs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, told JTA.

It was in this spirit that in November, almost 13 years to the day after the Berlin Wall came down, the European Council of Jewish Communities chose Prague for a meeting of presidents of Jewish communities from 40 European countries.

The ECJC will hold its third General Assembly in Budapest next May, almost immediately after the formal ceremony that will induct Hungary and several other countries into the European Union. The Budapest event is expected to draw at least 700 Jews from across Europe.

Izcovich said the ways in which European Jews view themselves, their community and their role were changing.

For more than half a century, the trauma of the Holocaust was a powerful agent that bonded European Jews and fostered Jewish identity.

But with firsthand memory of the Holocaust fading, younger generations refocused their priorities, Izcovich said.

“In many ways, we are now in a post-Shoah moment,” he said.

As European Jewry struggled for its new identity, religious movements, cultural institutions and Jewish communities continued to grow and thrive.

The continent was awash with major Jewish cultural events, scores of books on Jewish themes and by Jewish authors were published, and communities throughout the continent grew.

In Poland, for example, new books included the first complete set of Polish-language commentaries on the Torah.

“Just look at the community-events section of our monthly magazine,” one member of the Vienna Jewish community said. “There are 16 pages of schedules, announcements and articles about cultural, educational and social events, not to mention religious observances and sports and also advertisements and want ads.”

On the religious front, Reform and Conservative Jewish movements made inroads into some countries where the only religious stream had been Orthodoxy, in some cases sparking heated religious debate.

The Jewish Federation in the Czech Republic formally recognized Conservative Judaism as an established religious stream. This summer, the group launched an international job search for an official Conservative rabbi to serve the Czech Jewish community.

Two Reform congregations started up in Milan, and nascent ones emerged in Florence and Rome.

In July, the World Union for Progressive Judaism held its 75th anniversary conference in Berlin — a four-day event that not only demonstrated Reform Judaism’s growing impact but also symbolized the renewal of Jewish life in Germany.

As free Europe moves on from its Bar Mitzvah to adulthood, European Jewry doubtless will be faced with new choices and responsibilities — and a new sense of identity.

“There are a lot of different Jewish voices in Europe, and we are going to have to deal with this,” Izcovich said. “A key factor in the future will be to take care of this diversity — without losing the recognition that, no matter how diverse we are, we are one people.”

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