ROME, Aug. 31 (JTA) — The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 15th anniversary of the fall of communism took place this year amid a ferment of transition and concern within Europe as a whole, as well as within European Jewry. A host of world leaders took part in solemn, high-profile ceremonies such as one at Auschwitz in January that marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious death camp in 1945. Jews in Europe, meanwhile, grappled with sometimes-turbulent internal conflicts and struggled to move out of the shadow of the Shoah and find effective means of asserting their identity and articulating a coherent, collective and positive voice. They sought a strategy to deal with aging and assimilating populations and respond to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish, anti-Israel fallout from conflicts in the Middle East. Like other Europeans, they dealt with new political uncertainties in a continent where the hard-fought European Union constitution failed to win unanimous ratification. Along with their fellow citizens, they also confronted the specter of anti-Western Islamist terrorism: Three Jews were among the victims of the July 7 suicide attacks on London’s public transit system that left more than 50 people dead. The death of Pope John Paul II in April, and the election of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, also posed questions. John Paul had made fostering Jewish-Catholic relations a cornerstone of his 26-year pontificate. In his first months in office, Benedict pledged to follow this course and drew praise from Jewish interfaith activists. Nonetheless, an ugly spat in July over the Vatican’s attitude toward terrorism and Israeli policy toward the Palestinians plunged bilateral relations between Israel and the Holy See to their lowest point in years. Benedict later visited a synagogue in Cologne in his first visit to his native Germany since his selection as pope. Against this background, the European Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities in nearly 40 countries, in June elected a president who pledged to lead European Jewry in new directions. Pierre Besnainou, a Tunisian-born French businessman, said the EJC has a multifaceted mission: to fight anti-Semitism in Europe, explain what Israel is about both to European politicians and the general public, and establish broader dialogue between European Jews and Muslims. “It is hard to put into words just how much the situation of European Jews is affected by the relations between Europe and Israel,” Besnainou, 50, told the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “We’ve gone through a very tough time in the past four years, in which the media has attacked Israel. People often told me, ‘Your prime minister, Ariel Sharon,’ ” he said. “I had to remind them that my prime minister is the prime minister of France.” Before his election, Besnainou had angered American Jewish leaders with sharp attacks on what he called the “presumptuous” and “somewhat patronizing” involvement by American Jewish organizations in European Jewish affairs. After his election, he reiterated that European Jews had to lobby for their own causes in their own way. American Jews were welcome allies, he said, but not if they bypassed European Jewish representatives. “I fully respect what American Jewish organizations have accomplished in America and how they have been able to explain what Israel is all about to the U.S. government and to the American public,” Besnainou told JTA. But, he added, “I think that the Americans have tried to overstep the European Jewish organizations. The bridge between Europe and Israel is European Jewry, not American Jewry.” On a more grass-roots level, the year was marked by initiatives aimed at broadening effective cooperation in areas such as Jewish education, volunteerism and culture, as well as by episodes of sometimes ugly conflict and power struggles that split some Jewish communities. Some 150,000 people attended simultaneous events in more than two dozen countries on the annual European Day of Jewish Culture in September, and the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture awarded grants to a roster of artists and performers whose work reflects the Jewish experience. Jewish children attended the continet’s summer camps, and there were well-attended Jewish singles weekends, culture festivals and study sessions in most parts of the continent. Many European Jews were prominent in local and national politics and mainstream public affairs. In Britain, Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, a Jew, missed becoming prime minister when his party lost to incumbent Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor Party in general elections in May. Also in Britain, an attempt by a prominent academic union to boycott two Israeli universities because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was rolled back, but was seen as an ominous sign of perceptions of Israel on the continent. A further incident in which London Mayor Ken Livingstone insulted a Jewish journalist — comparing him to a concentration camp guard — and then refused to apologize also unsettled British Jews. In some countries, Jewish lay and sometimes religious leaders came under criticism for weakness, lack of vision or even financial impropriety. In particular, Jews in Prague remained bitterly divided in the wake of continuing battles between rival factions, and in Budapest, the president of the Hungarian Jewish Federation stepped down after his reform program was defeated. In Zagreb, Croatia, the decision by the community board to fire the rabbi touched off a spiral of acrimonious accusations among rival communal leaders. Conflicts between Orthodox and Reform Jews deepened in some countries, too, and some religious leaders came under criticism for being too exclusive and stifling pluralism. In May, the Orthodox Conference of European Rabbis, an Orthodox grouping, said it would send a top-level delegation to Israel to formally protest recent moves there to legalize new forms of conversions under the Law of Return that, they said, were too lenient. Meanwhile, Jews from across the continent were among nearly 400 Progressive, Liberal and Reform Jews from 24 countries who took part in the annual convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, held in Moscow in late June and early July. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement gained influence across the continent, in some places setting up or sponsoring activities and institutions that paralleled those run by established Jewish communities. In Budapest, a Chabad-backed congregation was officially registered by the government as the revived incarnation of a prewar stream of Hungarian Jewry. Observers found some internal conflicts threatening to Jewish development, particularly in post-communist countries where the often tiny Jewish communities that emerged after the fall of communism were still fragile. Others, however, said many of the disputes represented healthy signs of a normalization of Jewish life. A number of these divisions formed the basis for debate in May at a meeting in Basel, Switzerland, organized by the European Council of Jewish Communities that grouped more than 200 Jewish community presidents and other communal leaders from more than 30 countries. The title of one of the sessions spelled this out. It was called “A Single European Jewish Voice Is a Fantasy That Can Never Be Achieved.”
Ruth Ellen Gruber is JTA’s senior European correspondent. Based in Rome, she travels and writes extensively on Jewish affairs in Italy, Central and Eastern Europe and other European countries. A former UPI reporter, she has also written for The New York Times and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. She is also the author of several books: Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to East-Central Europe and Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.