Around the Jewish World: European Jews Battle Prediction That ‘vanishing Diaspora’ Means Them
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Around the Jewish World: European Jews Battle Prediction That ‘vanishing Diaspora’ Means Them

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“Vanishing Diaspora” was the title of a controversial book published last year by Harvard University Press.

In it, British Jewish scholar Bernard Wasserstein theorized that on the basis of demographic trends, Jews in Europe “face slow diminution, at worst virtual extinction.”

“Here and there,” wrote the director of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, “pockets of ultra-Orthodox Jews, clinging to the tenets of the faith, will no doubt survive — a picturesque remnant like the Amish of Pennsylvania.”

But within a few generations, he predicted, Jews “will disappear as a significant element in the life of the continent.”

More than 200 scholars, community leaders and other Jewish representatives from 31 European countries, Israel, the United States and Morocco gathered in Strasbourg recently to discuss ways to prevent this fate.

Entitled “Strengthening Jewish Life in Europe,” the June 29-July 1 meeting was the second international conference on planning for the future of Jewish life in Europe and a follow-up to a landmark gathering in Prague two years ago.

The conference was not prompted by Wasserstein’s book, but rather by the consciousness that the end of the Cold War and the passage of half a century since the Holocaust have created new conditions — and new potentials — for European Jewry.

Nonetheless, awareness of Wasserstein’s worst-case scenario, provided a disconcerting subtext to the proceedings.

Participants demonstrated a will for Jewish survival — and a rejection of Wasserstein’s vision of an inevitable “Vanishing Diaspora.”

But they left open important questions as to how to ensure it.

“We are healthy, producing good, organic responses to change,” said British scholar Jonathan Webber, also of the Oxford Center. “We are questioning our inherited values; enormous progress is being made.”

Still, he cautioned, “there is no such thing as predicting the future on the basis of the present.”

Jews in Europe are grappling with many of the same challenges facing Jews in America, but under different historical and physical conditions.

Two thirds of Europe’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, destroying centuries- old communities and traumatizing those Jews who chose to remain — and their children.

“For me, the Holocaust is a burden, I feel it every day,” said Esther, a 26- year-old Jew from Vienna.

The Cold War effectively cut off the Jews of Eastern and Central Europe from the rest of the Jewish world.

Communist oppression made many Jews afraid to express their Jewish identity and prevented most of them from knowing anything about Jewish practice or traditions.

Immigration from North Africa and elsewhere, meanwhile, changed the face of West European Jewry.

And in many countries — east and west — Jewish communities were so small that they enabled only one form of practice, generally Orthodoxy.

The collapse of communism created new conditions for Jews in a newly united Europe.

As in the United States, European Jews are now much freer to choose what historian Diana Pinto describes as a “voluntary” Jewish identity, and to select what type of identity this might be.

“The development of pluralistic Jewish life has increased exponentially,” Pinto told the Strasbourg conference. “Jews across Europe are traveling and meeting each other as if it’s the most natural thing on earth.

“Europe is not merely a backdrop but a crucial concept of Jewish life as we head into the 21st century.”

The conference was organized by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research and was sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the European Council of Jewish Communities and France’s Unified Jewish Social Fund.

More than two days of debate produced a picture of Jewish life in Europe that showed vigorous development under today’s new conditions.

But it also revealed deep, unresolved challenges ranging from increased polarization between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews to newly voiced claims by emerging Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

“There is concern that the Jews are the cause of their own dissension; the pressure is from within rather than from without,” said David Lewis, president of the European Council. “We must come to terms with pluralism or we will self- destruct.”

The changing relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel was noted – – including the question of whether the term “Diaspora” was still relevant at a time when Jews were free to choose where and how they wanted to live.

Likewise, speaker after speaker stressed the need to find ways to make Judaism and Jewish identity an attractive and relevant choice at a time when Jews are – – perhaps for the first time in Europe — free to choose whether or not they want to remain Jewish.

“One must be able to cope with freedom,” said Nelly Hansson, director of the Foundation of French Judaism.

The beginning of division between European Jews and their American and Israeli counterparts also came to the fore, as European Jews made clear that they sometimes felt snubbed by the two larger Jewish poles.

“As Europeans,” said Dominique Moisi, director of the French Institute of International Relations, “we feel we are suffering from a competition of arrogance of Americans and Israelis.”

Moisi, who summed up changes in European Jewish life since the Prague conference two years ago, noted several visible trends — both good and bad.

“The threat from the Soviet Union has been replaced by a whole set of uncertainties; we are mostly afraid of internal division or the rise of an unknown outside threat,” he said.

“The greatest contrast between the meetings in Prague and Strasbourg is the way we see how the East European Communities are gaining confidence,” he said. “They are here as a real force.”

Representatives came from more than 15 former Communist countries. A score came from Russia and Ukraine alone, despite bureaucratic problems that prevented one featured speaker from Russia from obtaining a French visa.

In their statements, East European Jewish representatives stressed the idea that they were no longer “captive Jews” isolated behind an oppressive Iron Curtain, but full-fledged members of the global Jewish community.

They were especially outspoken on the subject of property restitution and compensation for Holocaust victims, demanding loudly and openly that they have a direct say in negotiations.

“We need our voice to be heard and to speak ourselves,” Grigory Krupnikov, co- chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia, said.

No solutions emerged from the gathering, but organizers and other participants said that this was not an immediate objective.

“The conference as a whole demonstrated the continued hunger for European Jews to come together. It is a process that is still in early stages, but which much continue,” said Antony Lerman, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

Said the European Council’s Lewis, “There has clearly been an epoch-making change in Jewish life in Europe since 1989.

“We’re still at the beginning. It’s very difficult to assess the way a ship is turning from its bridge.”

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