Around the Jewish World: Jewish Forces Meet in Brussels in Effort to Forge Common Agenda
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Around the Jewish World: Jewish Forces Meet in Brussels in Effort to Forge Common Agenda

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America met Europe in Brussels this week — and the mix was combustible.

Jewish leaders from 23 European states flocked to the center of the European Union for three days of formal meetings and informal encounters with delegates to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations. They also met with European political leaders and NATO officials.

No other single organization, perhaps, could have so galvanized the disparate European communities, each with its own agenda, its own sensitivities, its own imperatives.

Conference chairman Melvin Salberg, acutely sensitive to the perception of this conspicuous display of American Jewish power, was anxious to dispel anxieties of European Jewish leaders that the Presidents Conference was about to muscle in on their territory — or solve all their problems.

“We have come here with an open mind,” he said. “We have no agenda other than to dialogue with fellow Jews about issues which affect Jews. We don’t have advice or answers. The answers will come from the European communities.”

Executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein picked up the theme. The meeting, the first by the Presidents’ Conference in Europe in 27 years, did not presage the establishment of yet another Jewish organization in Europe, he said.

Rather, it was a recognition of the growing importance of the European Union in events affecting the Jewish world and an opportunity for the Americans to “complement existing organizations,” to come together and consult and “to build bonds that will help avert crises in the future.”

Jews have power, he said, because the world perceives them to have power: “It’s time for us to recognize that history has imposed a responsibility on us – – U.S. Jews, European Jews and Israel.

“We don’t expect to resolve the issues,” he added, “but we do expect to address them.”

And address them they did — in both their complexity and diversity.

From Eastern Europe came Jewish leaders beset by problems of desperately scarce resources who seized the opportunity to air some of the most urgent threats to survival.

Those from the wealthier West had different, but no less pressing problems: Islamic extremism, anti-Semitism and terrorism, Europe’s pliant relationship with Iran and what they perceive to be the European Union’s highly partisan approach to Middle East issues and Israel.

Jews from the East expressed concern about welfare for the elderly — double victims who had suffered under the Nazis and then under the communists. They also voiced the need for Jewish day schools for the young and projects to memorialize the Jewish heritage in Europe.

Grigory Krupnikov, who heads the Jewish Cultural Society in Latvia, lamented that before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvian Jews were showered with messages of solidarity and pledges of support from Jewish organizations in the West.

But when the Iron Curtain fell, the western voices went strangely silent and aid for needy Jewish pensioners from Jewish organizations in the West now amounts to just $15 per person per year.

It was not all doom and gloom, however. The president of Poland’s Jewish communities, Jerzy Kichler, told the delegates that “we have legal problems and budgetary problems, but we have hope.”

“A few years ago, we appeared to be heading for destruction, but now the mood is very different,” he said. “Today, we are not only concerned about survival but about revival.”

Kichler was one of many Eastern and Central European delegates who paid special tribute to the philanthropy of Ronald Lauder, the chairman-designate of the Presidents Conference. Lauder has invested millions in Jewish programs in those regions.

For his part, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress, Vladimir Goussinsky, spoke of the dangers posed by the new anti-Semitism that is emerging from the nationalist and communist movements, coupled with the integration of fascists within the structure of the Communist Party.

Still, he said, Jews will remain there.

“Many Jews live in Russia and many will continue to live in Russia,” he said. “For them, Russia is the motherland.”

From the West, Ignatz Bubis, the head of the German Jewish community and president of the European Jewish Congress, expressed concern about voices, particularly among the intellectuals, that are seeking to close the book on the past and open a new chapter in a new Europe.

Enthusiasm for Europe is one thing, he said, “but this should not occur without a memory of the past.”

A wider agenda item came from Eldred Tabachnik, who heads the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella body for Britain’s diverse streams of political and religious affiliation.

He was uneasy about the insistence of the European Union — Israel’s single- largest trading partner and the Palestinians’ single-largest donor — on linking economic cooperation with Israel to progress in the peace process, where “progress” is measured by Israel’s willingness to withdraw to its pre- 1967 borders.

The 1995 economic accord between Israel and the European Union remains unratified, while Israel’s participation in Europe’s lucrative $17 billion, four-year research and development program appears destined for a veto.

“They pay lip-service to Israel’s needs for security,” he said, “but make few demands on the Palestinians. Until the European Union takes a more even-handed approach, they will lack credibility and simply end up as the bankers of the peace process without the political role they seek.”

He also said he found it “dangerous and extraordinary” that the Europeans were prepared to overlook strident opposition to the peace process and sponsorship of terrorism while “cozying up to Iran under the banner of so-called `constructive engagement.’

“Perish the thought that lucrative oil deals play any part in this desire for friendly relations with a country that would otherwise be regarded as a pariah state,” he said with heavy irony.

It is highly probable, he said, that Europe itself would live to rue the day it turned a blind eye to these developments. “Of course,” he added, “it may well be Israel and other Middle East states that will be the first to pay the price.”

Having aired their problems, fears and concerns, the European Jewish leaders were under no illusion that they would return to their communities any closer to concrete solutions.

And yet, there was a perceptible sense that this week’s encounter might be a defining moment in Jewish politics — for both the Americans and the Europeans.

For the Americans, it is clear that the European Union is emerging as a major player on the international stage — not least in the Middle East — and that access and influence would be most effectively achieved via a united Jewish community of Europe.

For the Europeans, it is becoming obvious that the imperative of unity might, after all, outweigh the diversity of their concerns; that their voices would be significantly amplified if they acquired the lobbying skills — and clout – – that would flow from close ties to the Americans.

So far, the embryonic Brussels branches of B’nai B’rith, the World Jewish Congress as well as a home-grown lobby group have had little impact on the European Union.

But their time might come — and sooner rather than later.

The leaders of those 23 European communities and their American counterparts left Brussels this week having glimpsed together what one delegate described as “empowerment through association.”

Whatever direction this week’s encounter may take, it has animated and energized many of Europe’s Jewish leaders, leaving them a little stunned, and perhaps a little breathless, at the potential of what might be mutually achieved.

They have learnt what the Americans already knew: “With the globalization of economics, there is a globalization of politics,” Hoenlein had told them, encapsulating both the challenge and the way ahead. “Today, every issue is a world issue.”

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