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5764: a Year of Pain and Passion for Jews Across Europe, a Year of Expansion Brings New Challenges


With the accession of eight former communist countries and the island nations of Malta and Cyprus, the European Union expanded eastward this year to include 25 members. The May 1 move put a formal end to the post-World War II paradigm of a Europe divided between east and west, and at the same time validated the emerging Jewish communities in new member countries as part of the European and Jewish mainstream.

For European Jews, the impact of E.U. expansion — as well as the impact of continuing external threats such as terrorism and anti-Semitism — were constant and compelling issues throughout the Jewish year 5764.

Violence against synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish institutions erupted in several countries, including deadly suicide bombings at two Istanbul synagogues in November. There also were a number of attacks on Jewish individuals.

At the same time, Jews in Europe grappled with sometimes-turbulent internal conf! licts. Nearly 60 years after the end of the Second World War, they also struggled with how to move out of the shadow of the Holocaust and find an effective means of asserting their identity and articulating a coherent, collective — and positive — voice.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is to get Jews generally and the world at large to recognize that we are not just defined by the three elements of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and defense of Israel,” Jonathan Joseph, incoming president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, told JTA.

“It’s obvious that 90 percent of our lives is not defined by these elements, but 90 percent of our image is,” he said.

Joseph made his remarks during the third General Assembly of European Jewry, a three-day meeting held in Budapest in May that gathered more than 1,000 Jewish leaders of all ages and denominations from more than 40 countries.

Discussion at the assembly reflected across-the-board Jewish concerns rangi! ng from the turmoil in the Middle East, Muslim fundamentalism and inte rnational terrorism to nuts-and-bolts issues such as education, elder care, mixed marriages and the promotion of Jewish cultural heritage.

Jewish cultural creativity flourished around Europe this year, with hundreds of exhibitions, concerts, publications and festivals, among them a large festival of Sephardic culture, Esperansa, held in Belgrade in June.

Several new Jewish museums opened, and the European Association for Jewish Culture awarded grants to several dozen artists, writers and performers.

Holding the ECJC General Assembly in Budapest was a deliberate recognition that the east-west divide that had split Europe — and Europe’s Jews — for decades during the Cold War no longer existed.

Yet E.U. expansion in itself raised many questions for Jews on the personal, communal and political level.

Many Jews looked forward to enhanced business, educational and other opportunities and hoped enlargement would facilitate contact among Jewish communities. But some Jews warned that anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel could rise in the new E.U. member states.

“What might change is the relatively more balanced approach some new members, especially Poland, have taken on the Middle East conflict,” said Polish Jewish writer Konstanty Gebert. “As the E.U. attempts to integrate the foreign policies of its members, it can be expected the newcomers will more closely toe Brussels’ line, markedly critical of Israel.”

That could already be seen in July, when the 10 new E.U. members voted with the more established E.U. countries in favor of a U.N. General Assembly resolution ordering Israel to dismantle its West Bank security barrier.

The surge of anti-Semitic attacks and insinuations since the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000 has prompted a number of high-profile surveys and international conferences on the issue.

In December, the E.U. Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia shelved a report th! at revealed rising anti-Semitism among Muslims in Europe, prompting an outcry.

Leaked to the Financial Times newspaper, the report, prepared in 2002, showed that “the anti-Semitic incidents in the monitoring period were committed above all by right-wing extremists and radical Islamists or young Muslims.” The report also pointed to an increase in left-wing anti-Semitism.

A new report for the monitoring center, released in April, caused further outrage when it reversed course and asserted that most of the anti-Semitic violence in Europe since 2002 had been carried out not by young Muslims but by “young white Europeans” influenced by extreme right-wing political ideas.

U.S. and European Jewish leaders blasted the new report for minimizing the extent to which anti-Semitic violence was linked to the Middle East conflict and support of the Palestinians.

A survey carried out for the Anti-Defamation League in 10 European countries last spring showed a drop in anti-Semitic attitudes since the ADL’s last poll on the issue, in 2002. But i! t also showed a marked rise in anti-Israel sentiment.

Both reports were issued just before the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe met in Berlin in April for a two-day conference on anti-Semitism. This was the most prominent of several high-level conferences on anti-Semitism held in Europe this year.

OSCE governments unanimously adopted a declaration pledging to fight “new forms” of anti-Semitism and rejecting any attempt to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a justification for hate crimes against Jews.

The declaration said anti-Semitism “has assumed new forms and expressions, which along with other forms of intolerance pose a threat to democracy” and civilization.

Concerns about anti-Semitism, terrorism and the perceived demonization of Israel in both European media and popular opinion weighed heavily on European Jews and forced communities to step up security.

Jews themselves were torn by left-right political debates that! reflected the political divide in Israel. Some warned that fears of e xternal threats could lead to a “re-ghettoization” of Jewish life.

But internal Jewish politics, along with religious and social issues, lay at the heart of day-to-day Jewish life.

“Our main concern is ensuring the continuation of our community,” said Zdravko Sami, president of the 200-member Jewish community in Macedonia.

Jewish lay leaders in some countries were criticized for weakness, lack of vision and even financial impropriety. Conflicts between Orthodox and Reform Jews deepened in some countries, and some religious leaders came under fire for being too exclusive and stifling pluralism.

In Prague, the Orthodox chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, was fired at the end of June by a community board recently elected on a self-declared “reformist” platform. Sidon, however, was to remain in his position as chief rabbi of the Czech Republic.

The Prague community already had voted to recognize Conservative Judaism as an established stream.

In Germany, the Central ! Council of Jews took its first steps to welcome Reform congregations under its umbrella. The move, which came after years of bitter infighting, meant that the 15 Reform congregations can apply for a share of approximately $4 million in federal funding the Central Council distributes to its 84 member congregations.

Some observers decried the inner conflicts, but others said the ferment simply reflected normalcy, particularly in emerging communities in former communist states.

Addressing delegates to the ECJC meeting in Budapest, Jonathan Joseph summed up the complexities, concerns and contradictions.

“We are looking at a politically united Europe for the first time ever,” he said. “We are experiencing a reawakening of Jewish life and culture in Europe on a scale not seen for 100 years.”

At the same time, he added, “We are living at a most delicate moment in global Jewish terms with the Middle East in turmoil again, an intermingling of anti-Zionism with anti-Semi! tism and the physical manifestation of this uncomfortably close to us.

“How we respond over the next few years will be one of the most significant things we will do as a Jewish people, and particularly as a European Jewish people,” he said. “Anti-Semitism will never disappear, but the best antidote to anti-Semitism is a positive presence of Jews.”

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