Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

E.u. Expansion is Challenge and Chance for European Jews

December 18, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Last week’s agreement to expand the European Union eastward did away with the last vestiges of the Iron Curtain and opened broad new prospects, as well as challenges, for Jews in the region.

Jewish representatives in Eastern and Central Europe praised the move, saying it will have a positive impact on their home countries and on the development of Jewish life in Europe.

Not only will it foster investment and business exchange, they said, but it will bolster the growth of democratic pluralism and a sense of European Jewish identity and integration.

“I doubt there are any Jews in Poland or among our neighbors who are not in favor of us joining the E.U.,” said Stanislaw Krajewski, a longtime Jewish activist in Warsaw.

“The financial negotiations people focus on are not the essential point,” Krajewski, who also is the Poland consultant for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA.

“The main thing is that we will be in one body,” he said. “For Jews this will mean that the idea of forming ‘European Jewry’ will be easier to explore. The national differences” — such as cultural identities and patriotic feelings — “will remain, but there will be an administrative background to European Jewish identity.”

At a summit in Copenhagen on Dec. 12-13, the European Union decided to admit 10 newcomers — Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Malta and Cyprus.

They will become full E.U. members on May 1, 2004, enlarging the union to 25 states.

Except for the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus, the new members are states that only a decade or so ago were under Communist domination — and several did not even exist as independent entities.

Their inclusion in the European Union formally abolishes the East-West frontier that divided post-World War II Europe for decades. As such, it validates the emerging Jewish communities in these countries as part of the European and Jewish mainstream.

“Jews typically support universalistic ideas, a united liberal market and the defense of minorities,” Budapest sociologist Andras Kovacs said. “In this sense, the attitudes that characterize Jews approach what we call Europe.”

For Jews in Eastern and Central Europe, the transition from East Bloc to E.U. member is particularly remarkable.

Little more than a dozen years ago, Jewish communities in the region were generally written off as dying remnants of the pre-Holocaust past.

But the end of the Cold War saw a revival of Jewish communal life in post-communist countries. It also enabled Jews from all parts of Europe to take first steps toward pooling their energies and developing a role as a potential “third pillar” of world Jewry, alongside American Jews and Israel.

It was in this spirit, for example, that the Czech capital, Prague, was chosen as the site of a European Council of Jewish Communities meeting in November that grouped presidents of Jewish communities from 40 countries.

“E.U. enlargement brings European Jews even closer together and will enable us to test out the ‘third pillar’ premise,” Konstanty Gebert, publisher of the Polish Jewish monthly Midrasz, told JTA.

“What’s going to be interesting now is to watch whether there will be an immigration of Jews from western Europe into the countries of East-Central Europe,” said Yechiel Bar Chaim, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country director for the Czech Republic. “Prague has all the infrastructure; will it get an infusion of Jews?”

Over the past decade, Paris-based historian Diana Pinto has been an important voice in linking Jewish development in Europe with the overall development of post-Cold War civil society across the continent.

She describes Jews in Europe today as “voluntary Jews,” who make a conscious personal commitment to identify as Jews and remain in European societies as such.

For Pinto, the E.U. enlargement decision comes at a symbolic moment.

“It is 13 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall — Bar Mitzvah time,” she told a conference in Rome this month examining the impact the fall of Communism had on European Jewry. “We have to stress the anti-Semitism we see and other dangers, but why not also celebrate?”

The E.U. enlargement, she told JTA, should provide a framework for Jews in former communist states to continue their process of development in countries evolving as pluralistic democracies.

The Jews there, she said, “are the ones who know what freedom and democracy are about for strengthening a Jewish identity. They are the ones who can ‘relativize’ the Holocaust by bringing it back into lived history in which Communism constituted the other 20th century problem, and they are the ones who still know what universal values are about.”

Jewish leaders say the E.U. enlargement should also have an impact on E.U. policies of Jewish concern, such as stands on Israel and fighting anti-Semitism and other forms of racism.

“Joining Europe means making a commitment to democracy, human rights and freedom of religion,” said Michel Friedman of Germany, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany who recently was named president of the European Jewish Congress.

Jews in Eastern and Central Europe feel that E.U. membership also will mean increased pressure on right-wing extremist movements, which often embrace anti-Semitic positions.

“As Jews, E.U. membership will put us under the protection of E.U. laws on minorities,” Gebert said. He said he had been called in by the Polish government this week to discuss a draft law setting up an office to inspect, monitor and intervene in cases of discrimination.

“It’s a very tough law and will get opposition in Parliament, and it’s explicitly based on an E.U. law,” he said.

The governments of new E.U. members such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are much more pro-Israel than current E.U. members, and this, too, could have an impact.

“We have to monitor that Eastern and Central European countries entering the E.U. do not sacrifice their pro-Israel policy to please Paris,” the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, told the European Jewish meeting in Prague in November.

For the Middle East, the European Union could serve as a model of enemies eventually making peace.

“There is no more blood-drenched soil than Europe,” Harris said. “The E.U. is the most successful peace project in history. Its members now live in peace and prosperity, with a commitment to democracy and human rights. The E.U. should show the Arab world how to emulate Europe.”

Recommended from JTA