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European Jewish activists want action


MADRID, June 5 (JTA) — European Jewish activists agree on what they need to do: Enough schmoozing, more funding and initiatives.

“We must do this, because if we don’t succeed, our goals and efforts may be doomed,” said Latvia’s Gregory Krupnikov, vice president of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

Krupnikov made his comments last weekend in Spain, where some 700 activists from 39 countries converged at the ECJC’s General Assembly.

The four-day forum in Madrid and Toledo was conceived as the latest step toward creation of a unified, pan-European Jewish entity that can take active part in the formation of a new, democratic Europe.

“It really is exciting,” said ECJC President Jacob Cobi Benatoff. “There are Jews here from all corners of the continent.”

More than 2 million Jews live in Europe, including 1 million in the former Soviet Union.

Organizers and participants alike now face the challenge of harnessing the feel-good energy of Europe’s biggest international Jewish gathering and preventing it from frittering away into rhetoric.

In short, activists say, the fact that European Jews are getting together and discussing common issues is no longer in itself enough to sustain momentum. Nuts and bolts pragmatism — and internally generated commitment — are required.

“It’s a pity if we all just get on our planes and forget what went on here,” said one participant. “We need to make sure that our objectives are taken forward in a practical way. Things have to be followed through; we have to make sure that what we decide to do actually happens. Communities have to contribute energy or financial resources.”

The ECJC, operating in close cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is a service organization that aims to facilitate cooperation and communication among Jewish communities and organizations.

Along with fostering leadership training, it aims to mediate contacts between European Jewish bodies and the European Union.

It also increasingly aims to join the European Jewish Congress in providing a political voice for European Jewry in international forums and has entered into agreements with several American and international Jewish organizations.

The G.A. in fact, passed a resolution recognizing the “rich diversity” of Jewish life in Europe and calling for the creation of a “unified umbrella organization of and for European Jewry.”

The assembly was the latest in a series of conferences and other initiatives aimed at promoting a pan-European Jewish identity that have taken place since the fall of communism and opening up of Europe more than a decade ago.

It was a direct follow up to the ECJC’s first G.A., held in 1999 in Nice, France. That meeting drew 600 participants and was unprecedented in size, scope and objective. Its greatest importance, however, was the very fact that it took place.

“At Nice, I really felt the energy,” said Peter Gyori, of the Bejt Praha Open Jewish Community in Prague. “I mean, wow, it was the first time. Everyone felt together.

“It’s great that there was the second G.A. here in Madrid, and that these meetings will probably continue,” he added, “but at these meetings, everything should go forward with an increasing level — something more should always be offered.”

The two major transborder projects that grew out of the Nice G.A. were a conference last year on Jewish education that drew more than 200 European Jewish educators and the institution of a European Day of Jewish Culture.

Jewish heritage sites in 16 countries were simultaneously opened to the public on one day last September, drawing as many as 200,000 visitors across the continent.

“It was the first event that really politically unified European Jewry,” said Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “It also was a politically important event for Europe as a whole.”

Two dozen countries will take part in a second such day this year.

But ECJC leaders admit that, on a pragmatic level, much of the momentum from Nice was squandered.

A participant from Cannes, France, for example, noted that even though the 1999 G.A. took place in France, relatively few French Jews followed up and attended the Madrid conference.

With 600,000 Jews, France has Europe’s largest community outside the former Soviet Union — more than the rest of Europe combined.

“The ECJC worked hard to involve the French community,” said Benatoff. “But for the moment it seems that the French Jews are self-sufficient and not interested in such events.”

So dramatic were the changes in the Jewish world since the fall of communism that Paris-based historian Diana Pinto dubs the 1990s “the Jewish decade.”

“But the Jewish decade is over,” Pinto, one of the most eloquent champions of pan-European Jewish identity, told a G.A. session. “What are the challenges beyond?”

She outlined a number of broad fundamental points, ranging from defining a Jewish collective identity to confronting relations with Muslims, Gypsies, also known as Roma, and other minority groups in Europe.

An informal survey of 200 participants attending the Madrid G.A. showed the challenges to be even more basic.

It showed widespread dissatisfaction with communal lay leadership and Jewish community programs as well as pessimism regarding the Jewish future in Europe: most respondents predicted a widening polarization in the Jewish world, a decrease in religious observance and an upsurge in intermarriage.

“There are very fundamental issues at stake,” said Barry Kosmin, director of the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research. “There are issues of viability, of coming together and feeling strength through numbers. We have to reject the rhetoric of paranoia.

“Here we met in Spain, home to Don Quixote,” he said. “It’s a good analogy — we risk tilting at windmills, that is, getting sidetracked by issues and problems whose solution is beyond the scope of what tiny European Jewish communities can do.

“The priorities anymore are not emergency relief, but another model — the creation of long-term structural development models that can ensure viability.”

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