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European Jews Convene to Discuss Issues of Concern

June 2, 2005
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European Jewish organizations have to improve their lobbying abilities in order to be more successful in the European political environment and the wider Jewish world, where Israel and the United States are the dominant forces. This was the conclusion of many of the 207 delegates to a gathering here over the weekend of top officials of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

Participants from more than 37 countries, representing 72 cities and 86 organizations, came to the city, which hosted the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

During the three-day conference, it was clear that there are many divisions among Europe’s estimated 3 million Jews. Religiously, there are Orthodox, Conservative and liberal denominations.

Communally, Western European groups tend to have more experience — and greater financial resources — than the communities of Eastern Europe, which are supported largely by overseas organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Politically, there are differences among old members of the European Union, the 10 new members who joined last year and non-members.

The divisions became evident in sessions at the conference, where even the title of one spoke volumes: “A Single European Jewish Voice Is a Fantasy That Can Never Be Achieved.”

At another session, “Governmental Relations and Lobbying,” Emil Kalo, president of the Bulgarian Jewish communities, took issue with a remark by a Spanish participant in the audience, who wanted to teach Kalo about lobbying in Eastern Europe.

Kalo himself caused a controversy by claiming that Jews were the best lobbyists. “If we were so successful, why do we always have to talk about rising anti-Semitism?” someone responded.

The panel concluded that European Jews have a lot to learn from American organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Roman Rosenstein from Zurich, a representative of the Anti-Defamation League, said that while many Jewish organizational representatives were impressed by nice hotels and their political counterparts, the important thing before meeting ministers and other high-ranking politicians is to be prepared and know what to press for in a meeting.

Problems also can arise when different Jewish groups are lobbying for different positions.

For instance, Irith Raub-Michelsohn, executive director of the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany, is negotiating with the German government about permitting more Russian Jews to immigrate to Germany. While the Union of Progressive Jews is in favor of letting all people with one Jewish parent into the country, the larger Central Council of Jews in Germany prefers to let in only those with a Jewish mother, in accordance with the traditional Jewish position of matrilineal descent.

“This kind of division we definitely should avoid,” Raub-Michelsohn told JTA.

Daniel Rothschild, treasurer of the Swiss Federations of Jewish Communities, said his community will “need good lobbying” when it faces an upcoming political fight over the import of kosher meat.

Since ritual slaughtering is not allowed in Switzerland, kosher meat is imported. Now animal rights activists have started an effort to also ban the import of kosher meat.

Rothschild said that the weekend’s meeting that brought Jews from across the continent was uplifting for Switzerland’s 17,000 Jews.

Other participants also said the most interesting part of the meeting was the opportunity to discuss with colleagues from other communities issues such as Jewish education.

Jonathan Joseph, the president of European Council, said that despite the differences among European Jews, a meeting such as this shows the ability to discuss openly “issues that are of great concern for the Jewish communities.”

Joseph, who is from London, stressed that the Jewish communities have to live in harmony with their environment.

He said that the European Council, which was founded almost 40 years ago, should be a forum for all different Jewish movements.

The next meeting of European Jewish officials is slated to take place in 2006 in Berlin.

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