Fears of global terrorism and anti-Semitism shot to the top of the agenda of this year’s international gathering of World Jewish Congress leaders, as the organization worked to reshape itself in light of recent events.
The physical security of Jewish communities worldwide takes top priority, followed by the traditional theme of preserving Jewish spiritual continuity.
Both themes are replacing Holocaust restitution as a top priority for the WJC, which during the past decade has helped fashion international agreements for the return of stolen assets to survivors or their heirs.
Now WJC leaders and members, gathered here this week for the group’s 11th annual plenary assembly, are pledging funds for both urgent, short-term security measures for Jewish communities and for the long- term struggle to ensure Jewish continuity.
To meet the former goal, a fund has been established for security doors, new locks, video surveillance and help for 40 small Jewish communities around the world.
Toward the latter goal, the WJC leadership is suggesting that billions of dollars in unclaimed Holocaust restitution money be used to support Jewish education worldwide. A statement to that effect was expected Thursday.
“We are here to build a bridge to the future, with hope,” said Evelyn Sommer, chairperson of the North American assembly, during opening ceremonies Tuesday. “All of us understand — we the pessimists and we the optimists — that securing the Jewish future is the only work we have to carry out. And failure is not an option.”
In his speech to the assembly, WJC President Edgar Bronfman said, “We have two tasks for the future” — to fight “the enemy within, and the enemy without.”
The first is “the unbelievable lack of Jewish literacy by Jews over most of the world,” Bronfman said.
The second is Islamic terrorism — which aims, Bronfman said, to create one vast Islamic state. “Terrorists have a dream, and it is our nightmare.”
The terror attacks on America “affected every aspect of political and social life, Jewish and non-Jewish,” said Elan Steinberg, the WJC’s executive director.
For Jewish communities, “the menace of terrorism has been particularly acute since the Al-Aksa Intifada began” in September 2000. “More synagogues have been burned in this period than at any other time since Kristallnacht,” Steinberg told JTA.
Some 800 members from 70 countries are attending the assembly, which concludes Thursday. The program included meetings with top Israeli leaders, including Knesset members, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.
Steinberg told JTA that attendance was down slightly from the 1,000 that normally attend, yet he wasn’t bothered.
“Honestly, it is an extraordinary achievement to have 800 in these times,” he said. “We are delighted.”
Participants had an opportunity to share their concerns as well as to report their achievements. Next to fears of terrorism and concerns for Israel’s safety, they expressed hopes for the future of Diaspora Jewry – – hopes that added a note of brightness to an otherwise gloomy atmosphere.
In particular, they came for a sense of community, for comfort in numbers — and to network.
Ferenc Olti and David Moskovitz of Hungary were hoping to promote the creation of a Jewish institute for higher education in Budapest with European Union support. Their dream is to attract European Jewish students in medicine, law, business and other professions, while providing grounding in Jewish teachings related to their professions.
“The world addressed the issue of monetary restitution for the Holocaust, but cultural restitution has not been addressed,” said Moskovitz, president of the Endowment for Democracy in Eastern Europe.
Olti, a Hungarian Jewish leader, said there is a “new wave of political anti-Semitism in the country, formally and informally supported by the government.”
Recently, when a right-wing Hungarian legislator said “Jews should be separated from the life of the nation, no legal actions were taken,” Olti said. “The Jewish community tried, and we were refused.”
Members of the European Jewish Congress said they plan to institute a European Jewish Lobby to more effectively represent Jewish concerns to the European Union.
Several participants spoke about the increasing anti-Jewish prejudice in media and government.
“Statements have come out of the government attacking Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state,” said Yehuda Kay, director of the board of the South Africa Jewish Congress. “It leaves us feeling very uneasy.”
Ezra Moses, secretary of the Sha’ar Hashamaim synagogue in Thane, India, said he is hearing anti-Israel and anti-American sentiments in India because of America’s current alliance with Pakistan in the U.S.-led war against terror mastermind Osama bin Laden.
“It has not had an impact on the Jewish community, but we are fearing it may have an impact in days to come, if a Jihad comes to India,” Moses said.
Still, the main concern of the 5,000-member Indian Jewish community is education, said Moses, who hopes to find support for a Jewish school in Thane.
The impact of anti-Semitism is concrete in France, where a recent arson attack on a Jewish school in Marseilles has left the community reeling. Roger Cukierman, chairman of the French Jewish organization CRIF, said it was not known if the attackers were right-wing extremists or sympathizers with Osama Bin Laden.
“But it worries us,” he said. “And the way the French press is treating Israeli politics is a disaster for us, because in the eyes of the public, Israel and Jews are the same thing.”
Alexander Vishnevetsky and Rimme Golovina of the Uzbekistan Jewish Community Center in Tashkent said they were proud their country supports America’s fight against terrorism.
But they reported that an Islamic extremist group in Uzbekistan recently “distributed flyers saying that the president of Uzbekistan is Jewish, which of course is not true,” Vishnevetsky said.
“After Sept. 11, I wrote a press release and posted it on Jewish Web sites, expressing sorrow and also inviting people to take action to show their solidarity with the victims,” said Viktoria Dolburd, president of the Federal Union of Jewish Students in Germany.
“It was very sad for me, because seven out of the ten responses we got were anti-Semitic,” she said. “People wrote that ‘finally Jewish New York has received its punishment.’ “
Attitudes in Germany also have unsettled Shila Khasani, a student at the Institute for Judaic Studies in Heidelberg.
“The only fear I have is that the people think that the 11th of September was caused by Jews,” she said, though she added that the terror attacks had “strengthened the relationship of young Jews in Germany and in Israel.”
WJC leaders urged participants to pass along the message that it is important to visit Israel, whose tourist sector has suffered dramatically in the past year. Jews should follow the lead of WJC members, said Israel Singer, secretary general of the organization.
“Our message to the world is that Jews may be few in number, but they are unified,” Singer told JTA.
“Everyone thought only 100 people would come here, but we have 800. Jews in the U.S. are not going shopping, but they do come here. Why? Because they are learning to depend on themselves, and not on others.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.