The 1990s seemed to be a golden decade for European Jewry.
Jewish communities re-emerged following the collapse of communism, and the Oslo accords appeared to point the way toward peace in the Middle East.
European Jews, celebrating the end of the Communist era, began taking tentative steps to chart their future and develop a role as a third pillar of world Jewry, alongside American Jews and Israel.
Since then, however, a grim litany of global challenges has erupted to confront Jews worldwide.
These include rising anti-Semitism, global terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, Holocaust revisionism, widespread support for the Palestinian side in the Middle East conflict and the consequent demonization of Israel.
What impact do these challenges have on European Jews and their attempt to forge a new sense of pan-European Jewish identity — and how should Jewish communities react and confront them?
These questions formed the focus of heated debate here Sunday among Jewish leaders from more than 40 countries. The communal leaders were attending a three-day conference of Jewish community presidents sponsored by the European Council of Jewish Communities.
A five-person panel from France, Italy, the United States, Portugal and Russia set the stage by noting specific challenges that have emerged in the two years since the failure of the Middle East peace process and the onset of the Palestinian intifada.
“What strikes me is the speed with which everything collapsed,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “It is almost as if Oslo and Camp David never happened. Sadly, perhaps the goodwill we had in the 1990s was broader than it was deep.”
Harris outlined 10 specific challenges for the Jewish community. These ranged from attempting to strengthen E.U. support for Israel to exposing the “lethal and deadly” anti-Semitism now rampant in the Islamic world.
He also said Europe must encourage democracy in the Arab and Muslim world to create a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism.
Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, an umbrella organization for secular Jewish institutions in France, went so far as to speak of a “state of war against the Jews in the world.”
The spate of violent attacks on synagogues and other Jewish sites in France earlier this year, he said, was “clearly related to the situation in the Middle East.”
French authorities have since cracked down, and there has been a sharp decrease in such violence, he said.
But “the general atmosphere has not changed — we feel it in our schools, on our campuses, in the media.”
A spark, he said, such as a U.S.-led attack on Iraq, could touch off a new cycle of violence against Jews and Jewish institutions.
Threats to the Jewish world, he said, come from the traditionally anti-Semitic extreme right, the pro-Palestinian and anti-globalization extreme left, and the growing Arab and Muslim minorities.
“The French people are not anti-Semitic,” he said. “The French generally hate the Arabs more than they do the Jews, but they are afraid of taking them on.”
Panelists and audience members also debated how to prevent legitimate concern over current events from blurring into paranoia.
“One of the biggest problems is how to maintain our specificity as Jews without closing ourselves into a ghetto mentality,” said Portuguese panelist Marta Mucznik, executive director of the European Union of Jewish Students.
“We are concerned how to build a positive Jewish identity that is not just based on the Middle East. This is part of our identity, but it should not be all.”
Michael Brenner, a professor at the University of Munich, agreed.
“We still tend to let the others set our agenda,” he said. “Shouldn’t we get a little beyond bashing Islam or seeing the liberal left as the enemy?
“The situation is much more complex,” he said. “Look at Germany. The biggest ally of the Jews and Israel is Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, of the leftist Greens party.”
This complexity was underscored by the president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, Cobi Benatoff of Milan, who noted that in Italy, “We are confronted by the fact that the best allies of the Jews and Israel are the post-fascists. The Jewish community has great difficulty with this.”
Benatoff added that the new challenges to European Jewry do not mean that the bedrock issues essential for Jewish survival — internal structure, leadership training, Jewish continuity, religious pluralism — have disappeared.
“These issues have not been resolved and remain at the core of Jewish communal life,” he said.
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.