Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jews in a New Europe on Eve of E.u. Expansion, Jews See Mixture of Risk and Opportunity

April 26, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

On May 1, less than 15 years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the former Communist states of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are to become full-fledged members of the European Union, along with the island states of Cyprus and Malta.

The move marks the culmination of Europe’s political and economic transformation.

It puts a formal end to the post-World War II paradigm of a Europe divided between East and West — and, at the same time, validates the emerging Jewish communities in the new member states as part of the European and Jewish mainstream.

“It’s as if brothers who were out are coming home,” said Mario Izcovich, director of pan-European programs for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Like their non-Jewish fellow citizens, Jews in the new E.U. countries view the union’s enlargement with a mix of emotions ranging from eagerness to deep anxiety.

Younger Jews in particular are eager to take advantage of enhanced business, educational and other opportunities. Others hope enlargement will facilitate contact among Jewish communities.

Some Jews, however, fear they will be left behind by the changes. And many fear that “new” forms of anti-Semitism and unfavorable Israel policies in Western Europe may be exported to new member countries that to date have had policies supportive of Israel.

“E.U. enlargement will not directly affect the new member states’ Jews, other than in the mainly positive way it will change the lives of the general population,” Polish Jewish writer Konstanty Gebert told JTA. “In the long run, it will be instrumental in bringing all the continent’s Jews together and helping them avail themselves of new opportunities, both through E.U. sponsorship of some community programs and through the implementation of E.U. laws.

But the main issue, he said, “is whether there exists a ‘European Jewry’ able to profit from the opportunity.”

What might change, he said, “is the relatively more balanced approach that some new members, especially Poland, have taken on the Middle East conflict. As the E.U. attempts to integrate the foreign policies of its members, it can be expected that the newcomers will more closely toe Brussels’ line, which is markedly critical of Israel.”

About 2 million Jews live in Europe, in national communities that range from about 100 people in Malta to 600,000 in France. European Jewry encompasses all walks of life, all social and economic brackets and all religious streams.

Altogether, fewer than 150,000 Jews live in the 10 new E.U. states. In East-Central Europe, the E.U. enlargement caps a period of extraordinary changes in a region where the Holocaust wiped out millions of Jews and Communist regimes made Jewish observance virtually taboo.

The end of the Cold War enabled a dramatic revival of Jewish life in post-Communist Europe. Synagogues, schools and other Jewish institutions were established and a wide range of Jewish cultural activities blossomed. International Jewish networks expanded to encompass Jews once cut off by the Iron Curtain.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, some Jewish strategists foresaw the emergence of a “European Jewish identity” that could make European Jewry a collective “third pillar” — or equal player — of world Jewry, alongside Israeli and North American Jewry.

Some Jews in Europe feel they are moving toward that goal, albeit slowly — and they see the E.U. enlargement as a key step in that direction.

“Perhaps we have not entirely created a European Jewish identity, but we are near to that feeling,” said Fero Alexander, executive chairman of the Central Union of Jewish Communities in Slovakia, home to 3,000 to 4,000 Jews.

European Jews, he told JTA, have found their self-confidence, and that is “what I consider the most exciting achievement.”

Izcovich, whose job is to foster programs aimed at cross-border Jewish cooperation, said the definition of European Jewish identity may be more complex than envisaged.

“We need to speak about European Jewish identity with a capital ‘I’ that includes many Jewish identities,” he said. “This comes from the past: 2,000 years of Jewish presence in Europe, the development in Spain, in Central Europe, from Rashi and Maimonides till nowadays. So the European Jewish identity really exists, with all its differences.”

According to Gebert and others, however, the optimistic expectations of the 1990s largely have not been fulfilled, partly due to internal Jewish relations.

“The two main communities, in France and in the U.K., do not seem interested in reaching out to the remaining small fry,” he said. “The large communities in Russia and Ukraine remain essentially dependent on American Jewish and Israeli support, both material and spiritual, and the Hungarian community is as insular as ever.”

“Representatives of smaller Diasporas meet more often in Jerusalem or Washington than in Paris or London — let alone Moscow, Budapest or Warsaw — and mainly compete for the attention of the big Jewish organizations, instead of trying to coordinate their actions,” he said. “E.U. enlargement will probably not change this.”

In addition, a grim litany of global challenges has cast a shadow over European Jewish development and made some Jews feel less secure on the continent than they did in the heady days of the 1990s.

These include a spike in anti-Semitic violence, world terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and Holocaust revisionism. Fallout from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq have added further cause for concern, as Jews are torn by left-right politics and anti-Semitism often has become mixed with anti-Americanism.

Widespread European criticism of Israel for its policies against the Palestinians has prompted warnings that a demonization of the Jewish state forms the basis of a new type of anti-Semitism.

“It’s very dangerous,” said Janos Gado, an editor of the Budapest Jewish monthly Szombat. “It is politically correct to be against anti-Semitism and to lament the Shoah, but also to be anti-Zionist. This development in Europe is very disappointing, and I share the fears of many Jews that Europe will not be able to protect them.”

European Jews and non-Jews “speak two different languages, so I’m not so enthusiastic about Europe,” Gado said.

E.U. expansion, he said, could be good for Jews as individuals, but for Jews who are very committed to their community and to Israel “it may, in the long term, give them no protection.”

Such issues are slated to be discussed at the third General Assembly of European Jewry, organized by the European Council of Jewish Communities. The assembly will take place in Budapest on May 20-23, just three weeks after the new countries join the European Union.

“There is much to celebrate, but much to concern us,” Cobi Benatoff, the ECJC’s outgoing president, said recently.

“As the European map undergoes change, there has been an emergence of instability linked to global and local tensions such as racism, anti-Semitism, the threat of terrorism, immigration and unequal levels of development,” he said. “This makes it all the more necessary to review the Jewish people’s place as citizens with rights in this new Europe.”

Benatoff, who also is president of the European Jewish Congress, has attempted to raise the Jewish profile in European political discourse, particularly on the issue of anti-Semitism. But observers tend to agree that European Jewry has yet to find a true political voice.

Funded by the JDC, the ECJC has been a leading proponent of European Jewish identity and has attempted to facilitate networking and cooperation among Jewish individuals and communities in more than 40 countries in Europe, North Africa and Central Asia.

Its previous general assemblies — in Nice in 1999 and Madrid in 2001 — each drew more than 700 participants. Organizers say they expect the Budapest assembly to be even larger.

Izcovich, who is one of the organizers, says that in a Europe whose borders are fading away, Jews must learn to think internationally in order to survive.

“We are the global people,” he said. “We know about that for thousands of years.”

Jews, he said, are taking part in “a process where differences between East and West are disappearing, where a leader of a community of 60,000 can sit and discuss with someone who is the leader of 2,000 Jews. There is a chorus where all the voices are taken into account.”

Young Jews appear to realize this best, he said.

“They are among the ones who are best prepared for such a new moment,” he said. “Youngsters are prepared to travel, to live in another city, to exchange.

“The challenge is for the Jewish organizations, the question of which is my community, the local one or the European one,” he said. “Jewish organizations face the challenge of adapting to this new scenario. Is not easy because the problem needs to be seen with more vision and in a broader space.”

Sharing and cooperation will be progressively more imperative, even for simple demographic reasons, he said.

“One of the main problems in the Jewish Europe is the issue of critical mass,” he noted. “There are a lot of communities with fewer than 5,000 Jews.”

Recommended from JTA