European Jews are struggling to find an effective way to assert their identity and articulate a coherent, collective voice in a rapidly changing Europe. This challenge, European Jewish leaders say, is breaking stereotypes and fostering a positive sense of self-definition in the face of looming challenges that have put recent optimistic models of Jewish integration to the test.
“One of the biggest challenges we have is to get Jews generally and the world at large to recognize that we are not just defined by the three elements of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and defense of Israel,” Jonathan Joseph, the incoming president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, told JTA.
“It is obvious that 90 percent of our lives is not defined by these elements, but 90 percent of our image is,” Joseph said. “I cannot sit and watch while we define ourselves and allow the world to define us in just those terms.”
Joseph was elected president of the European Council of Jewish Communities at the conclusion of the third General Assembly of European Jewry, a three-day shmooz-fest held in Budapest on May 20-23 that gathered a record number of Jews from across Europe.
Sponsored by the European Council of Jewish Communities and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the G.A. provided an opportunity for more than 1,000 Jewish activists from more than 40 countries to party, network and assert their commitment to the ideal of a European Jewish identity.
Delegates came from all walks of life — including 72 doctors — and ranged in age from students to octogenarians.
They converged on Budapest from established communities in Western Europe and from tiny outposts in post-Communist states — and from every type of community in between. There were even Jews there from Malta and Kosovo.
“It’s been a real opportunity for communities in Europe — especially in a Europe that is trying to unite, expand and grow — to get together, get to know each other and start generating joint activities,” Zdravko Sami, the president of the 208-member Jewish community of Macedonia, told JTA. “For small communities like us, it’s really important.”
But a series of uncertainties cast a shadow on the otherwise exuberant celebration.
These included external questions, such as the impact on Europe’s Jews of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism, which all have become acute since the last European G.A., held in Madrid in 2001.
Indeed, Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua shook up the conference with an appeal for European Jews to take the lead in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling on them to help draw the new border between Israel and a Palestinian state.
He called U.S. policy in the Middle East “useless” and chastised European countries for not having played a more active role in helping settle conflicts such as the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Conference participants also focused on deep-seated internal challenges, such as articulating a coherent Jewish voice in Europe, strengthening European Jewish leadership, evaluating a Jewish role in European affairs — and even defining whether a European Jewish identity really exists.
“Are European and Jewish interests compatible?” Paris-based historian Diana Pinto, long a champion of asserting a European Jewish identity in Europe, asked delegates. “In the past four years, a feeling has emerged that the answer is no. Some forces in the Jewish world think that Europe is tone deaf, and even inimical.”
But, she said in an interview, part of the blame lies on Jewish leaders who are unable to get a clear message across even to sympathetic non-Jewish interlocutors.
“Back in the 1930s, the Jewish leaders in Europe were capable of formulating Jewish needs and concerns but had no one to speak to,” Pinto said. “But now, when there are so many ears open to Jewish concerns, I sometimes feel that the leadership seems only capable of mumbling.”
The Budapest gathering took place just three weeks after the European Union expanded eastward to embrace Malta, Cyprus and eight former Communist countries, including Hungary.
Holding the meeting in Budapest was a deliberate recognition that the Cold War divide that for decades had split Europe — and Europe’s Jews — no longer exists.
But European Jews are looking forward to the effects of E.U. expansion with a mixture of eagerness and anxiety. And the conflicting emotions, combined with worry over anti-Semitism and the continuing conflict in the Middle East, had an noticeable impact on the G.A.’s atmosphere.
“We are looking at a politically united Europe for the first time ever,” Joseph told delegates. “We are experiencing a reawakening of Jewish life and culture in Europe on a scale not seen for 100 years.”
At the same time, he said, “We are living at a most delicate moment in global Jewish terms, with the Middle East in turmoil again, an intermingling of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and the physical manifestation of this uncomfortably close to us. How we respond over the next few years will be one of the most significant things we will do as a Jewish people, and particularly as a European Jewish people.”
“Anti-Semitism will never disappear,” Joseph said. “But the best antidote to anti-Semitism is a positive presence of Jews. Jews have got to stand tall — and never have we had such an opportunity to do so.”
A number of participants said that despite pledges by European Jewish leaders to develop a strong Jewish voice, the G.A. appeared to be inward-looking — to the point where one Italian delegate spoke of a “self-ghettoization.”
“We are turning inward,” she said. “The threats from outside are making people wary. We see families who want to put their children into Jewish schools because they are afraid to have them sit next to the children of Muslim immigrants in public schools.”
The European Council of Jewish Communities, funded in large part by the JDC, is a service organization that aims to facilitate cooperation and communication among Jewish communities and organizations, as well as to promote initiatives fostering Jewish culture and heritage, Jewish education, social welfare and communal development.
A new mission statement prepared for the G.A. stressed that it also aims to represent Jewish interests at E.U. headquarters in Brussels on issues that could affect Jewish communities.
These issues include moves in some countries to limit or ban Jewish ritual practices, such as kosher slaughter and ritual circumcision, on the grounds of animal or children’s rights.
They also include ensuring Jewish input in the promotion of civil society and democratic ideals in the new Europe.
Henry Grunwald, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, warned that as European citizens, Europe’s Jews must define their own identities in positive terms and must resist the temptation to circle the wagons.
“If we don’t,” he said, “we risk falling into the trap of letting ourselves be defined by our attackers, by anti-Semitism.”
“We must be proud to be Jews, be confident to be Jews,” he said. “Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that everyone out there is out enemy. We have many friends, and we are not doing our job if we don’t go out there and keep up our friendships and make new ones.”
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.