Letter from Madrid

Letter from Madrid

AJC Executive Director David A. Harris writes a monthly letter offering his insights and analysis of current concerns facing American and world Jewry.

Letter from Madrid
June 11, 2001

Truth be told, I don't need much prompting to go to Madrid. In my book, together with Paris and Prague it's among Europe's most beautiful and seductive cities. But the prospect of attending the 2nd General Assembly of European Jewry, organized by the European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC) and bringing together 700 delegates from thirty-nine countries, made this particular trip to Madrid all the more enticing.

I had participated in the 1st General Assembly in Nice two years earlier, another "rough" assignment. Whoever chooses these locations deserves a medal, not that there's much time for sightseeing. Years in Jewish communal life have taught me that we sometimes suffer from a masochistic streak; we select wonderful sites to hold conferences and then too often lock ourselves in windowless meeting rooms from morning till night discussing our communal ills.

Actually, in this case the Madrid organizers included a plenary session at the Sinagoga de Santa María Blanca in Toledo, a synagogue that was taken over as a church in the fifteenth century and has remained a Catholic house of worship ever since. I had a predictably schizophrenic reaction to the venue.

On the one hand, there was a sense of joy that, more than 500 years later, committed Jews in large numbers entered this building to discuss the future of Jewish life in Europe and were greeted warmly by a leading Spanish Catholic prelate.

On the other hand, the inescapable sense of historical loss was ever present. Here was a once magnificent synagogue taken away from the Jewish community centuries ago, in the center of a city that once housed a significant Jewish community and today counts not a single Jew.

Toledo was not unique, of course.

From the Golden Age of Jews in Spain—one of the most remarkable periods in the entire sweep of Jewish history, which included such illustrious individuals as Yehudah HaLevi, Maimonides, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and Nachmanides—to the fifteenth-century era of the Inquisition, forced conversions, expulsion, and autos-da-fé, the slide was rapid and the results devastating.

Not until the twentieth century did Jewish life slowly reemerge, culminating with the visit of King Juan Carlos to the Madrid Synagogue on March 31, 1992, five hundred years to the day from the edict of the Catholic Kings expelling all the Jews from Spanish territory. Moreover, although Spain was the last West European nation, in 1986, to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, the bilateral relationship has grown rapidly over the past fifteen years.

These two European Jewish gatherings—first in Nice, then in Madrid—suggest history in the making. Something exciting is happening to European Jewry, and the ECJC is in the vanguard. There's a new spirit and it is palpable.

For one thing, the fall of the iron curtain has created previously unimaginable opportunities for the reawakening of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. Jewish communities, big and small, have reemerged, and there is a desire, actually a hunger, for links with other Jewish communities.

For another, the bug of European integration has bitten the Jews of Europe. As fifteen European countries move toward closer political and economic integration, and thirteen other aspirants seek to align policy with the European Union, Jewish communities recognize not only the opportunity but also the necessity to establish the groundwork for pan-European cooperation.

And for a third, European Jewry, long considered the stepchild in a world Jewish community dominated by Israel and American Jewry, now appears determined to flex its muscles and insist on a place at the table with its numerically larger counterparts.

The going, though, will be anything but easy. For all the obvious enthusiasm displayed at Madrid, the delegates themselves acknowledged the long road ahead.

In some European countries, Jewish population numbers, according to the American Jewish Year Book 2000, are barely noticeable—for example, 1,100 in Finland, 1,000 in Ireland, 1,200 in Norway, and 300 in Portugal—even as these communities admirably seek to sustain a strong commitment to Jewish life. In fact, of all the European countries, ironically the only one to experience any significant Jewish population growth in recent years is Germany, largely due to the steady influx of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.

Moreover, resources remain scarce. The tradition of philanthropy, which has characterized American Jewry, is not yet equaled in Europe—far from it. The levels of communal development vary widely within Europe. Long and proud histories distinguish each community. English is becoming the continent's lingua franca, but linguistic barriers still remain. Approaches to Jewish pluralism differ from country to country and also, at times, from city to city. Competition among Jewish organizations—a phenomenon not entirely unknown to American Jews—exists in Europe. And the historical and psychological barriers to establishing a strong, effective European Jewish community are not insignificant.

Let me dwell on this last issue for a moment. It's always dangerous to make sweeping assertions, but there are some profound differences between the basic European and American models.

Israelis and American Jews often ask, for instance, why their European counterparts aren't more politically active on behalf of Jewish concerns. To the extent that this is true, one must take into account the fact that there is not the same tradition of lobbying by interest groups in Europe as there is in the United States.

And that's not all. When my wife moved with me to New York in 1979, she helped me understand a profound perceptual divide.

Having lived all her life first in North Africa, then in Europe, she was instinctively used to separating her private and public identities. At home, she was profoundly Jewish, but elsewhere, she had learned, Jews didn't make too many waves.

There was always unease, even in a fully democratic country, about drawing too much attention to the Jews. There were the heavy weight and long shadow of history, the unhealed scars, the residual trauma—not easily shed—from centuries of Christian-dominated Europe, from the isolation, scapegoating, and persecution, culminating in the Shoah, that too many European Jewish communities experienced. And, as a consequence, there was a lingering uncertainty about whether Jews could consider themselves equal participants in society, even if they had become full citizens and lived in the country for generations, or longer.

To some, especially in Israel and the United States, this was outdated Jewish thinking, but nonetheless it was, and to a degree remains a feature, albeit diminishing, of the Jewish psyche in parts of Europe, especially in those countries where Jews constitute a miniscule percentage of the population.

In others, most notably France, home to the revolutionary doctrines embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) and the French National Assembly's Law Relating to Jews (1791), the Jewish community, numbering 700,000, has maintained a high profile. The community enjoys good access to the government and media, and Jews are remarkably prominent in the nation's intellectual life. Even so, influence is circumscribed by a number of factors, including, again, a limited tradition of lobbying by interest groups and a sizeable Arab population that outnumbers Jews by a ratio of approximately seven to one.

At first, my wife was shocked to see the American Jewish model. She was uneasy watching as American Jews loudly and proudly asserted their identity in public, petitioned the government, placed advocacy ads in newspapers, and took on one policy battle after another.

But it wasn't long before she came to admire this behavior—even if she sometimes wondered whether the public identity of American Jews outweighed the private—and to understand that it stemmed from another societal conception than she had previously known.

American Jews in this era were not regarded, nor did they see themselves, as guests, but rather as equals with other Americans. Accordingly, they didn't hesitate to jump into the fray when they felt their interests were at stake. Nor did they fear that such activity might jeopardize their place in society or alienate the majority population.

To the contrary, the genius—and I use the word advisedly—of American Jewish political advocacy has been to seek a broader base of support for core concerns by making the case, often successfully, to other Americans that these concerns, whether standing with a fellow democracy, Israel, or defending the human rights of Jews in danger, reflect the highest American ideals and values.

I was reminded of the differences last fall when a Jewish activist in Geneva planned a pro-Israel rally opposite the UN headquarters, a week after anti-Israel demonstrators had gathered at the same spot to call for jihad and chant "Mort aux juifs," "Death to the Jews."

We were chatting a few days before the demonstration and this activist asked me for program suggestions. In typical American Jewish fashion, I proposed inviting non-Jewish groups and elected officials to join the rally; after all, that's what the American Jewish Committee would instinctively do in similar circumstances. She said it was a fine idea, but then asked where I expected to find them.

With the exception of Germany, and even there things are slowly changing, it is becoming ever harder to find coalition partners in Europe when it comes to Israel. And without such partners, it can feel painfully lonely. Consider the numbers: 14,000 Spanish Jews in a country of 40 million, less than 5,000 Greek Jews out of 11 million, and so on.

Which brings me back to the phenomenon of growing European Jewish identity and cooperation. One obvious way to overcome this numerical disadvantage is to develop links across borders, all the more so when those borders are in any case beginning to melt away. It is far more impressive to speak of 2-3 million European Jews who feel strongly on an issue rather than just a single national community.

To illustrate, when the Swedish Parliament, on June 1, passed legislation that would interfere with the Jewish community's right to perform circumcisions on new-born Jewish males, the community's president sought the support of all the thirty-nine countries represented in Madrid so that she could speak with a louder voice in Stockholm, and indeed she was able to carry back with her a declaration adopted unanimously (and also supported by several international Jewish agencies).

And when Israel experienced the devastating terrorist attack outside the Tel Aviv nightclub, in which twenty youngsters and 120 others wounded, the Madrid delegates adopted a strongly worded resolution targeted as much at Europe as at the world.

It is worth quoting the three references dealing with Europe, both for their content and the signal they send that a cohesive pan-European Jewish community is forming and which is determined to become a factor in the life of Europe as a whole:

"We, the 700 delegates representing 39 countries…urge the governments of Europe to speak out forcefully against the escalating campaign of Palestinian terror and violence…further urge the governments of Europe, who are the principal financial supporters of the Palestinian Authority, to state clearly that such actions violate European moral values and undermine the search for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East…request the European media to adopt a balanced approach to coverage of the Middle East, and to avoid simplistic, one-sided portrayals that present Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as innocent victims."

Among delegates, there was a recognition that, despite the pro-Israel stance of some politicians, many European governments had shown little understanding, much less sympathy, for Israel's difficult position in the face of Palestinian rejection and terror during the past nine months in particular. Thus, a far greater effort would be needed to advocate on Israel's behalf. If not spearheaded by Jewish leaders, then by whom? At the same time, they were fully aware that they faced a steep uphill climb.

(In a related aside underscoring Israel's isolation in the international community, the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, speaking at a Jewish function last night, noted that, with the exception of the Americans, not one single diplomat or UN official approached him to offer condolences after last week's suicide bombing outside the Tel Aviv nightclub.)

The same concern was expressed by many delegates in Madrid about media treatment of Israel and the need to grapple with it more effectively than in the past, though this, too, everyone admits, is no easy assignment. While in Spain, for example, I was shown a number of cartoons in popular periodicals that illustrate all too well the problem.

One cartoon, which appeared in El Periodico (October 6, 2000), shows a young Palestinian male crucified on a Star of David.

Another, in El Pais (May 23, 2001), depicts Prime Minister Sharon and a small figure flying in his direction with the caption: "Clio, the muse of history, placing the mustache of Hitler on Sharon."

A third, also in El Pais (May 24, 2001), is a picture of a caricatured Orthodox Jew carrying an Israeli flag in his right hand with a rifle hanging from his shoulder. He is reading from a Bible held in his left hand: "We are the chosen people for the manufacture of weapons."

A fourth, in La Vanguardia (May 25, 2001), presents three buildings, each with a sign in front of it—"Museum of the Jewish Holocaust," "Museum of the Bosnian Holocaust," "Museum of the Chechen Holocaust"—and a fourth building, under construction, with the sign "Future Museum of the Palestinian Holocaust."

And the fifth and most recent, which appeared in Cambio 16 (June 4, 2001) just a few days after the Tel Aviv discotheque bombing, is of Sharon with a hook nose, wearing a kippah, and with a swastika inside a Star of David emblazoned on his shirt, and his comment: "From bad can come good. At least, Hitler taught me to invade a country and exterminate every living vermin."

There's much more such outrageous material, and not just from Spain of course; it's not limited to cartoons either, but also, as I have suggested in previous letters, includes radio and television reporting, newspaper headlines, photographs and captions, content and placement of articles, and editorials across Europe.

But rather than end here on this depressing note, let me finish on the more hopeful note I began.

Something exciting and important is happening among Europe's Jewish communities fifty-five years after the war's end. It didn't start yesterday, and it won't take full form overnight; there will doubtless be many obstacles along the way. Still, there's a growing determination to create something larger than the sum of its parts, and, in doing so, to establish European Jewry as a truly vibrant force in the social, cultural, and political life of the new Europe.

Is it a realistic goal? The skeptics say no way, the national differences and rivalries are too entrenched and, in any case, "there's not enough there there."

But the effort deserves the full support and assistance of Israel and American Jewry, because the potential dividends of success, even partial success, would serve both the interests of European and world Jewry, and that's something well worth pursuing.

And this is precisely why, as one practical step to assist the European effort, the American Jewish Committee and the European Council of Jewish Communities announced an association agreement in Madrid, following on the heels of the formal links we have developed with the Bulgarian, Czech, and Slovak Jewish communities and the offices we have established in Berlin, Geneva, and Warsaw.

Just as AJC, after the war, opened a Paris office to help in the Herculean task of rebuilding Jewish life on the continent after the devastation wrought by the Shoah, today we seek to participate in the writing of a promising new chapter in the history of European Jewry, which has come an impressively long way in the past half century.

Note: This is #8 in a series of monthly letters on topics of current interest. To receive copies of previous letters, please visit www.ajc.orgor contact Rebecca Neuwirth at neuwirthr@ajc.org.

Date: 6/11/2001
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