June 3, 1999
European Jews Debate Identity
Nearly 600 Jewish community leaders and representatives from 39 countries gathered here over the weekend for what they described as a major step toward the goal of creating a new European Jewish identity.
Organizers and participants at the first General Assembly of the European Council of Jewish Communities also said the gathering reflected a new vision of European Jewry as a "third pillar" of world Judaism alongside the Jews of Israel and the Americas.
Bringing together Jews from communities of all sizes throughout Europe -- with Orthodox, Reform and secular representatives, and age groups ranging from students to senior citizens -- the meeting was unprecedented in size, scope and objective.
"This is the first time in Europe that 600 Jews have sat down together to discuss policy for the future," said incoming ECJC President Cobi Benatoff of Milan, who put forward a challenge to those gathered for the conference: "What can European Jewry contribute to the new Europe of the 21st century?"
Throughout the conference, one key theme emerged: an increasing sense of self-confidence from European Jewry -- at least on a leadership level -- in its relations both with Israel as well as with North American Jews and international Jewish organizations.
Expressions of self-confidence clearly emerged during a heated debate that focused on how to approach the process of seeking restitution for Jewish property seized during the Holocaust.
European speakers, including representatives of the Dutch, Czech and French communities, criticized international organizations like the World Jewish Restitution Organization for being insensitive to local conditions and for bypassing local communities in their negotiations with governments for the return of Jewish property.
"Interference from [international] Jewish organizations is not appropriate or wanted," said Fred Ensel of Amsterdam. "They have done a wonderful job -- but we will call them in when wanted."
Several Israeli speakers at the meeting were dismayed that more emphasis was not placed on Israel's centrality for Jews.
Israel's ambassador to France, Eliahu Ben-Elissar, urged all European Jews to make aliyah and bemoaned the fact that, in conference hall decorations, the Israeli flag was hung, side by side and the same size, with flags of European countries.
But at least one participant considered this sought-after emphasis on Israel an "outdated" attitude: "Anyhow, for us by now, the centrality of Israel is a given -- we don't have to keep repeating it."
During the conference, participants also focused on the serious challenges that render the new European Jewish identity a still-fragile concept.
These challenges, discussed in workshops, include: Jewish education; students' issues; Jewish heritage; social welfare programs and old age; Jewish community centers; and Jewish media.
Because of the fragility of the vision of the newly emergent European Jewish leadership, said Helena Datner, president of the Jewish community of Warsaw, "It was really important to sit down and discuss common problems, and to realize that we all are confronting similar issues."
The weekend conference followed up on a series of other Jewish gatherings during the past four years aimed at fostering European Jewish identity in the wake of the fall of communism and the opening of Eastern Europe.
These included smaller meetings of about 200 people, mostly academics, scholars and experts. Among such gatherings were a 1995 conference in Prague on planning for the future of European Jewry and a 1997 meeting in Strasbourg, France, on furthering Jewish life in Europe.
The ECJC is a Paris-based service organization that aims at serving as a facilitator for encouraging cooperation and communication among Jewish communities and organizations.
Along with fostering leadership training, it has set up an office to mediate contacts between Jewish communities and organizations and the European Union -- including contacts for obtaining project funding.
The General Assembly devoted less time to formal sessions, placing more emphasis on allowing the opportunity for informal contacts and workshops.
It was paralleled by a singles weekend organized for about 70 young adults from across Europe, who, between social events, joined some of the conference sessions.
"The importance is that we are all here from all over, and for many of us the only thing we have in common is that we are Jews," said Ya'akov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine.