Year in Review : Europe

rome | The 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the 15th anniversary of the fall of communism took place this year amid a ferment of transition and concern within Europe.

While a host of world leaders took part in solemn, high-profile ceremonies such as one at Auschwitz in January, Jews across Europe grappled with sometimes turbulent internal conflicts and struggled to move out of the shadow of the Shoah. The goal: find an effective means of asserting their identity and articulate a coherent, collective and positive voice.

European Jewry face issues ranging from aging and assimilation to fallout from the Middle East conflicts and terrorist attacks; from the election of Pope Benedict XVI and death of one who revolutionized Jewish-Catholic relations John Paul II.

Amid the change, the European Jewish Congress, which represents Jewish communities in nearly 40 countries, elected a new president in June.

Pierre Besnainou, a Tunisian-born French businessman, pledged that he will lead EJC in its multifaceted mission: to fight anti-Semitism in Europe, explain what Israel is about both to European politicians and the general public, and establish broader dialogue between European Jews and Muslims.

“It is hard to put into words just how much the situation of European Jews is affected by the relations between Europe and Israel,” Besnainou, 50, said.

Before his election, Besnainou had angered American Jewish leaders with sharp attacks on what he called the “presumptuous” and “somewhat patronizing” involvement by American Jewish organizations in European Jewish affairs.

After his election, he reiterated that European Jews had to lobby for their own causes in their own way. American Jews were welcome allies, he said, but not if they bypassed European Jewish representatives.

“I fully respect what American Jewish organizations have accomplished in America and how they have been able to explain what Israel is all about to the U.S. government and to the American public,” Besnainou said.

But, he added, “I think that the Americans have tried to overstep the European Jewish organizations. The bridge between Europe and Israel is European Jewry, not American Jewry.”

Over the past year, European Jews participated in initiatives aimed at broadening effective cooperation in areas such as Jewish education, volunteerism and culture.

For example, some 150,000 people attended simultaneous events in more than two-dozen countries on the annual European Day of Jewish Culture this month, and the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture awarded grants to a roster of artists and performers whose work reflects the Jewish experience.

Jewish summer camps, singles weekends, culture festivals and study sessions were a regular occurrence in most parts of the Europe.

In addition, many European Jews were prominent in local and national politics and mainstream public affairs. In Britain, Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, a Jew, missed becoming prime minister when his party lost to incumbent Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor Party in general elections in May.

However, the past year also featured episodes of ugly conflict and divisive power struggles in the European Jewish community.

In Britain, an attempt by a prominent academic union to boycott two Israeli universities — because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians — was rolled back, but was seen as an ominous sign of European perceptions of Israel.

Another incident in which London Mayor Ken Livingstone insulted a Jewish journalist — comparing him to a concentration camp guard and then refusing to apologize — also unsettled British Jews.

Jews in Prague remain bitterly divided in the wake of continuing battles between rival factions, and in Budapest, the president of the Hungarian Jewish Federation stepped down after his reform program was defeated.

In Zagreb, Croatia, the decision by the community board to fire the rabbi there touched off a spiral of acrimonious accusations among rival communal leaders.

Conflicts between Orthodox and Reform Jews deepened in some countries, as well.

In May, the Orthodox Conference of European Rabbis sent a top-level delegation to Israel to formally protest recent moves there to legalize new forms of conversions under the Law of Return that, they said, were too lenient.

Meanwhile, nearly 400 Progressive, Liberal and Reform Jews from 24 countries took part in the annual convention of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, held in Moscow in late June and early July.

And the Chabad-Lubavitch movement gained influence by setting up or sponsoring activities and institutions that paralleled and rivaled those run by established Jewish communities.

These internal conflicts have been viewed by some as threatening to Jewish development, particularly in post-communist countries where the often-tiny Jewish communities that emerged after the fall of communism are still fragile.

On the other hand, these disputes could be seen as representing healthy signs of a normalization of Jewish life.

A number of these divisions formed the basis for debate in May at a meeting in Basel, Switzerland, organized by the European Council of Jewish Communities that grouped more than 200 Jewish community presidents and other communal leaders from more than 30 countries.

The title of one of the sessions spelled this out. It was called “A Single European Jewish Voice Is a Fantasy That Can Never Be Achieved.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.