Last In Deed, First In Thought: Beit Makhshava and a New Jewish European Narrative

There can be no argument over facts, but the crux of the matter is how we fuse them into a distinct narrative and what that narrative does to our ability to change reality on the ground.

By Oriol Poveda

Europe is a wasteland. Anti-Semitism has reached a new historical pitch. European Jewry is in its terminal stage. Assimilate or emigrate.

In the last few years, I have repeatedly been exposed to this narrative and it would be dangerous and foolish to deny the facts upon which it rests. There is no question that anti-Semitism, fueled by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and unsuccessful integration policies that have failed to tackle social exclusion, has gone on the offensive in Europe with fatal results. The recent terror attacks at the HyperCacher kosher market in Paris and the synagogue in Copenhagen are cases in point.

There can be no argument over facts, but the crux of the matter is how we fuse them into a distinct narrative and what that narrative does to our ability to change reality on the ground. At their best, narratives become inspirational frameworks for action and empowerment. At their worst, narratives of failure transmute into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Beit Makhshava, the project I started two years ago, came into being out of a conviction that if there was to be a future for European Jewish life and culture, we needed an alternative to the narrative of victimhood and decline. At the same time, the challenge was to give birth to a voice that was rooted in a sober assessment of reality, and the point of departure was that the future of the Jewish presence in Europe is uncertain, for better or worse. Thus, Beit Makhshava was born with a clear agenda: to serve as an incubator for the conceptualization of the role of the Jewish presence in a rapidly changing Europe.

It is important to note that Beit Makhshava endeavors to look at the Jewish-European equation from both sides, as a way to understand Jewish life and culture in relation to the European context in which they are inscribed, but also as a way to read European current affairs from a text-based Jewish perspective. The programmatic goals of Beit Makhshava are only half of the story, though. The other half, without which Beit Makhshava would make no sense, was the idea to create a space for open discussion and reflection.

I am surely not the first one to claim that the pace of life has sped up substantially in the last two decades or so. Opportunities to work, travel, and communicate have been greatly increased and made accessible to the average citizen. The benefits of such developments are tangible, but they have come with a price. Arguably, a net loser in that operation has been the availability of spaces – both spatial and temporal – for unhurried discussion and reflection, what I would affectionately call “slow thinking.” In the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-Jewish world adopts a ‘lite’ version of the shabbes: the digital Shabbat, a day of rest for and from screens. In a similar vein, Beit Makhshava aims at providing a space where a minyan of participants can take a break from their daily lives and devote a week to learning, writing and discussion. That was the starting point for the retreat that Beit Makhshava organized last September in Glämsta, a summer camp located in the unique setting of the Swedish forests.

There is, it could be argued, an inherent tension between Beit Makhshava’s two main stated aims. On the one hand, it is a project with a clear agenda to foster creative thought bypassing narratives of victimhood and decline. On the other hand, it is a space for debate and deliberation that thrives in openness and lack of preconditions. But this tension is productive and fulfills a purpose. The constitutive elements for a new narrative cannot be created out of nothing – they must already have been recognized by the stakeholders.

Beit Makhshava is the place where those loosely linked ideas get a chance to crystallize into a larger, coherent whole. A remarkable example is the Glämsta Declaration, a four point document authored by the participants in the last Beit Makhshava retreat that calls for an overcoming of the centre/Diaspora dichotomy and seeks to reclaim the beit midrash as the main locus of Jewish life and culture.

It is our hope that 2015 will be the year where we harvest the fruits of the work from the Beit Makhshava retreat. We are planning an event in Brussels to officially present the Glämsta Declaration and discuss it with policymakers. We would like to invite European MPs and delegates from European Jewish organizations with representation in Brussels. We are currently looking for the necessary funding to make that possible.

We strongly believe that the time is ripe for a project such as Beit Makhshava. Europe is going through turbulent times, with the conflict in Ukraine threatening to escalate into an all-out war with Russia. The EU is not in a good shape either, with unbearable levels of youth unemployment in the Mediterranean basin and the rise of xenophobic and populist parties across the Union.

Fortunately, not everything is bad news. A new, more confident generation of cultured and well-traveled activists is taking the lead in the renewal of Jewish life and culture, often outside the established structures. The outcome of the complex and interrelated processes briefly outlined above will affect the ability of European Jewish life and culture to flourish, the magnitude of the opportunities and challenges lying ahead only matched by the amount of talent ready to be tapped.

Oriol Poveda is a PhD student in sociology of religion at Uppsala University, Sweden, and the founder of Beit Makhshava.