Why Sharansky is Wrong to Write off European Jewry

A leader is one whose words not only describe reality, but whose words prescribe the future.

By Barbara Spectre

“I believe we are beginning to see the end of Jewish history in Europe”
Natan Sharansky, Jewish Chronicle (UK) July 25th

Dear Natan,

I am certain that it gave you no joy to have uttered what you said, in the wake of rising antisemitism and the discomfort of Jews in France, as well as increased aliyah to Israel. You suggested that the situation might herald not only the demise of the venerable French Jewish community but also of Jewish communities throughout Europe. That prediction must cause you pain, as I know of your deep dedication to Jews wherever they are.

You are one of the most powerful and respected leaders in the Jewish world today, carrying with that leadership great responsibility. You are listened to. And that is the crux of the problem. What a tremendous missed opportunity. Without denying the problems of Europe today, what a story you could have told.

You could have told the inspiring story of young adults throughout Europe who are “dis-assimilating”, who are not only reclaiming their own personal Jewish identities after decades of identity-submersion caused by post-Holocaust trauma and communist repression, but also going further and becoming social innovators of Jewish life.

You could have told the story of Piotr in Poland, his heart stirred by Jewish music, writing a PhD in Jewish thought and leading a new Polish congregation. You could have recounted the story of Shaul in Italy, investing efforts in transforming the Venice ghetto from a historic site into a learning and cultural centre for thousands of visitors.

Or the story of Petr in the Czech Republic, reclaiming the community of Olomouc and his grandfather’s memory, and whose research has now been transcribed into an off-Broadway production. I know of over 400 of these serious young activists from over 35 European countries. This cadre of leaders are intellectual and innovative powerhouses.

But the story goes beyond their remarkable innovative spirit. You could have spoken about what this fledgling but vibrant new Jewish community has to give to the rest of the Jewish world. Yes, give. How their Jewish story can inspire and inform the rest of us on what it is to be a Jew.

These young adults understand that reconstituting Jewish life in Europe is not only important in itself, but that there is a purposefulness to their insistence on Jewish life. Perhaps not all are seeking to be the ambitious “light unto all nations”, but certainly they understand the import of the Jewish experience and the example that can be set for minority citizenship in Europe.

They are determined to demonstrate the ability to maintain one’s own identity while simultaneously contributing to society at large – exactly the paradigm that Europe is searching for in its treacherous transformation from monolithic ethnic-based nation-states into heterogeneous nations built on citizenship.

You could have spoken of the co-operation and work of these young leaders with Muslim communities in forging this notion of positive minority citizenship. Glimmers, perhaps, but nevertheless beacons of encouragement on the possibility of Muslims and Jews successfully working and living together.

You could have recounted the unique historic dispositions of young adults throughout Europe. They know well of the Holocaust, their histories are steeped in it. They know how to maintain memorials and at the same time live with their neighbours in a tour de force of memories that transcend the prisons of hatred and revenge and instead function as prisms for understanding the deep complexities of being human.

And you could have hailed the insistence of these young vibrant persons on being literate Jews. Being “cultural Jews” is not sufficient for them – they wish to be “cultured Jews” as well.

You could have recognised Beit Makshava, a new think-tank of the young intellectual strata of literate Jews in Europe who want to use Jewish texts and sources to inform their positions on contemporary European issues. They don’t like to call it a “think-tank” because a tank is sealed; they envision their thought as something much more porous, rather as a bayit, welcoming and open.

You could describe a unique Jewish existence in Europe today: brave, realistic, sometimes even heroic, idealistic, undaunted. These are the visionaries who are not leaving. Fault not those who leave, but please give voice to those who stay. They need your encouragement, not your dismay.

A leader is one whose words not only describe reality, but whose words prescribe the future. We will all be the richer, the more inspired, the more determined, because of who this young Jewish community is.

On the day after the first class graduated from Paideia, Europe’s premier institute for adult Jewish education and activism, the following note was left on a desk: “Some look at a caterpillar realistically, and watch it crawl; others look, and dream of the wings of a butterfly.”

We all know the realities. But you, Natan, are a leader. What you say counts. What you say is listened to.

The Jewish world should know of this incredible Jewish story, a story of recovery, of youth, of innovation and often of bravery.

Their story would inspire us. It would remind us that there is so much more to the Jewish story than the undeniable antisemitism. The story that you could tell is one that would give courage to us all. Please give us a vision of wings that can fly.

Barbara Spectre is founding director of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden.