Will the Pan European Endeavor Survive? General and Jewish Perspectives

by Smadar Bar-Akiva

While the economic crisis in Europe is making front page headlines and the fate of the EU is being questioned, we gathered with 250 Jewish leaders in Marseilles, France, for the 5th Conference of the European Association of JCCs.

Dominique Moisi, a noted French political scientist, opened his lecture quoting a Chinese proverb: “A starving camel is still larger than a horse.” Europe might be suffering, he said, but it is still an important force in the world. As Europe is undergoing the most difficult times since the end of World War II, Moisi finds hope in some of the new EU members from the east – for example, Poland, in those governments that are ready to take tough decisions and in the decisive role of the civil society.

One can find numerous equivalents between Moisi’s analysis of the general situation in Europe to that of the Jewish communities present in Marseilles.

Moisi is afraid that Europe may turn into a museum – from an active actor to an object. But for the young Jewish activists that we met from all across Europe, this is not the case. Creative outreach programs breathe life into existing institutions; whether it is a “Bereshit” program in the JCC of Bucharest that brings scholars from Israel to debate current issues with the community or “7@nite-Synagogues by Night”, an evening of exhibitions, music concerts and fashion shows by young artists from Poland and around the world in Krakow.

Moisi describes an identity crisis, a Europe with unclear borders, with an enlargement fatigue and an EU fatigue. JCCs also aim at dealing with the identity crisis, with multiple identities that sometimes compete and blur. For that purpose the small Jewish community in Holland developed an online Hebrew study program to reach out to a diminishing community while the Jewish Cultural Centre of London uses the arts as a tool to explore the self.

As for the Jewish community, Moisi calls, first and foremost, for an awareness of new realities. While the growth of populist movements and the rise of the extreme left is a source of concern, he cautions not to compare the situation to the 1930s and not to panic. These days, many people in Europe look at Judaism and Jews without the guilt feelings of the past. The distancing of World War II memories may be alarming, yet Moisi warns from an overweight of past history that may paralyze the present and jeopardize the future.

No political analysis could better bring home the depth of the crisis than meeting with the delegation from the Jewish Community of Athens led by Sakis Negrin and Avital Mair. They told us of a community that is trying to cope with the depth of the economic and social crisis. Sakis (Yehushua) was deeply moved by the warm welcome he received at the conference. He felt embraced and encouraged with many delegates offering help and support. “I’m thankful,” he said, “that the European Conference of JCCs demonstrated in action the important Jewish saying: All Jews are responsible for each other.”

Smadar Bar-Akiva is the Executive Director of the World Confederation of Jewish Community Centers (WCJCC) – an umbrella organization representing more than 1,100 JCCs worldwide. The 5th European Conference of JCCs was organized by EAJCC in partnership with JDC, FSJU, WCJCC and numerous other organizations. Smadar can be reached at: Smadar@wcjcc.org