One of the most senior European Jewish leaders said on Thursday that, if the Israeli government won’t support European Jewish communities financially, many of them will disappear.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, European Jewish Congress (EJC) President Ariel Muzicant said: “We have more or less found out over the last weeks that the Israeli government is not interested in dialogue with the Diaspora.”
Muzicant explained that the disinterest was not explicit, but “is the feeling you get.” He added that the EJC, under his leadership, believes the organization shouldn’t criticize the Israeli government from abroad, but when it visits Israel in person and with the relevant officials.
“On the other hand,” he said, “somebody has to discuss and listen to us, because there are issues which cannot just be decided without us,” like the Law of Return. “When I speak with Israeli government representatives, they tell me, ‘Why don’t you make aliyah so you can talk with us?’ This is despairing, because nobody really listens anymore; not in Israel and not in the Diaspora.”
The future of European Jewry
One of the issues Muzicant is extremely worried about is the future of European Jewish communities. “We have statistics that show a large number of Jews are going to disappear in the next 30-to-40 years. 50% of Jewish communities will not exist anymore,” he said. “When you talk about it with Israeli officials, they are first perplexed and then they say, ‘Okay, what do you expect us to do?’ Everybody talks about antisemitism, but nobody is talking of the complete loss of Jewish education, identity and belonging of the Jewish people.
“When you come and say, okay, let’s discuss a program or a strategy, everybody says ‘yes,’ but the next step is never done,” he said, adding he’s been in touch with the Jewish Agency and with Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli. “I’ve been talking to all these people and everybody’s very friendly, but the question is, what is going to happen?
“If we don’t get our act together now, 50% of the small Jewish communities in Europe and the US will disappear. Jews may still live in these cities in a few decades, but the infrastructure and the critical mass of Jews in the diaspora will not be there anymore.”
Muzicant created an emergency program for European Jewry, with consultation of the local Jewish communities across the continent.
He said there are two ways to stop the impending loss: Jewish education and strengthening the relationship with Israel. “Israel is not only the fight between Right and Left or Jews and Palestinians, but much more. There are programs which, at the moment, are in trouble because of financing or lack thereof. We have to increase them, as well as develop new programs and bring a maximum of Jews to Israel to learn about it, to understand Israel and to rebuild the Jewish identity of European Jews.”
Muzicant said that he tried to find partners for these projects in Israel, but he has not succeeded. “It’s not easy. I confronted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with this problem 15-years-ago; he didn’t listen to me then. I don’t know who to speak to now.”
Muzicant said that he wants to “increase Jewish education everywhere. We need Jewish teachers, we obviously need money, as well as professional support.”
Muzicant said the number of Jewish children studying in Jewish schools across Europe differs depending on the country. In Austria, it’s 60% [of Jewish children enlisted in Jewish schools], in France it’s 40%. If you go to Italy or to Germany, it’s very low,” he said.
He shared that he had been successful in “convincing the European Commission that fostering Jewish life is today as important as protecting the communities. We have funding from the European Commission, but not yet from Israel.”
Muzicant said he would need “hundreds of millions of euros. This is also the Diaspora that for 125 years has built and supported Israel.” He added that the paradigm has shifted – now Israel should be the one investing and supporting Diaspora Jewish communities. “It has to now go the other way. If it doesn’t, the Diaspora is going to disappear. It is a crime to let that happen.”
He added that there is also a shortage of rabbis. “We are cooperating with the Conference of European Rabbis. We are planning to enlarge the existing and build seminaries for rabbis and teachers.” He added that he hopes to receive funding for these initiatives from the Austrian and German governments and have the seminaries based in these countries.