Budapest conference highlights Jewish battle over communal authority in Europe

Meeting brings hundreds of Rabbis from across Europe to Budapest for a two day gathering and Holocaust memorial ceremony.

Rabbi Shlomo Koves of Lubavitch of Hungary addressing RCE members at the organization's gathering in Budapest last week. (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Rabbi Shlomo Koves of Lubavitch of Hungary addressing RCE members at the organization's gathering in Budapest last week.
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
BUDAPEST – Who legitimately represents European Jewry? Deep-seated divisions over the issue of who speaks for the Jews of the former Soviet bloc are pitting the chief rabbis of several countries against a European Jewish organization popularly associated with the Chabad- Lubavitch hassidic movement.
The conflict was highlighted last week during a contested rabbinical conference in Hungary.
Organized by the Brussels- based Rabbinical Center of Europe and its founder, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the conference brought hundreds of rabbis from across the continent to Budapest for a two-day gathering and Holocaust memorial ceremony.
Attended by the chief rabbis of Israel, Holland, and Russia, the RCE conference garnered opposition from Hungary’s largest and oldest Jewish communal body, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz).
Mazsihisz, which is affiliated with the Neolog denomination, claims to represent 10% of Hungary’s 100,000 Jews. It is embroiled in a conflict with the government over its accusations that the government engaged in historical revisionism to minimize its role in the Holocaust.
While 2014 was declared a Holocaust memorial year by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the country’s ambassador to the UN has publicly apologized for Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis, several statements and actions connected to the memorial year have lead the Mazsihisz to boycott the government’s commemorations.
Representatives of both sides have indicated that they plan on negotiating a solution following next week’s parliamentary elections.
Some Jewish leaders have said that Orban’s attempts to rehabilitate Hungary’s past stem partially from his need to draw voters away from the radical nationalist, far-Right Jobbik Party, which became Hungary’s third-largest in 2010.
Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler asked the local Chabad leadership to postpone its conference until after the elections, but was rebuffed, he said.
“We don’t do anything politically with the government and don’t even speak about anti-Semitism,” Rabbi Margolin told The Jerusalem Post. “This does not have anything to do with the political situation here and we did not give any statement on the situation.”
Documents detailing “the most important measures of the government of Hungary with relation to the Hungarian Jewish community,” were later sent to journalists by the RCE on behalf of the government.
Holding the conference and raising the Jewish presence in the capital in the week before the election “may strengthen the voters of the extreme Right,” Heisler warned.
Moreover, it appears that the Mazsihisz is worried that outside Jewish organizations dealing with the Hungarian government during a time of tension with the local Jewish community will weaken its hand in asserting itself.
“This proud Jewish community is now voicing its own opinion and daring to say no to the government,” he said.
Rabbi Margolin, Rabbi Shlomo Koves of the local Chabad community, and Israeli Deputy Minister of Religious Services Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan met with Hungarian President János Áder for a photo-op after the conference.
However, Koves asserted that Heisler “misunderstood the what the rabbinical conference is all about,” saying it’s “not politics.”
“In a country like Hungary, where everything is so politicized, and especially before the elections, I think its a great achievement that we were able to get through a message of Jewish survival without getting involved in any political sides or political issues,” Rabbi Koves said, adding that he wouldn’t describe the relationship between Chabad and the Neolog community as one of tension.
Chabad represents several thousand Hungarians, he added.
“The community is the local haredi community and the community leaders were there,” one participant told the Post, dismissing the Mazsihisz’s concerns and asserting that it is not representative of Hungary’s Jews.
Founded over a decade ago, the RCE exists alongside the more established Conference of European Rabbis (CER) and, according to some observers, represents a more assertive attitude on behalf of the outreach oriented Chabad movement, whose emissaries work on spreading Jewish practice among the unaffiliated around the world.
While Chabad is prominent in the organization, RCE officials take issue with representations of their organization as a Chabad organ, pointing to the significant non-Chabad representation within the organization.
Estimates as to how much of the organization is Chabad vary depending on who one asks.
Only 40% of the RCE’s membership is Chabad, Margolin said.
Stating that the RCE “is doing wonderful work,” CER president Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt requested that the group not “break ranks with the local community.”
This sentiment was echoed by both the chief rabbis of Ukraine and Poland, each of whom has had his own run in with Margolin in his position as chief of the European Jewish Association, another group he runs.
“I think its detrimental and it hurts the community when people such as he and organizations basically interfere in the internal affairs of the community without coordinating positions,” Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich said.
Bleich also accused Margolin of spreading “Russian propaganda” by playing up anti-semitism in Ukraine. Several Ukrainian Jewish leaders have accused Russia of staging anti-Semitic provocations to justify his annexation of Crimea.
Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, whose resignation Margolin called for several months ago in a highly publicized spat, also critiqued the RCE conference.
“Here in former Soviet bloc countries we have an emerging, growing but still fragile Jewish community. Any organization or group of Jews who want to come and help us are more than welcome,” he said. However, such help must be coordinated “because when an outside group tries to go around and ignore the local Jewish community it weakens everyone.”
“The hope for the reemergence in former communist countries is by strengthening and empowering the local Jews, not by replacing them [with] outside Jews,” he said.
Rabbi Margolin, however, disagreed with this position, saying that “ego” has lead some Jewish leaders to refuse his help. “We attacked those who did not allow our organization to do the job,” he said in an apparent reference to his call for Rabbi Schudrich to resign.
One observer sympathetic to the RCE said that the conflicts involving Rabbi Margolin are symptomatic of a breakdown of the old model of European communal organization in which only one government recognized body and chief rabbi can speak for the Jews.
The opposition to the RCE and EJA is due to an “old guard” looking to preserve their prerogatives.
Rabbi Margolin and Chabad, he said, are challenging that model by providing services to local communities and competing on an open playing field.
However, all of Rabbi Margolin’s critics praised Chabad for its work across the continent, reserving their opprobrium for what they believe to be his tendency to involve himself in local affairs from afar and picking fights with local communities.
According to one European Jewish leader, Rabbi Margolin and his organizations are “use[ing] governments to give them credibility within the Jewish community” and trying to usurp the role of established groups.
“That is not the way the game is played,” he said.