The future for Jewish Europe is bright

Community no longer only significant faith minority on continent.

brussels 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
brussels 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Wednesday in Brussels, home of international summits and conferences, a different type of meeting took place. The main synagogue, located on Rue de la Régence, was rededicated as the "Great Synagogue of Europe." Chief Rabbis from across Europe and Jewish leaders joined the president of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and other EU leaders at the ceremony. The occasion threw into sharp focus Europe's relations with its Jewish community. While it is tempting to be dismissive and depressed about European-Jewish relations, there are several reasons to be optimistic. On the map of world Jewry, with the US and Israel accounting for around 80 percent of the total Jewish population, Europe is sometimes overlooked. Yet it is now home to two million Jews. Many of the Jews in Israel are of European descent, as are many in the US if you rewind the historical clock. In Europe there are many thriving communities in cultural, educational and economic terms. European Jewry has been responsible for some leading innovations, such as the Limmud educational conference, which originated in Britain and has been exported to other countries within and beyond Europe. OF COURSE the history of European Jewry is a tragic one. As British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said in a speech in 2004: "Think only of the words Europe's treatment of the Jews added to the vocabulary of mankind: exile, expulsion, inquisition, auto-da-fe, ghetto, pogrom - and the word for which there is no word: Holocaust. That suffering runs like a blood-red stain through the pages of European history." Europe has centuries of killing and religious intolerance behind it from the Wars of Religion in the 17th century to the Shoah in the 20th century. The two world wars in the 20th century, fought on the European stage, led to the deaths of over 80 million people, and the Shoah to the deaths of six million Jews, one-third of the total prewar Jewish population. On a happier note, Europe has shifted in the postwar era from a continent of conflict, in which Jews were often the victim, to one of cooperation. As someone remarked ironically, when the UK takes on Germany these days, it is in an air-conditioned summit room in Brussels rather than on the battlefield. JEWISH EUROPE has a tragic past, but is set to have an optimistic future. There are several factors which mean that Europe is moving in a direction that Jews should feel comfortable with. First is the development of the European Union, which now comprises 27 nation states and underwrites peace, stability and prosperity in the region. Despite its faults, the EU remains the best contemporary example of regional cooperation toward common purposes. It has the largest market in the world, has transformed many countries through its accession process and is taking a global lead on issues like climate change. The EU is no longer an inward-looking neo-federalist club, but has an increasingly economically liberal, reforming and Atlantacist outlook. The accessions of 2004 and 2007, encompassing 12 states in central and eastern Europe, was transformational. While some of these countries are still culpable of residual anti-Semitism, there is increasing support at the political level for Jewish causes and Israel. At the recent Peres conference, when former prime minister Tony Blair chaired a panel of world leaders, he was joined by the heads of government from Poland, Latvia and Slovenia. SECOND, EUROPE, long been viewed by commentators as a secular continent, is becoming more faith-aware and even friendly. Such were the declining levels of worship and belief in God that Grace Davie, the British sociologist, labelled Europe the "exceptional case" compared with every other part of the world, where faith is in the ascendant. Episodes such as the withdrawal in 2004 of Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian nominee to the European Commission for his conservative views on homosexuality and on family issues have added to this perception of a secular bias. Against this backdrop there has been a revival of faith in Europe, with the strength of the Orthodox Churches in the East and the Muslim community particularly notable. Even in the UK, where one of Tony Blair's aides once famously remarked "We don't do God," there are signs that people are increasingly attached to their faith identity, even if they don't practice. The 2001 census showed that 76% of people in the UK identify with a faith group. Blair has just launched a Faith Foundation; meanwhile French President Nicolas Sarkozy has spoken of the need to view faith as an asset rather than a danger. The EU is increasingly sensitive to faith groups, and includes them in the consultation process on relevant legislation. The EU's open door to faith and other groups has spawned a constellation of lobby groups in Brussels; those representing Jewish interests include the Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe and the European Jewish Congress. THIRD, Europe is different to other parts of the world in its faith and ethnic diversity. As home to people of many different faiths, it is much more heterogenous than other continents. Whereas once Europe was synonymous with Christianity, it is now home to a variety of faiths and cultures. The Jewish community, which was once the only significant faith minority, is now joined by many other faith groups. The largest faith grouping outside Christianity is the Islamic community, which numbers between 15 and 20 million and is set to double by 2025. Europe's diverse model is one in which Jews, who have long balanced their faith identity with other identities, should feel at home in. Fourth, Europe has been facing up to resurgent anti-Semitism and the acute problem of Islamist extremism. The EU itself called leaders together for a high-profile conference in 2004, such was its level of concern about rising anti-Semitism. Many countries have adopted tougher laws or called for stricter enforcement of the laws. Jacques Chirac, then French president, was particularly swift to denounce anti-Semitism, calling it in 2006 a "horrible beast." On Islamist extremism, Europe faces a monumental challenge, but it can hardly be unaware of this after the Madrid bombings in March 2005 and the London bombings in July 2007. We, as Jews, have a particular interest in confronting this extremism, because anti-Semitism is often a key pillar of these extremists and Jews have often been specifically targeted in the bombing campaigns, in Israel, obviously, but also in Turkey in 2003 and Morocco in 2005. Fifth, Israel is enjoying better relations now with the EU than it has for some time. The EU-Israel Association Agreement has been effective since 2000 and covers free trade for certain goods and concessionary agreements for trade in agricultural products. Many also say the EU is keeping a tighter grip on its funding to Palestinian groups. Also the leaders of the major European countries such as Gordon Brown, Sarkozy and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all firm friends of Israel. Merkel received a standing ovation from the Knesset on her visit earlier this year, while Brown celebrated Yom Ha'atzmaut with the community at a synagogue in London. SOME SAY that in an age of the rise of countries like China and India, Europe is no longer relevant. They are wrong. Europe as a continent has a unique model, combining economic growth with high social standards. The EU has been very effective in its quest to promote regional cooperation. Through its geographical proximity to other neighborhoods, its wealth and market leverage, as well as its "soft power" promoting reform, it will continue to be an important actor on the global stage. The way Europe treats its minority Jewish population is a litmus test for Europe and for Jews. But modern Europe is a place where Jews should increasingly feel at home. Changing factors have improved the environment for the Jewish population - including recognition by the authorities of anti-Semitism, the enlargement of the EU, improving relations between EU and Israel and wariness of strident Islamism. We should be optimistic and confident about the future of European Jewry. The writer is a consultant to the Cambridge Interfaith program and a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews.