A Tale of Two Europes

By Rabbi Lawrence Englander, Chair ARZENU

Rabbi Lawrence Englander

The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) is charged with strengthening relationships between the State of Israel and Diaspora communities. At a recent meeting of the JAFI Board of Governors, we heard two presentations on the Jewish communities in Europe and the prospects for their future. These two "tales" gave me two distinct perspectives on the relationship between the State of Israel and Jewish communities throughout the world.

The first tale gave the story of a population in crisis. It reminded us of the recent anti-Semitic attack on the Jewish-owned grocery store in Paris. This tale pointed out that the attack was not an isolated incident; in fact, there were twice as many anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2014 as there were in the previous year. We were informed that one of the causes of this increase is the alarming rate of unemployment in France and the resultant unrest. As a result, several thousand French Jews have made Aliyah to Israel, and thousands more — especially young people — have attended extended programmes in Israel or have made inquiries about making Aliyah. The tellers of this tale projected that Israel could expect up to 20,000 more Olim in the year 2016. French Jewry was graphically depicted as a community in crisis.

But this did not apply only to France. The UK, as well, witnessed a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic incidents between those two years. Add to this the crisis in Ukraine and growing racism in many Western European countries, and we seem to be facing the disappearance of European Jewry and a mass emigration to Israel. The Jewish Agency was encouraged to work in Europe to facilitate the process of Aliyah. in order to save this embattled community.

Then we adjourned to another room to hear a second tale. In this programme, entitled Cafe Europa, a group of ten European Jews in their 20's presented a more nuanced tale. Each of them expressed a deep love for the State of Israel, but were also patriotic citizens of their country of origin. They acknowledged the presence of anti-Semitism but stressed that it was not a steadily growing trend but rather became rampant in response to events in Israel — for example, the Gaza wars in 2009 and 2014. They were encouraged by the fact that government leaders in France, the UK and Germany spoke out forcefully against anti-semitism and pledged their protection of Jews and any victims of racial hatred. Moreover, they pointed out that many countries were experiencing a renaissance of Jewish religious and cultural activities, revealing the creativity of European Jewry. With regard to Aliya, for those who were thinking seriously of making their home in Israel, they preferred to do so out of love for Israel rather than out of fear of anti-semitism. The tellers of this second tale perceived the role of the Jewish Agency of facilitating Aliya for those who choose to live in Israel, but also of providing the resources for those who choose to remain in Europe and to live proudly there as Jews.

In a single day we heard two distinct tales of Jewish life. According to the first, Israel is the centre of world Jewry, the sun that sends its rays to communities in the Diaspora. In countries where the Jewish light becomes dimmed and life becomes inhospitable, Israel must draw the light back and bring Jewish people into the sun. According to the second narrative, there are many flames of Jewish life throughout the world, each kindling and sustaining each other. Israel is the brightest flame but it, too, is sustained by the others. In this tale, the Diaspora plays a vital role in making Jewish values and Jewish culture a global phenomenon, thus making the world itself a better place.

Both these tales are prevalent in contemporary Jewish discourse. As Reform Zionists living in the Diaspora, I believe that the second tale is the one that resonates for us. But it also presents us with a responsibility. We must make sure that our Jewish flame remains strong, not only to sustain ourselves, not only to nourish other Diaspora communities who are less numerous or prosperous, but also to add our own creativity and insight to the State of Israel. This relationship of mutuality is one that ARZENU seeks to promote.