How we betrayed Jews of the FSU

In this highly contentious essay, he argues that our leaders’ indifference let down former communist communities

By Antony Lerman, March 5, 2009

It is 20 years since Jews in Eastern Europe and the USSR were freed from communism. During that time, a remarkable revival of Jewish life has occurred in the former communist countries — one of the most significant developments in Jewish history since the Holocaust. I witnessed this in trips I made at the turn of the century to Jewish communities in the region, where the excitement of Jews expressing their newly discovered Jewishness was palpable.

Yet this is a bitter-sweet anniversary because it reminds us that those who should have done the most to help the regeneration did virtually nothing, making the revival so much less than it might have been. The guilty men, responsible for a monumental failure of imagination and empathy, were the leaders of UK and French Jewry, the two largest, most developed and prosperous Western European communities.

The Iron Curtain was no more. The Berlin wall had fallen. Europe was uniting to secure the benefits of freedom and democracy for all of its citizens, with the strong helping the weak. Given the opportunity to do the same for Jewish Europe, the strong turned their backs.

Fortunately, the Jews of Eastern Europe were not left to their own devices. American Jewry, through its foundations and federations, answered the call and provided funds and programmes to facilitate development, building on the quiet but crucial work that the leading international Jewish humanitarian organisation, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, had been doing in Eastern Europe for the previous 50 years. Apart from JDC, the Lauder Foundation, which ploughed millions of dollars into building Jewish educational infrastructure across the region, was the most important. But the prospect of Jewish rebirth fired the imagination of other American Jewish groups, too.

If American Jews did so much, why berate the UK and France? For good reasons. First, American-Jewish support — and support coming from Israel — was a mixed blessing. When the Lauder Foundation over-extended itself and had to cut back, many community activists were resentful. And alongside philanthropy came American Jewish political organisations with less altruistic agendas. The American Jewish Committee was seen as helpful; but the American-controlled World Jewish Congress was mistrusted for its insensitive handling of the property restitution campaign, which was not the rich source for sustaining communal life WJC encouraged people to believe it would be. It felt as if the stress these organisations laid on antisemitism in Europe reflected the discomfort of many American Jews unable to accept that Jews still lived in countries where the Holocaust was both planned and executed.

Second, the post-communist Jewish leaderships naturally turned to France and the UK as they had a vision of a united European Jewry with strong pan-European Jewish representative and service structures that would enable Europe’s Jews to be the “third pillar of World Jewry”, as conceptualised by the Paris-based historian Dr Diana Pinto in the mid-1990s.

This vision gelled with their countries’ aspirations to join the EU. British and French Jewry offered more models for communal organisation than US Jewry did and their experience of managing a diversity of Jewish identities was more functionally useful for Eastern Europe. They were best placed to help reinforce the startling return to Jewishness of many thousands of Jews.

But British and French leaders played only a perfunctory role in the pan-European bodies, rendering them powerless. This was not just incompetence. Dr Pinto says these leaderships failed to act for ideological reasons. They thought that encouraging Jewish life in these countries was treasonous for the Zionist project, distasteful because of perceived endemic, genocidal antisemitism, and wasteful of precious resources.

This was a shameful betrayal of the traditions of the British and French communities, which had always looked beyond themselves to help Jewish communities in need. And it marked a rejection of the Jewish universalism which characterised so much of the 1990s Europe-wide Jewish revival.

Some foundations did respond creatively. The UK-based Rothschild Foundation Europe has deployed its grant-making to pursue a strategic vision for European Jewry. A few agencies, like World Jewish Relief, have provided focused humanitarian support. And a handful of leaders struggled against the odds to develop European Jewish co-operation. But sustained, consistent support came only from the States. Kostek Gebert, one of the leaders of Polish Jewry who has been at the heart of the Eastern European Jewish revival, says, with deep disappointment, “any hopes for a common European Jewish identity and Europe-wide presence were dashed by the failure of the UK and France”. But he is philosophical. “In Poland, we’ll achieve sustainability, only much later than we could have done.”

Do today’s communal leaders in the UK and France ever give a thought to how they failed this key test of Jewish solidarity? In their current narrow-minded, defensive, ethnocentric, fearful states of mind, I doubt it.

Antony Lerman is the former Director of the Institute for

Last updated: 4:52pm, March 5 2009