Commentary Magazine


The Consultative Conference in London:
Landmark in International Jewish Relations

One of the most important events in the world of international Jewish affairs took place in London this past June: the Consultative Conference of Jewish Organizations.

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Even though its results are still not fully apparent or appreciated, the Consultative Conference of Jewish Organizations, held in London from June 12 to 16 of this year, has already had important effects. The negative controversy around the Conference and, even more, its own achievement in bringing to the fore some fundamental problems that have lain hidden beneath the new pattern taken by Jewish life within the last decade, have already troubled the complacent routine into which Jewish public opinion and communal leadership had lapsed.

In view of the Conference’s accomplishment in directing attention to certain trends and needs that can no longer be ignored if Jewish communal existence is to go on, the charge made against it by Zionist and World Jewish Congress opponents that it was “not representative” and was called merely by “associations of private individuals” seems irrelevant. Of the three organizations which jointly sponsored the Conference—the American Jewish Committee, the Anglo-Jewish Association, and the Alliance Israélite Universelle—the last two have been in useful existence not only much longer than the WJC, but even longer than the Zionist Congress itself; and the American Jewish Committee has a record of Jewish service reaching back over a half century. As was pointed out during the controversy in the columns of the London Jewish Chronicle, Dr. Nahum Sokolow himself, in his History of Zionism, acknowledged that “the public demonstration, the conference, the international gatherings for Jewish purposes, now a phenomenon of everyday life in Jewry, owed to the Association and the Alliance their origin. . . . Thus the organizations and those who established them merit the recognition and the gratitude of all who hold to the Jewish national ideal and strive for its fulfilment.”

Today the Association, the Alliance, and the American Jewish Committee form the Consultative Council of Jewish Organizations, which is recognized by the United Nations but is apparently still denied recognition by those who have lost the ability to see beyond their own narrowly vested interest.

Despite the determined efforts of these parties—Mr. R. Carvalho, president of the AJA, called it “an organized conspiracy” to wreck the Conference, and a sustained campaign to slander it beforehand as “an anti-Zionist affair viewed with distrust by Israel”—over one hundred Jewish communal leaders from seventeen Jewish communities and several world Jewish organizations west of the Iron Curtain assembled in London for the five days of deliberations. The Conference was never intended as an attempt “to break the Zionist monopoly over international Jewish affairs” (as it had been termed by the American anti-Zionist Jewish Newsletter). If this imaginary fear on the part of Zionists did gain some substance afterwards, it was entirely due to their own ill-judged and ill-mannered campaign, which, having failed, boomeranged against its instigators.

The other charge—that the Conference was being “viewed with distrust by Israel”—collapsed even more manifestly when the Israeli government appointed its consul in London, R. Amir, as its observer throughout the proceedings, and when the opening and the Israeli sessions were addressed by Israel’s ambassador to Britain, Eliahu Elath; on this second occasion the Embassy’s counsellor, G. Avner, likewise delivered a talk. Both not only recognized but publicly acknowledged the debt Israel owed to the ideals and activities of the organizations sponsoring the Conference, and called for their continued cooperation. Thus organized Zionism’s claim to be the only pro-Israel force in Diaspora Jewry today received patent disproof.

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The conference was rightly described as “the lineal successor” of the European Conference that was convened, likewise in London, by two of the same sponsoring organizations (AJA and AJC) from February 23 to March 2,1946. Apart from a few organizations—among them the British Board of Deputies, which abstained from attending this year’s Conference under the combined pressure of the Zionist Organization and the World Jewish Congress—there were also missing this year delegates from all the East European Jewish communities that had sent representatives to the 1946 Conference. Their absence indicated that the hope of cooperation, or at least of contact, between the Jewries of the West and the East—one of the highlights of the 1946 Conference—was among the casualties of the cold war. “The Jews behind the Iron Curtain,” Rabbi Israel Brodie, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of Nations, told the Conference, “are in a state of incommunicado as far as the rest of Jewry is concerned.”

Despite the gaps caused by voluntary or enforced abstention, the Conference was—in the words of the report of its Steering Committee—“broadly based” in composition. Also, it was “solely consultative in character.” Although great play was made by its opponents with the argument that some of the participants in the Conference were merely observers, the distinction between “observer” and “delegate” proved purely formal, for all had the same right to address it and no vote was taken on any issue. What really mattered was that over a hundred Jewish men and women in positions of leadership in their respective communities, representing between them a million and a half European and North African. Jews, and “varying shades of Jewish opinion and religious practice, were at one in a common goal—the strengthening and enrichment of Jewish life” (from the report of the Steering Committee). Neville Laski, the chairman of the Steering Committee, described the Conference as “a great Jewish occasion.” The messages of encouragement sent by President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles, the presence at the Conference’s reception of diplomatic representatives, from various countries, and the daily reports in the general British press were evidence that this view was shared in non-Jewish circles.

With its apparatus of documentation and information, the simultaneous English-French translations through earphones, and the tables labeled with the names of the countries of origin of the various delegations, the Conference seemed like a miniature United Nations Assembly. It was made up of representatives from Jewish communities in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Gibraltar, Great Britain, Holland, Italy, Malta, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia and Western Germany. The delegates from Morocco were prevented from arriving by the serious developments then taking place in their country. In addition, the Conference was attended by leading members of international Jewish organizations mainly active in Jewish welfare and relief; these included the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), the Union World ORT, and the World Sephardi Federation.

The delegation from the American Jewish Committee—headed by its president, Irving M. Engel, its honorary president, Jacob Blaustein, vice-president Herbert B. Ehrmann, and executive Vice-president John Slawson—was the largest after the British and French teams. The AJC delegation brought to the Conference much more than the obvious American flair for organization, documentation, and publicity. It put at the disposal of the delegates a vast amount of experience in dealing with communal problems and questions of inter-group relations on a continental scale. Above all, it brought the pledge, from Mr. Engel, of “the full measure of support to the development of future plans that will enable European Jewry better to satisfy their own communal needs.” It was this promise of American Jewish assistance without any attempt to dictate to the recipients any specific course of action, and the general American attitude of posing rather than answering the questions which confront European and North African Jewry, that so favorably impressed the other delegates.

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What are these questions? In 1946, the dominant problem before the Conference was “to unite in the path of rescue, resettlement and reconstruction.” Today the central problem—as summed up in one of the “working documents” of the Conference—is “whether European Jewry, having escaped physical extermination, can deal with the real threat to its spiritual survival.”

The Americans wanted to know whether the Jews of Europe now regarded their reconstructed communal existence on the Continent as permanent, both physically and spiritually. “We want to evaluate,” declared Mr. Engel in London, “the extent to which we have been able to rescue from the ashes of postwar Europe the seeds of our own rebirth on the Continent.” Could these communities “create enough spiritual cohesiveness and a sense of belonging to guarantee the survival of European Jewish life?” Have the Jews of free Europe remained there “despite the great attraction of Israel merely as a result of inertia and complacency, or is it rather the consequence of deep soul-searching and the conviction that their future lies here?”

Mr. Blaustein inquired whether there had been any deep-rooted change in the general environment and in the over-all attitude towards Jews as a result of Hitlerism; how the stronger and larger Jewish communities could cooperate with the smaller ones in the building up of spiritual, educational, and cultural resources; and how organizations working to further human rights and to abolish discrimination could be helped in their task.

Formulating the American approach to all these problems, both Mr. Engel and Mr. Blaustein made it clear that no outsider could answer these questions for European Jewry. Said Mr. Engel: “The decision must rest with the Jewish communities of Europe alone. The Consultative Conference hopes to elicit the free expression of Europe’s Jews and to ascertain their spiritual and material needs and assets. For American Jews, the Conference will be a unique opportunity to learn, to understand, and if we can, to help our co-religionists on the Continent.”

It is the measure of the earnestness of the Conference that the answers it gave to these questions facing it went to the roots of Jewish community existence. It gave these answers in various ways—through “working documents” which set out the problems and salient facts for each session, through the reports of the representatives from different communities, and through the delegates and their statements.

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In reviewing events and trends during the last decade, the general document on “The Jewish Situation in Western Europe” stated that “after the first great postwar task of keeping Jews alive, there came the urgent problem of resettling the Jews on the move, and of emptying the DP camps. . . . Eventually, half a million European Jews—five out of every six to leave the Continent—were to make their way to Israel. The majority of the rest went to the United States, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. . . . The emphasis on migration and on refugees had given rise to a ‘departure psychology’ which affected many in Western Europe who were, in the end, not to leave at all. This attitude arose out of the conviction . . . that a revival of Jewish life in Western Europe was impossible, or that the forces and funds to rebuild this life might be more profitably used in other directions. . . . By 1951 the once hotly argued question as to whether Jews should remain in Europe or not had been settled. It is clear that, by and large, Western Jews had ceased to consider emigration as the solution to their problems. . . . Thus, as refugees left Western Europe or became absorbed there, more and more attention was directed to local community needs.”

It was stated further that the creation of Israel both injected “a new vigor into local Jewish communal life in Western Europe,” and provided “a solution for the refugee and DP problems which so overshadowed community developments. For everywhere Israel’s emergence promoted interest in Judaism and Jewish activities on the part of many who had never shown any desire to participate in Jewish life, and the communities benefited thereby . . . much of the enthusiasm and interest engendered at this time was, unfortunately, not turned to good account, and many who had been drawn into Jewish affairs drifted away again. . . . For all communities, increasingly the problem became how to bring the unattached Jew into communal life.”

Having described the fight for restitution and indemnification as one of the major aspects of the struggle to make European Jewry self-supporting, the report went on to say that “nowhere have the heirless and unclaimed Jewish assets recovered been near the material losses suffered. Nevertheless, they have played a significant role in rebuilding Jewish life and in aiding surviving victims of Nazism.”

The survey admits the continued existence of anti-Semitism and, what is even more important, the “long-range effects of Nazi indoctrination, not openly expressed but felt by Jews in a hundred little ways.” The special document on this problem, entitled “The Struggle Against Intolerance,” states that from 1951 onwards “the threat presented by open neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups in Western Europe waned. . . . There do not appear at present to be any open totalitarian forces which seem capable of acting as a catalyst and focal point for neo-Nazi and collaborationist elements. At the same time, one must be alert for more diffuse and covert forms of neo-Nazi expressions which, by their very nature, are more difficult to counteract.”

The authors of the surveys reached the conclusion, which was supported by the reports from individual delegates, that “Jewish life in Western democratic lands can grow and flourish, depending primarily on the will, the courage, and the adaptability of the Jewish communities themselves. The record of the past ten years is proof of this.”

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The conviction that there was a future for Jewish community life in Europe, and the determination to assure its distinctive continuity, provided the real hallmark of the Conference. Mr. Carvalho spoke of “the ability of Jews to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of persecution and despair” as “a quality developed in the hard and exacting school of many thousands of years of bitter experience.” Jewish life in Western Europe, he told the Conference, had now “settled down into a permanent structure,” and there was no longer any controversy about whether it would continue.

This was borne out by the reports from the delegates of each Jewish community represented in London, large and small. “Significant above all in these reports,” stated the Steering Committee in its summary of the Conference, “was the fact that in none was there even a suggestion of the liquidation of any community. All spoke only of re-creation, of rehabilitation, of a continued future. All were based on the same premise: that Jews would continue to live where they are now and that the task before them was the strengthening and deepening of their communal life infused with a strong sense of Jewish values.”

The conference showed, moreover, a mature approach to the central issue of the distinctive and creative continuity of Jewish existence, and no attempt was made to ignore the danger signals or minimize the extent of the danger. As one delegate after another reported on the spiritual and cultural position in his own community, a common pattern was revealed. This pattern was the result partly of everyday pressures arising from a predominantly non-Jewish environment, and partly of the intensified dispersion of a greatly reduced Jewish population which could no longer be replenished, spiritually or physically, from the traditional centers of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Intermarriage, the absence of spiritual leaders and teachers, the lack of adequate Jewish education for the young were both the symptoms and the causes of a situation common to almost every community. Be it Finland in the north, or Greece in the south, or Spain in the west, none of the Jewish communities there had a rabbi to serve them. The figures published by the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities, which show that about one third of the marriages of Swiss Jews and Jewesses were to non-Jewish partners, might seem exceptionally high, but the increasing trend towards mixed marriages seemed apparent in other Jewish communities, too.

Psychological difficulties, too, arose from the pressure of the non-Jewish environment. Dr. A. Safran, Chief Rabbi of Geneva, believed that in the Diaspora, unlike Israel, there was “the dualism between the condition of being a Jew and the ambition of being a man,” and that in the educational field there was the conflict between the demands of Jewish religious teaching and the reality of the Jewish home and community, both of which were lacking in Jewish spirit.

But the picture had also a brighter side, mainly in the reawakened desire of Jewish communities to survive spiritually. The centrifugal trends were being counterbalanced, at least in a number of communities, both by a strengthening of the community structure and by a heightening of the interest on the part of youth in their spiritual heritage. The originally American and British design of community centers is becoming more familiar on the European continent, too, and some communities reported progress in the building of Jewish educational institutions.

Out of the realization of the community of needs and dangers, there was born at the Conference an almost instinctive craving for common efforts, and the delegates listened with particular interest to Mr. Ehrmann’s account of how small Jewish communities in America “grouped” their activities, employing “roving rabbis” and “roving teachers.” The proposed remedies ranged from a suggestion by a Belgian delegate to establish a “Jewesco” on the lines of Unesco, to less ambitious plans for intercommunal cooperation such as a central Jewish library, common seminaries for the training of rabbis and teachers, or, as suggested by Dr. John Slawson, the setting up of scholarships for European Jewish students for training in American theological and educational or social welfare institutions.

Indeed, so urgent was the sense of the need for action, common action, that it came almost as an anti-climax when all that the Steering Committee proposed, at the end of the Conference, was that the three sponsoring bodies should convene working groups on an ad hoc basis “to evolve the methods and suggest the means whereby the several European communities through voluntary cooperative effort may translate the conclusions reached by this Conference into positive action.” It needed the assurance of Mr. Engel that “this Conference was not the end, it is only the beginning towards the realization of the hopes engendered by it,” to restore to the departing delegates the conviction that, although solely consultative in character, the Conference was capable of practical achievement.

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The sponsors of the Conference emphasized all along that they did not intend to set up any supra-national Jewish organization, or even to create a permanent machinery for the implementation of decisions that the Conference might come to. The framework of international Jewish cooperation is in itself an important and controversial problem in Jewish communal affairs. The record of the World Jewish Congress has shown that permanent machinery is in itself neither a guarantee of strength nor a means for the solution of urgent needs. On the other hand, the Conference on German Reparations had proved the value of ad hoc associations for limited and clearly defined purposes. The success or failure of the London Conference will, therefore, be measured not only against the objectives for which it was originally convened, but also in relation to the character of Jewish cooperative effort.

The same is true with regard to two other fundamental issues discussed at the Conference and reflected in the controversy around the Conference itself: the impact of Israel upon Jewry elsewhere, and the relations between Zionists and non-Zionists today.

The obvious elements in the relations between the Jewish state and the Jewish people—such as the former’s role as a refuge for persecuted or homeless Jews, the enhancement of the status of the Jew everywhere, and the readiness and duty of Jewry to assist Israel—found, of course, frequent occasion for acknowledgment at the Conference. And its final report was quite justified in stating that “it was easily apparent that the whole Conference stood united in its sympathy and in the warmth of its good wishes for Israel,” and that “virtually all of the principal addresses including those of the Israeli ambassador and of the presidents of the three sponsoring organizations . . . stressed the importance of a viable Israel as a place of immigration for those Jews who might wish to make it their home.”

But it was at the special session on the impact of Israel on Jewish communities abroad that their interrelationship was approached, from both sides, in a manner so stimulating as to upset not only many a platitude and illusion, but also those who took spiritual refuge behind them.

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It started with the analysis by Isaiah Berlin of the psychological impact of the establishment of Israel on Jews and non-Jews in the lands of Jewish Diaspora. The emergence of Israel, he told the delegates, had altered the old “image of the Jew” which had grown up among Gentiles and among Jews themselves in the conditions of the Diaspora. Both had come to regard the Jew as an oddity and an anomaly: while non-Jews looked upon him with curiosity and suspicion and thought of him as a superfluous element that caused uneasiness to himself and others, Jews looked upon themselves as more humane, better educated people than the average (especially in Eastern Europe), but nevertheless as “homeless outcasts,” always on the run and always on the defensive, who deserved sympathy and had constantly to cope with the hostility of their neighbors. This image was the core of “the Jewish problem,” and it had forced the Jews to build around themselves protective ghettos and to develop a pathetic attitude of constant apology.

The emergence of Israel, Mr. Berlin said, was bound to alter all that. For whether they liked it or not, the Jews of the Diaspora were identified with the Jews in Israel, and were, therefore, now looked upon by their neighbors as normal human beings possessed of all the attributes of nationhood and statehood. On the non-Jewish side this would gradually cause the dissipation of suspicion surrounding the Jewish minorities. To the Jews themselves the creation of Israel would prove “a liberating factor.” The establishment of the state had cleared the air and made the Jews reflect upon where they stood. With the choice before them—either to stay among the other nations or to become Israelis—Jews in the Diaspora would cease to “fidget” and stop feeling as if they were “cooped up in a corner”—a state of nervousness which actually asked that Jews be kicked.

The “political gulf” and the “natural fission” which would develop between the Jews inside and outside Israel was a process which Mr. Berlin viewed “without any special degree of horror.” Those who would desire to satisfy their national aspirations would gravitate to Israel, he said, while those who remained would mingle much more naturally and less self-consciously and in a more productive fashion with their fellow citizens than had been possible hitherto. Thus both in Israel and in the Jewish Diaspora conditions of greater normality would prevail.

Isaiah Berlin’s analysis did not lead to the Koestlerian conclusion that assimilation was the only course for the Diaspora now that a national Jewish homeland had become a reality. While he did not believe in the thesis of Ahad Ha’am that Israel would be able to permeate effectively the spiritual life of Jewry outside, Mr. Berlin equally rejected any notion that millions of Jews in the Diaspora would commit “national harakiri.” “While politically and socially they would become more integrated with their environment, they would remain culturally and religiously individuated,” he predicted.

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In the course of the ensuing debate the two top representatives of the State of Israel in Britain made pronouncements which at once demolished the Zionist-cum -World Jewish Congress campaign against the Conference and revealed the irrelevance of an ideological argument already overtaken by events.

Gershon Avner, counsellor to the Israeli Embassy in London, who spoke as “an Israeli of the younger generation,” confessed his surprise at the warmth for Israel and the deep Jewish solidarity displayed at the Conference. He had been brought up, he said, in the belief that the organizations which had sponsored this Conference were, “to use the English art of understatement,” non-Zionist. It was time that “we in Israel should also recognize that the old schisms and divisions in Jewry had been superseded by the course of events.”

The Israeli ambassador, who had arrived unexpectedly and had taken a seat at the table of the delegation from the Alliance Israélite Universelle, declared that the underlying principle of the Alliance—Kol Yisrael chaverim—still held good. It was not always easy to foresee how the trends affecting the relations between the Jewish people and the Jewish state would ultimately shape themselves, but he was sure that eventually both would recognize that the strength of either depended on the strength of the other, and that the success of both depended on their cooperation.

Greeted with applause by the whole Conference, this genuinely Israeli approach caused unmitigated embarrassment to Zionist partisans. In a forthright article, after the Conference, the influential London Jewish Chronicle thus summed up the position:

Having rejected in theory Mr. Ben-Gurion’s conception of Zionism as the duty of every Zionist to settle in Israel, having failed in practice to organize any appreciable aliya from the West, and having—quite rightly—adopted the alternative concept that Israel needs a strong Diaspora, the leaders of the Zionist Federation and the W.J.C. found themselves, uncomfortably, in accord with their historical enemies. And, what is more, the enemies of yesterday have proved to be the allies of today in all the political and practical efforts made on behalf of the newly created Jewish state. Instead of accepting this partnership and unity so as to prevent the occurring of a political gulf between Israel and the Diaspora, forecast by Mr. Isaiah Berlin, they elected to continue the schisms which, in the phrase of Mr. G. Avner, had been superseded by the course of history.

Thus it happened that the European Conference in London, called to review and assess the developments, trends, and needs of European and North African Jewry during the last decade, has also reopened “a grand debate” on problems which lay beyond its original scope. And that is just as well. For in the long run all these problems will have to be solved in relation to each other.

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