Vox Tablet

Is It All Doom and Gloom for Jews in Europe? Student Leaders Say No.

Alongside the rise of xenophobic political parties and anti-Semitic incidents, there are signs of Jewish unity and revival

May 30, 2014

Last weekend brought bad news from Europe: Far right parties in France, Denmark, Austria and elsewhere won big in the European Parliamentary elections. And in Brussels, four people died after a shooting at the city’s Jewish Museum. The attack came in a spring punctuated by anti-Semitic violence in France, the U.K., and elsewhere. All of these incidents have elicited the question: Is it time for Jews to leave Europe?

To find out if things are as hostile for Jews in Europe as they seem from the vantage point of U.S. shores, Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry speaks with two young European Jewish leaders. Andi Gergely grew up in Hungary and is the chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students. Though now based in Israel, Gergely travels to Europe frequently and has family there still. Jane Braden-Golay, raised in Switzerland and now based in Brussels, is the president of the European Union of Jewish Students.

Gergely and Braden-Golay discuss the reaction among Jewish student leaders in Europe to recent events there, their own Jewish upbringings in Switzerland and Hungary, and how statistics about violence and elections fail to tell the whole—much more uplifting—story about being Jewish in Europe today.


SARA IVRY: Hi, everybody. Welcome back to Vox Tablet. I’m Sara Ivry. Today, dispatches from Jewish student leaders in Europe.

Last weekend, parliamentary elections across Europe gave strong showings to all sorts of far-right, xenophobic, and sometimes outright anti-Semitic parties. That comes in the wake of a new study in France indicating that 74 percent of Jews there want to emigrate. And then of course, there was the murder last Saturday of four people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.

In the midst of all of this, Jeffrey Goldberg, a prominent journalist and a correspondent for the Atlantic magazine who closely follows these kinds of developments, posted a tweet that read, “At what point do the Jews of America and the Jews of Israel tell the Jews of Europe that it might be time to get out?”

We thought it might be useful to talk to some people on the ground in Europe about what’s going on over there. Today we’ve got with us two student leaders deeply invested in the future of Jewry in Europe. Andi Gergely grew up in Hungary and is now the Chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students. She’s speaking with us from Jerusalem. Jane Braden-Golay is president of the European Union of Jewish Students. She was born in Switzerland and she now lives in Brussels. Andi and Jane, welcome to Vox Tablet.

ANDI GERGELY: Thank you.


IVRY: Jane, I want to start with you. As we just said and as a lot of people know, there was a shooting in Brussels over the weekend at the Jewish Museum. What is the situation like in Brussels right now for Jews, what’s the feeling?

BRADEN-GOLAY: Well, there’s definitely the feeling of being up in the air because we don’t really understand yet what happened, who is behind the shooting, and also like what this is going to mean for Jewish life in Brussels in the next couple of weeks. So, just to give you one example, my organization, the European Union of Jewish Students, we currently can’t work out of our office. We’re based in a Jewish house that also houses the Union of Belgian Jewish Students and the local security has decided that it’s just too risky for us to keep working out of there, so right now we are moving around different homes, different offices, and just waiting to see what develops next and you know until the police finally arrest the murderer.

IVRY: Let’s step back for a moment. A lot of listeners may not be aware that there are international unions of Jewish students. Andi, I wonder if you can briefly explain what role they play in Europe and why are they necessary?

GERGELY: Sure, absolutely. Most countries have Jewish student unions, and these unions are part of, especially in Europe, are part of the umbrella of the European Union of Jewish Students. And on a global level, in South Africa, in Australia, some now are rebuilding themselves in Latin America, etc., etc. And they are all part of the World Union of Jewish Students. The role of these unions are again very different. Some unions are very political. For instance, in France or in the U.K., they work on political grounds combatting anti-Semitism and racism, sometimes BDS. But we’re grateful to the Jewish community in creating a safe space for Jewish students in universities and giving them an opportunity to meet and have a Jewish life on campus or in university environment. So, the roles of unions are very different to each country, but on an international level, I would say that mainly the role representing the interests of Jewish students are different international organizations, for instance, the U.N., European Parliament, UNESCO, you name it. But also to have the, to give the possibility for students from all over Europe or from all over the world to meet up and to share their experiences with each other, to connect to each other and this is also what the international umbrellas are doing.

IVRY: I imagine there’s been a lot of discussion among your peers in these groups about the election results from this past weekend. What have been some of the things that you’ve been hearing from people around Europe? Are students and Jewish communities anxious about the results, are they surprised, was it as expected, tell us a little bit about what the reception has been to the election results.

BRADEN-GOLAY: Sure. Not so much surprise, but definitely disappointment that the predictions have become a reality. I mean that in most countries and I think the biggest shock was France where the Front National, Marie Le Pen’s party, was the largest party to win seats, they won by 25 percent of the votes. And that really, that really did send some kind of clear signal that there is a trend in Europe and from what I’ve heard from the French Union of Jewish Students, I mean they’re very distraught by that. And that so the overall situation, despite it being a mixed bag and there being an importance to look at each country individually, because there isn’t one single story across Europe when it comes to these elections, yeah definitely disappointed that this is what we will be dealing with for the next five years.

IVRY: Well, I just have a question in terms of France and in some of these countries where there has been a surge in right-wing politics, those parties traffic in xenophobia against Jews but also against Muslims and other minority groups. So, does the Jewish student union, do these different groups in the different countries or the umbrella organization, do you join forces with comparable student organizations from the Muslim student groups or other student groups?

BRADEN-GOLAY: Well, there certainly is the realization there that this sort of development can’t be approached you know within each community itself but that there is a need for alliances and that there is actually a big movement out there that is concerned about xenophobia, about racism, and that, you know, want to address all that. Now, in terms of actual alliances, and which organizations which unions work with, that really boils down to the local context. I mean I know that a lot of the unions reach out to anti-racist organizations, but the difficulty is, and this is something that we see in a lot of countries, that often there’s also concern in terms of what the stance of those organizations is towards Israel for example. For example, if these anti-racism organizations have joined the BDS movement or something like that, it becomes increasingly difficult for Jewish student organizations to build those alliances.

IVRY: I wonder, can you both tell us a little bit about yourselves? Andi, did you grow up in an openly Jewish community in Hungary?

GERGELY: I actually did. I think I’m among the few Hungarians, of course Hungary has a very different historical background, having us been a socialist country until 1990, so Jewish life started to revive in the early 90s and 2000s, and I was part of that generation where they got to go to Jewish schools and Jewish kindergarten and Jewish camps. So, essentially I had a very open and a very vibrant Jewish childhood, and I think this is absolutely part of the reason why I decided to be, you know, to become a Jewish activist later on.

IVRY: Does it feel difficult now to be openly Jewish in Hungary?

GERGELY: It’s hard to say because I’m not there for the past seven years and on a continuous basis. Nevertheless, whenever I go, the Jewish scene in my opinion didn’t actually change. It’s actually interesting that, whenever, for instance, I go to Jewish institutions in England or in France, there’s a very strong, very big security outside of the, you know, the Jewish institutions, which we’re all used to. But actually if you go to Hungary, you don’t really see that. So as much as we hear a lot about Hungarian anti-Semitism and I’m obviously aware of how you know the trends have been changing, and on an everyday basis, you don’t see it.

IVRY: What about you, Jane? What was your relationship to Jewish life growing up in Switzerland?

BRADEN-GOLAY: Well, the Swiss community is one that actually feels quite safe and has a longstanding and also stable communal life, and so also my experience of growing up Jewish has been very positive. I actually did grow up in a small town where there was no big Jewish community, I was actually the only Jewish girl in my school, but I took that as kind of an opportunity to engage with my peers about what Jews are, to explain to them what I was doing at home. And I was active in a Jewish youth group, I went to a Jewish Sunday School, and was pretty much committed in the communal life, which despite Switzerland having a small Jewish community, is quite a traditional one with, I’ll say, all the Jewish infrastructure. From the kosher restaurant to a Jewish primary school, etcetera. I mean you can lead a very comfortable life in Switzerland.

IVRY: As a Jew you mean?

BRADEN-GOLAY: As a Jew, well also in general but, yeah as a Jew. [Laughs.]

IVRY: Are most of the people who participate in the student unions that you both lead invested above all in maintaining Jewish life in their respective countries?

BRADEN-GOLAY: So this is something I get asked a lot, and I actually wonder a lot, and there was a meeting around two months ago where we had eight of our Jewish student leaders gathered, and they were meeting with a senior figure of the Jewish world, and he put the question forward to them, he was like, which ones of you want to stay in Europe and which ones of you see a future somewhere else? And we went around the room and it was really half half. Half of them actually definitely saw their future in Europe, and the other half said that they ultimately saw their future somewhere else, be it Israel or be it in Asia or Australia or the U.S. And I think that’s actually really the way young people in Europe feel today. I think it’s you know, there’s no strong trend here and I think that depending on the country, it’s a very different also emotion about how they feel regarding their future in Europe. So I’d just like to maybe compare Switzerland to France here.


BRADEN-GOLAY: The Swiss community, again, has not experienced a violent anti-Semitism the way the French community has. It also has a different background in terms of being long-rooted in Switzerland and feeling very much part of Swiss society in that they have found their place in the Swiss community in Switzerland to also voice their interests and defend them. Whereas if you look at France, which is a completely different picture, also in size, I mean it’s one of the largest communities in the world, outside of Israel and the U.S. of course. But it’s also the community that in Europe has experienced the most anti-Semitism physically, unavoidably, in the streets. And that has an impact of course on how young people see their future there. I think it’s very understandable that if you’re also starting to think where you want to settle down and where you want to build your life if security, if physical security, is not a given, then you’ll ultimately start looking somewhere else and start conceiving of the future somewhere else, but again, it’s very split in Europe. There are a lot of, especially Jewish student leaders, who, I think it’s also what put them in those positions in the first place, are extremely dedicated to their communities and want to bring about a change. And nobody’s naive about how daunting that task is, but still very dedicated to that notion. And I think within the European Union of Jewish Students and our members, even maybe if it’s not the long-term vision that everybody shares, in the here and now they are still very dedicated of making the situation better for their communities and opening up that real possibility of a sustainable, vibrant Jewish community in Europe.

IVRY: Andi, you said you’re based now in Jerusalem. Has your family left Hungary?

GERGELY: No, they all live in Hungary.

IVRY: And they don’t consider leaving.

GERGELY: No, not for, I mean I think there is something that we also have to speak about at least generally, migration within Europe. People are moving around in Europe. And you know, Hungary’s [indistinct] and is not the strongest economy, it’s never been, but especially now. It’s a very difficult economical and political reality. So there was a survey conducted, more than 50 percent of Hungarian students want to leave after high-school graduation. And that is obviously true for, you know, Jewish students are calculated in that, but I think it’s very, I mean we have to be very careful to say that “they leave because of anti-Semitism.” They leave because in other countries, you have much better prospects for having, you know, a life, a higher salary and better life. So I think that’s very important to note, especially when it comes to Jewish populations and emigrations to France and to Austria or to Germany or to England. They leave because life, they hope that life will be easier there.

BRADEN-GOLAY: Yeah, can I just throw my weight behind what Andi just said? It is extremely important to take all these statistics and numbers in context. And I would say, and this is also what the European Union as an idea has been pushing for, the mobility within the European Union is really something a lot of young people take advantage of. And if we only look at numbers of Jews leaving a specific community, it’ll distort the image. It’s very, very important to ask what the motives behind people leaving their community are.

IVRY: What would you like to tell your American counterparts about what it’s like to be a Jew in Europe? Are there misconceptions that you bump up against in your interactions with American peers?

BRADEN-GOLAY: So what’s important to me is that people take a fuller picture when they look at Europe. There’s been a lot of good things also happening in Europe in terms of Jewish life, in terms of European societies also embracing their Jewish heritage and their Jewish communities and looking at it as an integral part of their history opposed to some foreign element that’s kind of coexisted for the last hundreds of years. Specifically we’re speaking of an expansion of Jewish space. So that means that despite there not being maybe a large Jewish community or actual Jewish community at all in specific countries and specific cities, there still is an interest amongst the population to understand and to dig into this part they know once was there. We see Jewish studies programs pop up in universities across Europe, which wasn’t there before. I have run into Jewish film festivals in Zagreb in Croatia where, I mean, the Jewish community is very tiny, and it was the last place where I expected there to be a Jewish film festival. You have klezmer, which is becoming a very popular music styling, most of the klezmer bands do not have a fully Jewish band, band members in them, and it’s, there’s a lot happening.

IVRY: Andi, anything you want to add to that?

GERGELY: I agree with her very much in the fact that it’s very important to not only see the negative and also to acknowledge that these are, that the attacks of the anti-Semitism are very marginal incidents. And as a whole, there is a very real and very strong revival when it comes to central eastern Europe. And there is very strong and very meaningful Jewish communities all over Europe which I think need more of a, you know, encouragement and strengthening them than to always, always focus on anti-Semitism.

BRADEN-GOLAY: So maybe also, just like to add to that, is that it’s not a numbers game only and I think that if we keep focusing on the size of communities and people leaving, we’re kind of missing out also on what constitutes fulfilling Jewish communal life. Actually Andi and I, we just ran a seminar in Macedonia, the Jewish community in Skopje has about 200, 250 people in them, and the community life that we experienced there was so warm and so wonderful to participate in that we left thinking it really isn’t only about the size of the community, it’s about what happens in the community, how they try to be of value, how they try to carry the Jewish heritage of their city forward, how they conceive of their future. And these communities really also need positive support from the bigger communities around the world because it can be very tough if you constantly feel that everybody’s just kind of waiting for your community to die out. I think we’re losing out if we don’t also see the beauty also in these smaller communities.

IVRY: Andi and Jane, thank you so much for being with us.

BRADEN-GOLAY: My pleasure, thanks for having us.

GERGELY: Thank you very much.

IVRY: Andi Gergely is the head of the World Union of Jewish Students. Jane Braden-Golay is president of the European Union of Jewish Students.

What about you, listeners? Are any of you out there listening to your podcast from a town in Europe or a city in Europe? We want to know what your experience of Jewish life is where you live. Go ahead, post a comment on our podcast at tabletmag.com, or you can send us an email at [email protected]. Join the conversation.

Vox Tablet is produced by Julie Subrin. I’m Sara Ivry. We want to give a special thanks today to our colleague Yair Rosenberg, and we want to thank you, dear listeners, for joining us.

Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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