On May 3, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy traveled by train from Paris to Brussels to attend a major Jewish event hosted by the European Parliament. A short time before, he had received a surprising phone call. On the other end was Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewry.
Prasquier tried to convince Levy that it was a mistake to have signed "the petition" and advised him not to attend what he thought was sure to be an Israel-bashing event: "Bernard, if you go there, many French Jews will not understand," Prasquier recounted telling him this week.
The event he was referring to was a gathering of worried European Jews. Inspired by the American organization J Street, though not intended to be a carbon copy of it, and calling themselves "JCall," this assembly of representatives of various Jewish communities across Europe gathered around a document entitled "Call for Reason," which, over the course of a couple of weeks, had already been signed by some 6,000 people.
The text castigated Israel's occupation of the territories and the settlement enterprise, and called upon the European Union to "apply pressure on both sides" to work out a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The signatories, many of them prominent intellectuals and professionals, affirmed in the same breath their total commitment to Zionism and the Jewish state, which was, so the letter explained, part and parcel of their own identity.
What was striking was not so much the call itself, which did not contain any really new ideas, but the negative response it elicited among self-styled mainstream European Jewish institutions and communities. Since the Geneva Initiative in 2003 we haven't witnessed so fierce a debate among European Jewry. There have been op-eds, articles and even a counter-petition - "Garder raison" ("Maintaining reason" ) - signed by equally prominent French intellectuals, who accused the JCallers of being one-sided and giving succor to Israel's haters. The storm refuses to abate.
If, as Emanuele Ottolenghi argued in a recent opinion piece in Haaretz English Edition ("As mainstream as they come," May 7 ), "No mainstream Jewish organization stands today against the two-state solution," then what is it in the JCall letter that set off so many of those same organizations? Why such disproportionate, sometimes violent, reactions? Ottolenghi suggested that JCall's opponents resent the fact that the signatories' "pledged love for Israel is overshadowed by the blame they squarely lay at Israel's doorstep."
There might be another answer. As Prasquier told me: "JCall, with the prominence of its signatories, might actually create enormous confusion and divisions within French Jewry and this is not good."
JCall encroached on sacred territory. Its very existence challenges the role assumed by the European Jewish umbrella organizations as the only legitimate political voice of Continental Jewry. If successful, like its American counterpart, which has attracted about 150,000 members in its first two years, it might allow for more than one voice to represent European Jewry, and thus threaten their hegemony.
What the angry and entrenched leaders refuse to recognize is that the battle has already been lost. The fact is, most European Jews do not identify with the current Jewish institutions and are uneasy with their subservient, automatic support of Israeli policies. The fact is, they truly believe that being supporters of Israel, its right to existence and the legitimacy of its founding ideology, does not necessarily mean endorsing all the decisions of its government. And the fact is, however conscious these supporters may be that ultimately only the sovereign people of Israel have the right to make the fateful decisions concerning their country's own future, they do not see why they should be denied the democratic right to express their views on those same issues - if only because those decisions might have a tremendous impact on their own lives.
Instead of crying foul, Jewish leaders and institutions would do better to welcome the open debate and accept intellectual and political dissidence.
JCall is not the enemy. It is a legitimate voice making itself heard out of genuine concern for the fate of Israel, and aspiring to a trustful relationship between the Jewish state and the Diaspora.
JCall now has a great challenge ahead: It must reach out to the broader Jewish base, those who identify with the message expressed in its letter, but are still looking to see how serious the organization is before coming out in full support.
Although I am a signatory of the JCall letter, I am not writing in the organization's name. Rather, I am expressing my deepest hope that JCall will seize the moment and also address the concerns of European Jews that go beyond the issues of settlement and occupation. It will be interesting to see if JCall manages to evolves as a vector of change not only on the Israeli-Diaspora front but on European Jewish identity as a whole.
Whatever the outcome, a real earthquake has taken place in the European Jewish arena. A new voice has been born, and this can only be good for us.
Claude Kandiyoti is the publisher of the Belgian Jewish monthly Contact J, and a signatory of the JCall letter.