A BALLROOM FOR THE DOOMED
By Annika Hernroth-Rothstein
My friend places a small piece of chocolate in front of me, wrapped in silver paper carrying a meticulously designed logo that reads “Annual conference against anti-Semitism.” This piece of chocolate is a perfect symbol of everything that has been driving me crazy for the last few years, and despite its nifty design, it makes me feel both angry and disheartened.
Every other month I get another email inviting me to a Jewish conference, and the topic of anti-Semitism is a permanent fixture on the itinerary, alongside a nice spread and a panel on Israel in the Diaspora. It’s like a pop-up store of sorts — a fixed event that employs thousands and can move from city to city, like a circus, except more self-important.
Meanwhile, in most of Europe, Jews are finding it difficult to live actual Jewish lives. The challenges include anything from lacking Jewish education, scrapped funding for community security and constant threats of violence to even larger systemic issues like our traditions (kosher slaughter, circumcision) being outlawed by their governments through ballot and popular vote.
These two trends, if you will — the birth and flourishing of the Jewish conference industry and the threat to European Jews — have gone hand in hand, and the former has done very little to halt the latter. One would think that this multitude of annual conferences would bring results, but despite the growing attendance, they do little to nothing for the diminishing Jewish population on the continent they claim to hold so dear.
That piece of chocolate enraged me because I know how much money goes into a project when attention is given to such a small detail. Many other such details preceded that piece of chocolate, and all those things cost considerable amounts of money — money that could have been spent on something else. The energy, thought and time that went into crafting the candy would have been put to better use elsewhere, but got lost in the pomp and circumstance and the color scheme of a ballroom for the doomed.
Ever since the birth of the State of Israel, gatherings have been held to discuss how to help and organize Diaspora Jews. But they never involved fancy chocolates or selfies and hashtags. They were result-oriented, cost-effective and, at most, produced a press release from the Foreign Ministry stating what had been discussed and what was to come of it.
But somewhere along the line, that snowball started rolling down the hill and guests turned into “delegates” and activism into a career move. I get that people need to work and support themselves, believe me, but I resent the fact that the cost of their salaries is being split equally between the Jewish state and the Jews in need of much more than a hashtag and a complimentary tote bag.
But the issue is bigger than the cost of a conference. It is also problematic that the Jewish conference culture leads to an illusion of results and an image of concern but it brings with it neither a structured plan nor any sense of accountability. When the mission statement is to “address the concerns of European Jews” or “discuss the growing threat of anti-Semitism” it doesn’t actually mean anything and demands very little of the participants. Expecting people to do not much more than show up is too little to ask at a time when the Jews face modern-day pogroms and a very real and acute threat to our lives.
The problem for Jews today is not lack of “international conversations” about our plight. Instead, we need to focus on more tangible issues that need to be dealt with in courtrooms, parliaments, synagogues and schools. Speaking from a Swedish perspective, I can say that what we need is Jewish education, funding for religious activities, legal aid to fight the ban on kosher slaughter and permanent organization in place to tie us together with other small and vulnerable Jewish communities around Northern Europe. Rather than having three conferences about nothing each year, I would like to see one permanent organization, where all the fancy chocolate money can be directed toward making a real difference in the lives of thousands of Jews on the verge of assimilation.
As Jews of Europe we do not need another person in another conference room claiming to speak for us, we need the tools to lead a Jewish life that ends up speaking for itself — to eat kosher food, to have a synagogue with a quorum for prayer, to teach Hebrew and Jewish history to our children and have them move across our cities safely to and from these activities.
It should be in the interest of those who hold the purse strings in the Foreign Ministry to get results. I urge them, through these words, to prioritize action before appearance. I don’t want to see another piece of engraved chocolate while my brothers and sisters cannot pray, eat or walk through the streets, just because they are Jews. It is a waste of time and energy, and as we sit here on the deck of the Titanic we have very little of either to spare.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein is a political adviser and writer on the Middle East, religious affairs and global anti-Semitism. Twitter @truthandfiction.