Limmud Conference, Britain’s annual festival of Jewish learning, has after 25 years become an international phenomenon. Attending for the first time is an overwhelming experience. This year’s event, held Dec. 28-Jan. 1 at the University of Warwick, drew 2,500 individuals engaging in various forms of study, teaching, performing, and learning together as Jews.
Concurrent sessions, running from early morning until late at night, range from Jewish text analysis to cooking to musical innovations to politics. It is intense, focused, exhilarating, and exhausting.
One of the main subjects you’d expect to encounter when European Jews gather in 2014 is anti-Semitism. Sure enough, just one day of programming included sessions with titles such as “Must Jews leave Europe after anti-Semitic responses to Gaza?”; “Anti-Semitism in Norway”; and “How to evaluate the situation of anti-Semitism in France today.”
Many attendees had two major concerns, which they expressed consistently in different sessions. There was a genuine fear that this summer’s spike in anti-Semitic incidents marks a return of a condition for Jews analogous to Europe in the 1930s. In various sessions presenters and participants warned that disregarding this trend would be like ignoring the threat posed by the rise of Hitler.
They also worried about the growing acceptance of anti-Israel feeling, which they compared repeatedly to anti-Semitism.
In contrast, many of the sessions noted that despite the irrefutable increase in anti-Semitic events — documented by the Community Security Trust (CST), the Anglo-Jewish community’s self-policing organization — the increase appears to be comparable to other moments in the past decade or so. When Israeli-Palestinian confrontations have escalated, there has been a similar rise in anti-Semitic bias incidents. When things in the Mideast cool down, so too does the anti-Semitism (although, it must be pointed out, the levels remain higher than they were previously).
Some experts suggested that the spike in anti-Semitic activity was a transitory phase which will pass, not a major shift in European attitudes. Increased vigilance was encouraged, but not because Europe was on the verge of another major pogrom. After all, there has yet to be an example of a state sponsoring or condoning anti-Semitism, even in Hungary. In fact, many European leaders were visible in their public condemnations of the summer’s anti-Semitic eruptions.
Violent incidents in Belgium and France were seen as clear instances of anti-Jewish agitation. And yet the numbers still did not suggest a huge rise in anti-Semitic acts or a disregard on the part of authorities to these events. When the British government’s Communities Minister, Eric Pickles, this week announced tough new security measures to combat the “dark forces” of anti-Semitism, it reinforced the notion that many in European government are aware of the need to address Jewish fears.
Nor, some suggested, was the anti-Israel feeling during the Gaza War direct evidence of an increase in anti-Semitism. European opposition to Operation Protective Edge, it was suggested, was largely based on European tendency to see Israel as a colonial power occupying Palestine.
And some went as far to suggest that the debate over anti-Semitism was a function of some Israeli leaders trying to deflect some of the criticism leveled at Israel over its actions in the war. Without legitimizing unfounded charges of Israeli war crimes, some observers suggested that some in Israel were exploiting this opposition to Israel to stoke Jewish fears, some of which might foster aliya.
What is remarkable about this gathering is the level of engagement at an extraordinarily high level of Jews across denominational lines in their tradition, the texts, the problems, as well as the pleasures of their lives. After a troubling summer, it is contagious and life-affirming.