When Pizmon, Columbia’s famed Jewish a cappella group, began to croon a series of Hebrew melodies, a group of about 100 French university students — visibly tired from their trans-Atlantic flight earlier in the day — roused and began clapping to the music, cheering, dancing and snapping photos of the singers.After each song, Pizmon received a standing ovation from the French student leaders who gathered Sunday in the basement of the Kraft Center, the home of Columbia University’s Hillel.“It was something very unexpected for us,” said Jimmy Pinto, a senior at Universite Paris Dauphine. In France, he said, students gather at Jewish student unions to eat kosher meals or to strategize ways to fight the anti-Semitism that is becoming increasingly prevalent there. Social and cultural activities, Pinto added, are rarely the domain of Jewish student organizations. This small but telling disparity, in addition to different approaches to student engagement, Israel advocacy and political lobbying, were discussed earlier this week, when a cadre of young adults from France descended on New York City.
The first-of-its-kind conference, was sponsored by UEJF, France’s powerful and politically active student union, and marked a major step toward collaboration between the world’s two largest Diaspora communities: France and the United States.“
We want the Jewish community to be united across geography, not just by our history,” said Yonathan Arfi, the 24-year-old UEJF president who helped plan the four-day gathering, called “Building Bridges.”While in New York, the group met with leaders of major American Jewish organizations, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee and Avraham Infeld of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life as well as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dan Gillerman. Conference-goers said the leaders taught them the importance of establishing alliances with organizations outside the Jewish community; of forming and maintaining close ties with decision-makers at every level of government; of aggressive fund raising for Jewish causes; and of promoting Israel and Judaism through dynamic cultural events.
The French Jewish community, as it attempts to quash anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric and attacks emanating from the far left, the far right, and from the country’s large Arab population, has come to see value in working with American Jewish organizations. “This [meeting] would have made no sense three years ago,” he said. “We were living in two different worlds.” He said gathering also helped clear up common transatlantic misunderstandings.
American Jews, he said, were under the impression the situation for Jews in France is much more treacherous and immediate than is the case; and the French Jews believed that most Jews in America support President George W. Bush because of his policies toward Israel. “Only by talking do people understand that this is not the case,” Arfi said. The UEJF decision to hold its annual conference stateside has bittersweet implications, the ADL’s Foxman told the students during a breakfast meeting Thursday at ADL’s headquarters. While the visit set the stage for deeper intercultural collaboration, it also comes at a time when French Jewry faces escalating hostility and could use help from American Jews. “Very few [Americans] really understand what it’s like to walk down a major street with a kipa or a Magen David and feel different,” the ADL leader said.In America, Jews have learned to speak out against the forces that threaten them.
By contrast, in France and throughout Europe, silence is still the guiding principle, according to Foxman. “I don’t think the answer to silence is to scream all the time,” he said. “But to [respond] with wisdom, with measure, with thought, with understanding, with strategy. If we are to make a mistake, it should not be that we erred by silence, but that we erred by speaking up.” Pinto agreed that “Gardez la silence,” or remaining silent, is still the norm in France. “The typical response to French anti-Semitism is ‘Let’s keep quiet until it goes away,’ or ‘Things are so bad that we should all move to Israel,’ ” he said. “I think it’s changing now and people are beginning to speak more loudly.”
The conference, organized in large part by UEJF’s American representative David Rak, cost about $90,000 to put together. The $400 per student fee was subsidized by the UEJF, which donated $30,000 from its $2 million government-supported budget. North American Jewish organizations including the ADL, the AJC, the World Jewish Congress and the Samuel Bronfman Foundation offered the group nearly $25,000 in funds and subsidies.