Fighting Antisemitism on the Eve of Decolonization

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May 30, 2024
By Ludwig Decke, 2023 CJH-Fordham University Fellow

Fighting Antisemitism on the Eve of Decolonization

In the late spring of 1955, West London Synagogue’s Stern Hall hummed with a flurry of voices in various languages. Over one hundred representatives of Jewish communities and organizations, originating from twenty countries, huddled behind long rows of tables in the smoke-filled conference room. [image above: Collection of YIVO Archives, RG 347.7.41 (FAD-41), Box 74, Folder 710.]

The occasion for this five-day meeting was to discuss the present situation of Jews in Western Europe and its North African colonies. A decade after the victory over Nazism, the turmoil that had erupted in the immediate aftermath of World War II appeared to have finally congealed into stable political realities. The timing seemed perfect. For Europe’s Jews, this was a moment to take stock of what had been achieved so far and what yet remained to be done.

Nine years earlier, in February 1946, a similar conference on the future of European Jews had proceeded in that very same room. In those days, antisemitism was deemed one of the most pressing issues standing in the way of the rebuilding of Jewish life on the continent.1 But by 1955 things had changed for the better. Like its predecessor, the Consultative Conference of Jewish Organizations devoted an entire panel to the problem. In comparison to the immediate postwar years, however, the outlook appeared far brighter.

The American Jewish Committee, one of the organizers, praised the “validity and vitality of the spirit of Western civilization on the continent.” Western Europe, it seemed, served again as a “historic seat of long-lasting Jewish equality and security.”2 Such optimism, even if at times complemented with words of caution, pervaded the atmosphere in London. There was a consensus among the participants that “open and organized antisemitism poses no major threat to the security of Jews in Western Europe at the present time.”3

What had happened in the past decade that justified such a cheerful mood? External factors, above all, economic growth and political stability, had certainly helped to curb a revival of anti-Jewish sentiments in Western Europe. But the delegates’ confidence was also the result of their own doings.

Thanks to my CJH-Fordham University Fellowship in September 2023, I was able to delve into the world of Jewish politics in postwar Western Europe. What I found were numerous attempts by Jewish leaders and activists to actively combat antisemitism during the first postwar decade. The American Jewish Committee is a case in point. The files of its European Office, in the collections of YIVO, illustrates how AJC representatives regularly took record of antisemitic propaganda and supported grassroots defense efforts of local Jewish communities. They also sponsored intergroup relations projects within the context of the Christian-Jewish dialogue and closely worked with governments, universities, and international institutions like UNESCO to overcome racial and religious hatred.

Collection of YIVO Archives. RG 347.7.41 (FAD-41), Box 74, Folder 710.

The London conference embodied the success of this form of activism. But it also marked a turning point. During the following decade, the map of “Europe,” so prominently displayed at the conference venue [above] , shrunk considerably as Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria gained independence from the French Empire. Decolonization triggered large-scale immigration from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean to Western European metropoles. These “newcomers,” alongside millions of so-called “guest workers,” would soon bear the brunt of a new wave of racial hatred and render Jews, whom Hannah Arendt once called Europe’s “minorité par excellence,” one minority among many.”4 Such epochal shifts posed a challenge for Jewish defense organizations. The question of how to situate the fight against antisemitism vis-à-vis the antiracist claims of other marginalized groups now became an important issue for Jews in an increasingly multicultural Europe.

 

  1. The Report of the Draft Committee, YIVO, RG 347.7.41 (FAD-41), Box 75, Folder 716.
  2. American Jewish Committee, “Jewish Life in Western Europe: Ten Years after the End of Nazism,” April 1955, YIVO, RG 347.7.41 (FAD-41), Box 73, Folder 702.
  3.  “Situation du Judaïsme européenne dix ans après la libération: La conférence de Londres (12-16 juin 1955),” Evidence 7, no. 50 (Aug./Sep. 1955), p. 53.
  4. Hannah Arendt, Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft: Antisemitismus, Imperialismus, totale Herrschaft (Munich/Zürich: Piper 1986), 574.

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