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The Status of European Jewry: An Interview with George Schnek
The Status of European Jewry: An Interview with George Schnek

Volume 2 , Issue 3

schneckphotoThe following is an interview with Dr George Schnek, President of the Consistoire Central Israelite de Belgique, the leading Belgium Jewish religious organization, conducted by Jewish Review publisher, Harris Tilevitz. Dr. Schnek was born in Warsaw, but was raised in Brussels, Belgium. During the War he spent two years in the French Resistance and since that time has been actively serving Jewish and Zionist interests in Europe. He is a professor of biochemistry at the University Libre Bruxelles and has been instrumental in establishing a Belgium Jewish Museum. This is the first in a series of articles and interviews concerning World Jewry which will appear periodically in The Jewish Review.

Jewish Review: What is your position in the Belgian Jewish community?

G. Schnek: Today I am the president of the Consistoire Centrale Israelite du Belgique. When Belgium was under the control of France and Napoleon, he decided that all the Jewish communities should be directed by a chairman, and each community should send a delegate to a general assembly which elected a Board of Governors and a Chairman. All the countries occupied by Napoleon were divided into consistories. The Consistoire Centrale Belgique was established in 1808, so the official Jewish community is older than Belgium itself; Belgium was not yet independent when the consistoire was established. During my Presidency in 1983, we commemorated the 175th anniversary of the Consistoire, and Belgium's 150th anniversary was celebrated in 1980.

Jewish Review: Is the Consistoire part of any major European Jewish organization?

G. Schnek: No, in France there is a big consistoire; actually there are two, one in Paris and one in the Alsace-Lorraine region. We are quite independent. We have a rabbi, however, who came from the rabbinical school in Paris.

Jewish Review: He's Orthodox?

G. Schnek: Well, it's interesting. The community where I come from was very close to some German communities before the war and was quite similar to the Conservative style. But due to the influence of the French Jews and the new wave of Sephardim all the official Jewish communities in Western Europe are Orthodox. But there are still very large differences between various communities. We are all under the same confederation of the Jewish religious communities that we call the Consistoire. This is true for all the organizations except the "Liberal" community. They are between the Conservative and the Reform, closer to the Conservative.

Jewish Review: The Consistoire, as it was established by Napolean, didn't really leave room for anything other than Orthodox Judaism. From what I've read, they were the only ones represented. Does "Conservative Judaism" really exist in Europe?

G. Schnek: It is not organized as it is in the United States, but I remember they had a meeting once in Belgium and they invited the Liberal community. In Paris there is also a Liberal community.

Jewish Review: In the United States, much has been written of late about the return of many people to traditional Judaism; people who weren't religious at all have become observant; people who weren't identifying at all, do now. Even the people in the middle, the Reform or Con?servative, are becoming more religious. Does a similar trend exist in Europe?

G. Schnek: You are talking about the Baal Teshuvah movement. In Belgium, Baal Teshuvahs are still the exception. In France it exists more often. The young Sephardi group is very influential in Jewish life and in getting people more involved. Antwerp may be different. The Jewish community in Antwerp is quite different from that in Brussels. You have many chasidim from all the various sects. Each has a yeshiva and beth knesset. That Jewish community is strong and maintains an active life. Many however, are moving to the United States and Canada.

Jewish Review: How much intermarriage is there in Europe?

G. Schnek: I think it is close to one out of two. It's very disturbing to me. But I don't think the Jewish groups do enough to stem this trend.

Jewish Review: Is that because the same kind of tension which exists between the Orthodox and the Liberals in the United States also exists in Europe? Do the groups work together on any level?

G. Schnek: In Belgium there is no contact between the Orthodox and the Liberal on a religious level. But the World Jewish Congress includes both groups.

Jewish Review: Yes, but that's more of a political group, isn't it?

G. Schnek: Well, it's sometimes difficult to separate the political from the religious. For example, we have been fighting for many years to protect the right of Shechita (ritual slaughter). In Belgium since 1870, the Belgium state has recognized Judaism as an "official religion." This means that Judaism is recognized at the same level as the Catholic church and the Protestant Church. So we have the same privileges. All the rabbis, chazanim and people working in the synagogues are paid by the state. And even more, the rabbi and the chazan receive what they call a special allocation to pay for their housing. They are paid until they are 70. At age 70 they can retire at full salary. Once a person is selected as a rabbi, he can spend his entire life in the position and will always receive the same amount.

Jewish Review: So there is much less separation of church and state in Europe than in the United States.

G. Schnek: This is true especially in Belgium and in Alsace-Lorraine, but in the rest of France it is a little different, [ed. note: The French created a separation between church and slate in 1905, but the Consistoire in Alsace-Lorraine still functions as it did before the law of separation.] In Germany and Holland, when you pay your income taxes, you can designate part of your taxes to the "religion" of your choice. Each community receives monetary assistance from the government in proportion to the taxes paid by the residents.

Jewish Review: How was life in Belgium different for Jews after the war as compared to before?

G. Schnek: Before the war there were about 50,000 Jews. About 25,000 were arrested and only about 1500 returned from concentration camps. There are now about 35,000, 20,000 in Brussels, 15,000 in Antwerp and then a few hundred scattered in Ghent, Charleoi and elsewhere. There are about 50 or 60 small synagogues in Antwerp.

Jewish Review: Let's talk a little about the relationship between the Walloons, the Flemish and the Jews. The Flemish during the war were known to be Nazi sympathizers?

G. Schnek: Actually what happened during the war, was that a part of the Flemish people believed that the Germans would help them gain independence from French-speaking Belgium and would help them form a large country called Le Flandre, together with Holland. But, it was really only a small minority who held this view. A large part of the Belgium people in Flanders helped protect Jews. Many of the 50,000 Jews survived in part because they were helped by non-Jews ? some escaped to France and others lived under assumed names.

Jewish Review: How would you characterize the relationship today?

G. Schnek: It is interesting that during the last municipal elections several months ago in the city of Antwerp, a Flemish city, many Jews were candidates and some were actually elected to the municipal council. There are many Jews who are active in the Liberal and Socialist parties. And they are still involved in the process known as the "Communitarization and Regionalization" of Belgium. It seems that within the next ten years Belgium will be a kind of Federation like the United States, Germany and Switzerland. There will be a community of Flemish people, French speaking people and maybe some German speaking people.

Jewish Review: So the relationship doesn't seem any different, better or worse now.

G. Schnek: Well, yes. But the Flemish people are willing to help us as much as possible. For example, there were Jews deported from a particular place in Flanders. There was a military base there and many of the Jews who were deported went from this military base directly to Germany. The base is still there and the Flemish are willing to convert the military base to a cultural center, and part of the center will be given over to a Holocaust memorial and museum. The cost is being paid by the government. So you see, the Flemish are trying to help the Jews.

Jewish Review: Would you consider the Belgium government generally pro-Israel?

G. Schnek: The Belgium government be?haves like the French and like the Dutch. They're in the Common Market; they all generally behave the same way. But when you have personal contact with people in the government, they are very friendly to Jews, especially the Flemish. I have gone to many weddings in Antwerp, and I was surprised to see the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister dancing horas. So they are quite friendly with the Jews.

Jewish Review: What about the King?

G. Schnek: I was invited once with my wife to the palace for dinner when the President of Israel came to visit Belgium. But the relationship is generally quite distant, quite cool. For many reasons, Catholicism, diplomacy?

Jewish Review: That's very interesting. What is the relationship of the Jewish com?munity in Belgium and the Catholic church?

G. Schnek: The relationship now is not too bad. I recently visited the Cardinal. We are involved in the protest to prevent the establishment of the Carmelite convent in Auschwitz. We had a meeting in 1987 in Geneva with the four cardinals, one from Belgium, two from France and the cardinal from Cracow. We had a day of discussions and they agreed that the convent should be removed from Auschwitz.

When the old king of Belgium died, Iwas invited to the funeral. As the President of the Jewish Consistoire, I was considered to be on the same level as the Cardinal. I sat in the big chair in the church as a representative of the Jewish religion, next to the head of the Protestant church.

Jewish Review: Are there any dealings with the Church concerning a policy towards Israel?

G. Schnek: We have had discussions with several groups regularly since Vatican Two. The atmosphere has been good, except for what happened with the convent in Auschwitz. But everyone except the Carmelites, themselves, wants them to leave.

Jewish Review: What was the reaction in general to the Kurt Waldheim affair?

G. Schnek: I think in the Jewish community we had the same position as the World Jewish Congress ? we should avoid having contact with Austria. We organized a conference about the whole problem, and we organized a petition signed by many thousands of Jews protesting the Waldheim nomination. We also protested to the Vatican.

Jewish Review: Does the Catholic Church take any public position in Belgium concerning Waldheim or did they fall in line with the Pope?

G. Schnek: They understood our position; some agreed with the Pope, some didn't.

Jewish Review: I know you are very involved with trying to build a Belgium Jewish Museum. Given the fairly small Jewish population in the country, how did the idea get started and how far have you gotten with it?

G. Schnek: When we commemorated the 150th anniversary of Jewish life in Belgium several years ago, we got the idea ? why shouldn't we have a Jewish museum like other countries? After many months of discussions, the government agreed that we should have a museum just like the Protestants, Moslems and Catholics. They gave us a very nice building and we hope to open in 1992. In the meantime, we have been trying to organize exhibits, and to collect Judaica and documents and art related to Jewish life in Belgium.

Jewish Review: Will it be combined with a Holocaust museum?

G. Schnek: No, there will be a separate Holocaust museum. Ithink it is a good idea to keep them separate. The history of Jews in any country in Europe is not just about the Holocaust. The Jews in Belgium have been very active. Inthe 19th century many Jews were in banking, education and science. They were even in the military.

One of my professors was a general in the army. The former President of the Consistoire is in the reserve as a Colonel. He was in the Belgium forces of the English army during the war. Jews have been very much a part of Belgium history. When you look in the university today, there are many who are of Jewish origin. There are Jews in the government, as well.

Jewish Review: The same holds true in the United States. Everyone likes to point out proudly that there are Jews on all levels of government and corporate life. The anti-Semites, however, turn this around and say the Jews control all these professions. Do people use this "representation" or integration for the same negative purposes in Belgium?

G. Schnek: There are still anti-Semitic movements which can be attributed to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Still today, some political parties claim that the Jews are everywhere. Look at Russia. A group there called Pamyat claims that even now the Jews control everything. That's foolish.

Jewish Review: Yes, and in France there is Jean Le Pen.

G. Schnek: Yes, but they are extremists who represent maybe between two and five percent. That will always exist in Europe as long as there is a Jewish community.

Jewish Review: It will probably exist even if God forbid there are no Jews.

G. Schnek: Yes, you see that in Poland where there are almost no Jews left.

Jewish Review: So on the whole, despite everything that is said and all that is supposedly done to make sure people do not forget the Holocaust, there is still anti-Semitism in Europe?

G. Schnek: Yes, butwe try to fight all anti-Semitic tendencies. With the help of Vatican II, people try to avoid any mention that Jews killed Christ, but there are still anti-Semitic groups, both on the left and right.

Jewish Review: My impression even before I went to Europe for the first time, was that Europe is such a religious continent; the Church has more of an influence on the people and how they think than in this country. That would create an environment that would inherently be more anti-Semitic than in the United States. The Church doesn't seem to have as much control over what people think here.

G. Schnek: I believe that is true, especially in Belgium. The Catholic Church is very influential. Catholic education is still very strong at the primary and secondary school level.

Jewish Review: If you were to ask people in this country, say your counterparts, whether anti-Semitism exists in the United States, they'd probably say it does, and like you, they are trying to eliminate it, but I don't think that you'll hear anyone saying that they are "working within Vatican II" to eliminate anti-Semitism. Why do you think that's true?

G. Schnek: I agree with you. Anti-Semitism exists on much more of a religious level in Europe. There are still those who are very traditional (like Lefevre) in the Church who don't even accept Vatican II, who still think that the Jews are responsible for killing Jesus. Maybe 5 percent of the Catholics in Europe follow this.


Jewish Review: Interestingly, though, the synagogue desecrations which occur here are "religious" incidents in this country. People destroy or deface synagogues as a direct attack on Jews and the Jewish religion. But it doesn't seem that anti-Semitism manifests itself that way in Europe.?

G. Schnek: Yes, people put bombs in synagogues in Europe, but it's generally related to politics, Palestinians, etc.

Jewish Review: Let's talk a little about the influence of European Jews on political affairs. In this country, there has been much written about the perceived effect the small percentage of Jews in the electorate have in the political arena. Does that same perception exist in Europe?

G. Schnek: In Belgium it's impossible to even remotely imagine Jews having the kind of effect on politics that some people think they have in the United States. We are such a small group that there is no possible opportunity to lobby. In France, there is more of a possibility. But, the Jews there split their votes among the Republicans, the Socialists, and other parties. But still the Jewish pressure exists in France related to problems like Israel. There are 700,000 French Jews versus only about 35,000 in Belgium.

Jewish Review: So as a group they are not able to influence how the government functions internally, but in terms of external or international affairs...?

G. Schnek: Yes, I think this exists at this level.

Jewish Review: Even in Belgium?

G. Schnek: No, we're just not strong enough.

Jewish Review: Does the European Jewish community resent how much of an influence Jews in America try to exert over Israel in politics in general? Are they uncomfortable with the way Jewish leaders get their names splashed across the front page of newspapers?

G. Schnek: I don't think there is any resentment. On the contrary, I think in Europe we appreciate very much the solidarity of the Jews in the United States. And that is the reason why we have recent?ly formed the European Jewish Federation ? we are trying to become a "European Jewish Community."

Jewish Review: Is the Federation part of the World Jewish Congress?

G. Schnek: It is partially independent. The World Jewish Congress is something special; it doesn't have a very democratic bask.

Jewish Review: It seems that what you are trying to create is something which will provide European Jewry with an avenue in which their voice will be equal to those of the Americans.

G. Schnek: Yes, if you add together the Jews of England and France, they represent 1.1 million Jews ? add the Jews in the smaller European countries and it reaches 1.5 million. If you try to involve the Jews from the Eastern bloc countries, like Russia, Hungary and Rumania ... You see what I mean, we have as many Jews as there are in the United States.

Jewish Review: So you've been trying to get the Jews in the East involved. Do you think that the new Soviet policies will enable you to incorporate them into your "greater European Jewish Community?" G. Schnek: We try to involve them too, although we are still cautious. Glasnost, and perestroika give us more reason to be optimistic.

Jewish Review: Have you been able to meet yet with Gorbachav?

G. Schnek: No, not yet, but we have met with officials in the Russian embassy to help us transmit information to Jews. So it seems that there has really been a change in policy.

Jewish Review: Does Belgium have a lot of Russian emigres?

G. Schnek: No, only a few hundred have settled in Belgium; most as you know, go to the United States, Canada and Italy. Jewish Review: What does European Jewry feel about the Israeli government and their policies, in particular, given that those policies seem to always somehow impact on world opinion towards Jews in general, not just Jews in the Holy Land?

G. Schnek: The large majority of Jews in Belgium support Israel's policies, whether they are the Likud or Labor. We feel that Israel is a democratic country and its policies are determined by the majority. So we support whatever position the sitting government takes.

Jewish Review: There are many people in the U.S. who feel that since Israel takes so much money from the United States, Jews in the United States have an obligation to speak out on Israeli politics. If they don't agree with the policies they have a right to tell the Israeli government. I seem to hear less from European Jewry concerning their being either for or against any particular Israeli policy.

G. Schnek: Some of them do that, some think we should place some pressure on Israeli politicians. But the majority support Israel's policies.

Jewish Review: Taking a look at the broader picture, how do Europeans in general, not just European Jews, feel about Israel. A survey taken in the United States, not long ago, found that more than 60 percent of Americans are pro-Israel. What do you perceive the European attitude to be?

G. Schnek: I really believe that most Europeans are, on the whole, basically indifferent. They consider Israel to be a modern country, but are critical of Israel's reaction to the intifada. We argue with them, though, that if people threw rocks at the army in Europe, there would be an even stronger reaction. In Israel the army is very restrained. But I think that is the misunderstanding in Europe. The Arabs have good propaganda.

Jewish Review: Is the European media as anti-Israel as the media in America?

G. Schnek: Yes, unfortunately. I think some of it might be a result of anti-Semitism, but much of it is because they are very concerned about what happens to the Arabs vis a vis their oil shipments. Remember, Europe is a great deal more dependent on Arab oil than is the United States.

Jewish Review: Is there anything you'd like to add or close with?

G. Schnek: Jews in Belgium are very much involved in helping Israel and collect a great deal of money for that purpose. I try to persuade Jews in Belgium that to collect money for Israel is good, but that they shouldn't forget the Diaspora. They must understand that if you want to continue the Jewish community and Jewish life in Belgium, you need to maintain a memory of, and connection with, what was ? that is why I am fighting so hard to build the Belgium Jewish Museum.



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