BALTIMORE — Transatlantic tensions spilled over at an intimate gathering of Jewish philanthropists this week, when a British Jewish communal leader accused his American counterparts of being “almost imperialistic” and of exaggerating the extent of antisemitism in Europe.
Tony Lerman, chief executive of the Hanadiv Charitable Foundation, one of Britain’s largest Jewish philanthropies, voiced his complaints Sunday at a conference in Baltimore sponsored by the Jewish Funders Network, which serves as a trade organization for philanthropists and family foundations. During one panel discussion, Lerman rose from the audience to say that when American Jewish groups take up the cause of fighting antisemitism in Europe, they frequently ignore the voices and experiences of European Jews.
“This is an example of where American Jewish leadership, which is needed, is going wrong,” Lerman said.
Lerman’s comments earned a quick rebuttal from Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Referring to European Jewish leaders, Hoenlein said, “People don’t want to face a reality.” He added, “Europeans are not willing to discuss these realities and face up to it.”
In the years since the second intifida began in Israel, American Jewish organizations have been increasingly outspoken about antisemitism in Europe, causing frequent friction with European Jewish groups. The heated exchange between Lerman and Hoenlein during an otherwise unrelated discussion showed just how divisive the matter has become.
During a panel discussion on the future challenges facing American Jewish communal leadership, it was Hoenlein who had brought up the issue of European antisemitism. He cited statistics from the Community Security Trust — the British Jewish community’s security arm — documenting two arson attacks on British synagogues last year. Overall, the organization reported that antisemitic incidents in 2004 were up 42% from the previous year.
A California philanthropist who attended the conference, Newton Becker, stood up after Hoenlein did and amplified his concerns. “We are in the Europe of the 1930s,” Becker said, “and we are doing nothing to protect our own against the radical Islamists.”
It was then that Lerman, who travels around Europe as part of his work funding Jewish cultural organizations, spoke up.
Later, the British Jewish leader told the Forward that the negative characterizations of the situation in Europe were a “travesty of the truth.”
“American Jewry sees itself as having luckily escaped,” Lerman said. “They see Europe as tainted, and many don’t seem to be able to get beyond that.”
Another British fund raiser in the room, who declined to give her name, told the Forward that American Jews have a distorted impression of everyday life in her country. “I don’t know the statistics,” she said. “But I do know that as an ordinary Jew, sending my kids to a Jewish school, I feel safe.”
Aba Dunner, secretary general of the Conference of European Rabbis, was also at the conference in Baltimore. Dunner said that Lerman was pointing to a real problem.
“There are other Jewish organizations that come into Europe and say what they like, and don’t consult before they say what they say,” Dunner said. But, he added, Hoenlein was one of the few Jewish communal leaders in America to always show deference to local leaders.