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Jewish life in Europe: Remnants of crisis with elements of revival

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While a small number of Islamist terrorists constitute a threat – particularly in Greece, France, Scandinavia and Great Britain – Europe’s mainstream Muslim population has joined hands with Jewish communities to fight Christian majority moves that offend minority traditions.

Examples would include efforts to outlaw the circumcision of baby boys and change procedures for the kosher slaughter of animals.

Michael Brenner: The inaugural speaker at UNM's lecture series on Contemporary Jewish Studies

Michael Brenner: The inaugural speaker at UNM’s lecture series on Contemporary Jewish Studies.

That was part of a response Friday to a question on Islamist terrorism put to professor Michael Brenner, the inaugural speaker in a series on Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of New Mexico.

Brenner, who grew up in a small, largely Christian Bavarian town in Germany, is a distinguished historian in residence and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He divides his time between the nation’s capital and Germany, where he is a professor of Jewish history and culture at the Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich.

His topic at UNM’s Keller Hall was “Jewish Life in Europe Today: Crisis or Revival?”

Brenner opened his remarks with a historical context of Jewry in Europe before, during and following World War II. He noted that before the rise of Nazism, 9 million Jews lived in Europe. By war’s end, two-thirds had been killed, and what had been a thriving community was greatly marginalized.

“A few Jewish communities were spared the fate of destruction,” Brenner told the audience of nearly 200.

Brenner, who holds a doctorate from Columbia University, said that even after the war, the turmoil continued on a reduced scale. For example, 1,000 Jews were killed in Poland in the post-war years. “As many (survivors) said, ‘We are liberated but we are not free,'” he said.

Ironically, much of Europe’s beleaguered Jewish population made its way to post-war Germany, which, by then, was not really a nation but four occupied zones. But even today, he said, “Berlin has become a kind of hip city for young Tel Avivians.”

However, when Jews look at Europe, they don’t see the great cathedrals and incredible works of art and music that other people experience, Brenner said. Instead, they are reminded of the Spanish Inquisition, Auschwitz and pogroms. In some countries, anti-Semitism remains strong.

Brenner’s appearance at UNM was sponsored by the College of Arts & Sciences, the International Studies Institute and the Department of Communication and Journalism. His visit was also supported by a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of New Mexico.

He wound up his talk by saying that while Jewish life in Europe contains remnants of crisis, elements of revival have become a significant part of the picture, particularly since the end of the Cold War.