History of EUJS
In February 1978 around a cold table in Grenoble, France, one hundred and fifty European Jewish Students developed and approved a constitution and created a plan of action meant to cover all aspects of modern European Jewish student life and so the European Union of Jewish Students was formed.
Moving to Brussels in 1982, EUJS first opened an office on the Chaussé de Vleurgat, later moving to its current premises at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Over time, our Brussels secretariat became the paradigm through which student activism took on new meaning. Through the mandate of seventeen Chairpersons, each having moved to Brussels to take up office, hundreds of European leaders began their careers by walking through the doors of avenue Antoine Depage 3.
EUJS’ vitality has come from its ability to multi-task its role as a role model for Jewish activism, and a standard bearer for the European Youth Sector. Its determination to remain focused on parallel fronts—whether they be challenges facing our community, obstacles shared with our counterparts, or success achieved through crosscultural and inter-religious partnership—has weaved a fabric of activism that remains as true as it is strong.
Our thirty-five years has seen its share of milestones. In fact, some would say that our very birth was a milestone in itself, preceding the founding of almost all of Europe’s largest youth organizations, including the powerful European Youth Forum.
Many European countries were pioneers in supporting and developing strong youth sectors, and the European Union is known for the voice, the influence and the power that it has traditionally given young people. This tradition has a long history.
Beginning with Albert Einstein’s election as the first President of the World Union of Jewish Students in 1925, European Jewish youth have long understood the importance of organized existence. The trials of war and a continent torn apart by hate have long promulgated a simmering force among those emerging as future political, social and cultural leaders.
Today, EUJS is proud to stand tall as it continues the tradition of activism embraced by Jewish communities across the world through its work with the European Youth Forum, the pre-eminent pan European body representing and advocating for young people. As the sole Jewish member, EUJS stands together with its faith based counterparts in entrenching the rights of minorities in a continental mindset, and in ensuring that the voice of Jewish youth is heard on issues encompassing the protection
As Sir Isaac Newton so aptly put it: if we have been able to see farther than others, it is because we have stood on the shoulders of giants. It is with this voice that we have come to be known: demonstrating against injustice; defending those around whom voices have fell silent; standing up for what we know is right; as a group and as individuals, we are multipliers of change— we are here.
The following are but a few of the many excerpts from EUJS’ history of political activism. These traces of history form part of a living record of European development and remain pivotal to our strength as a union.
In December 1982, in cooperation with the World Union of Jewish Students, Joel Kotek and Yoram Hess organized a visit to Budapest, where the delegates met with representatives of the Jewish community in Hungary. It was the first time that European delegates of a Jewish student organization visited an Eastern European country. For the Jewish students it was a milestone in the East-West dialogue, and for EUJS it was a critical step as it fought for the rights of Eastern European Jews. This visit would take on increased significance, as our infusion into Eastern Europe led many of our Warsaw Pact counterparts to lobby for our exclusion from mainstream European youth umbrella groups.
Reaching Beyond the Iron Curtain
The struggle for participation in the World Youth Festival in Moscow was the beginning of a series of activities of efforts for Soviet Jewry. On November 17, 1985 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Geneva, and around 75 Jewish students, amongst them students from the UK and the Netherlands, demonstrated in solidarity
with the Soviet Jewry.
Subsequently, in April 1986, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) took place in Bern, Switzerland. EUJS used this occasion to organize—in
cooperation with the Swiss Union of Jewish Students (SUJS)—a special Seder in honor of the Jews of the Soviet Union in the Bern Synagogue. This special Seder, held on the evening of Sunday 27 April, was a huge success and an important milestone. The student representatives from Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland were joined by several national delegates to the CSCE meeting. In addition to the activities staged in Bern, the EUJS encouraged its national member unions to lobby their respective foreign ministries throughout the CSCE meeting so as to raise the case of Soviet Jewry.
The remembrance of the Shoah was always an integral part of the EUJS identity since its inception. In January 1988, EUJS held a seminar titled 50 Years After in cooperation
with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Commemorating Kristallnacht and questioning the status quo of Europe and its minorities, the seminar saw the erection of a memorial plaque for the victims of fascism, Nazism and racism.
The Transformation of Auschwitz
In 1984, a Carmelite convent was built at Auscwitz with the financial support of Belgian catholics in a building called the “Theater.” The building had previously been used for the storage of Zyklon B canisters. After establishing themselves in the building, the purpose of the nuns was revealed as praying for God’s forgiveness of the crimes and eternal rest for the victims, but above all for “mankind’s true conversion of mind and heart to the mentality of Christ.”
Many Jews saw this as an attempt to transform the Jewish victims of Auschwitz. When the presence of the nuns became known in May 1985, it aroused considerable protest in the Jewish world. As a consequence, a Catholic-Jewish accord providing for the removal of the convent by February 1989 was signed in Geneva in early 1987. On that very date, the nuns, however, proceeded to place in a corner of the camp a seven-meter high cross, the same one Pope John Paul II had used in 1979 at a mass at Birkenau concentration camp.
When in 1988, it had become clear that the Catholic Church showed itself reluctant to abide by the agreement concluded with the Jewish community, EUJS initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Pope in conjunction with its member unions. This campaign was met with denial and inaction. Together with members of the Belgian Union of Jewish Students, EUJS occupied the Sablon Catholic Cathedral in Brussels in 1989. About 100 people, some of them Holocaust survivors, took part. The action was was met with anger from both Christian community and Jewish communities alike for disrespect of Christian values and unnecessarily fuelling Catholic anti-Semitism, and prompted sudden media attention. Following a sitin of American Jewish scholars in the Carmelite convent that same year, the scandal had reached its peak and gave rise to additional protests in which EUJS was actively involved.
It was not until July 1993 that – after direct papal intervention – the contentious convent was ultimately removed and the nuns relocated.
The Waldheim Affair
After Kurt Waldheim’s election to the Austrian Presidency in 1986, EUJS joined organizations around the world in voicing concern over the election of the former Wehrmacht officer implicated in crimes against innocent civilians in the Balkans during World War II.
Waldheim’s election caused Austria political isolation, but in the summer of 1987 Pope John Paul II had a widely publicized and highly controversial meeting with the Austrian president on June 25. EUJS was at the forefront of the protests against the Vatican’s reception of Waldheim in Vienna and Rome.
Crisis at Durban
A delegation of EUJS students, led by then President Joelle Fiss, joined the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) and the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban from August 26th until September 7th
2001. The EUJS delegates were present at the Youth Summit, the NGO Forum and the Governmental Conference. As the EUJS delegation arrived, they realized to what extent their role as young Jews would counterbalance the accusations imposed on the Jewish people.
The event—in addition to spurring EUJS delegates to action on site—led to EUJS signing a common declaration with the Roma student delegation, setting forth the possibility of a partnership to promote Holocaust education, and subsequently resulting in an EUJS-led seminar in Budapest in November 2003.
During the Youth Summit at Durban, EUJS, together with WUJS and SAUJS put forward a proposal calling for an end of the violence on both sides of the Middle East conflict.
The proposal condemned the use of violence and called for students to take an active role in advocating peace in the region. Sadly, a group led by a delegation of Palestinians students voted down this proposal.
During the governmental conference, EUJS met with political leaders such as Louis Michel, the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Walter Schwimmer, the Secretary
General of the Council of Europe.
A Country Torn Apart
Under the leadership of EUJS chairperson François Moyse in 1992, EUJS organized a fact-finding mission to the former Yugoslavia. For many of the students participating,
this tour was one of the most important missions of recent memory. Jewish students from across Europe mobilized themselves and participated in a humanitarian action, collecting clothes for the refugees in the former Yugoslavia. In Croatia, they met with Muslim refugees living under terrible conditions, and even sat down with the late President Franjo Tudjman to discuss his anti-Semitic writings. Listening to the experiences of many who had lived through war, the seminar brought many students into contact with those whose lives were a reminder of harsher experiences.
The Austrian Far-right
In February 2000, the ultra-right Freedom Party FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs), entered into a coalition government in Austria. Led by Jörg Haider, the party, praising Hitler’s employment policy, was well known for his numerous anti-Semitic and xenophobic statements. EUJS organized a large demonstration in parallel to a leadership seminar that it was conducting at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
The students walked in front of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe to the Austrian embassy where they lit candles and threw toothbrushes in the mailbox in order to remind Austrians how Jews had to clean the sidewalk with toothbrushes during the Anschluss.
Witness at Bitburg
In May 1985, when US President Ronald Reagan, together with the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, visited Bitburg’s Kolmeshöhe-Cemetery, where some 2,000
German servicemen – among them around 50 Waffen-SS members – were buried; EUJS mobilized students from across Germany and central Europe.
Speaking out in Europe’s Capital
During one of the most violent periods of the second Intifada, Jews in Europe were under threat: synagogues were burning again, and Jews were feeling insecure and worried. Many Jewish organizations and communities came together and organized demonstrations against this dramatic rise in anti-Semitism.
One of the most visible demonstrations was held in Brussels in April 2002. EUJS sent a delegation of students to represent the 180’000 young European Jews who were at the forefront of this fight in their universities, towns and countries.