Einstein's Children: Chapters in the History of the European Union of Jewish Students

Article excerpt

Every nation will, according to the capacity of its student youth, be able to serve the development of mankind. The Jewish People has a surplus of intellectual forces. If we take into consideration, however, our primary tasks, the building up of our national home, and fighting against all the injustices which are committed against us, we see that our intellectual and technical forces are, in comparison with other peoples, not so great as they appear. There is a great deal of work to do. The Jew everywhere has to rouse respect and obtain recognition for his people. The work of individuals serves as a symbol for the entire people. The best method for the work before us appears to be a strong, organized Union of all Jewish students throughout the world. (2)

Albert Einstein, Paris, April 1928

Message to the Jewish Students

The history of international Jewish student organizations can be traced back to the foundation of the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) in 1924 in Antwerp, Belgium. The WUJS was primarily the brainchild of its first chairperson, the Austrian Zvi Lauterpacht (3) who initiated the organization to fight against the numerus clausus, a quota restricting the acceptance of Jewish students to institutions of higher education. (4) Lauterbach managed to involve many intellectuals in the students' struggle, most prominently Albert Einstein. In 1925, when invited to become the first WUJS president, Einstein accepted immediately.

The founders of the WUJS grew up in a generation deeply influenced by World War I. His generation was 'affected by the ascendant optimistic internationalism [...] which sought to avoid a repetition of the horrors of 1914-18 by learning the languages of other peoples and by meeting together at international conventions, festivals and jamborees;' (5) a similar spirit that would lead 54 years later to the foundation of the European Union of Jewish Students.

With the rise of Nazism in Germany, only a decade after the creation of WUJS, the hope for a peaceful Europe and the students' struggle for equal rights both ended abruptly; the Shoah changed Europe's Jewish communities in an irrevocable way. Despite two congresses immediately after the war (in 1945 and 1948), it took WUJS until the 1960s to recover as an organization. The struggle for Soviet Jewry converted WUJS, for the first time since World War II, into a political organization. In his annual report, then WUJS Secretary General, Abraham B. Yehoshua, stated in 1966 that WUJS 'political ideology consists of intervening through direct actions in those areas which concern the Jewish people. [...] We shall avoid involvement in the political affairs of Israel as well as the international student world.' (6)

Yehoshua's words were tested nearly immediately with the Six-Day War in 1967, a war that showed the danger of destruction of the Jewish state and garnered Israel unprecedented support from almost every sector of the Jewish community, at the same time the new territorial realities prompted a strong wave of anti-Israel sentiment. (7)

The New Left, progressives, radicals, liberals and other student groups who were anti-Apartheid and anti-Vietnam quickly became anti-Israel, despite the fact that many of their leaders were themselves Jewish. (8) After 1967, Jewish students found themselves in the front line of defense in a virulent propaganda war waged by left and Arab student activists. The students were the only organized sector of the Jewish community regularly exposed to the challenges and traumas of the continuous battles. In the few short months following the Six-Day War, anti-Israel propaganda had transformed the Jewish state's perception from a progressive David to a reactionary and imperialist Goliath.

The Six-Day War created a general atmosphere of unity within the Jewish world, which led the WUJS leadership to the decision to affiliate more closely with the World Zionist Organization (WZO). …