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December 25, 2009     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, DECEMBER 25, 2009 EU 'concludes' that Israel must step up peace pace By Leslie Susser JERUSALEM (JTA)--The new European Union docu- ment on the Israeli-Pal- estinian conflict is being interpreted in Jerusalem as a warning to the Israelis: Do more to restart stalled peace talks or face mounting pres- sure from Europe. The document, published as a set of"conclusions," was the result of a Swedish initiative to have the European Union recognize eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a future Pales- tinian state--and part of a new strategy the Palestinians have been pressing in a bid to have the international community impose solutions on key issues of conflict with Israel, includ- ing borders and Jerusalem. Israel was able to block the gambit this time, at least partially, arguing that recog- nizing East Jerusalem now as the Palestinian capital would prejudge the outcome of peace talks and make a Palestinian return to the negotiating table even less likely. PAGE 19A In the end, the European Union adopted a French draft highlighting the need for mutual agreement. "If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jeru- salem as the future capital of two states," the final EU text read. Nevertheless, the wording still suggests having part of Jerusalem as the Palestin- ian capital--a position the current Israeli government rejects. Other parts of the document reflect European unease with Israel's policies under Benjamin Netanyahu's government. And Israeli actions in and around east- ern Jerusalem are strongly criticized. Although the conclusions take "positive note" of Ne- tanyahu's "partial and tem- porary" freeze on settlement building, they go on to urge Israel "to immediately end all settlement activities in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and includ- ing natural growth, and to dismantle all outposts erected since March 2001." The conclusions reflect an erosion in Israel's relations with the European Union in the wake of last winter's Gaza war, the subsequent collapse EU country holds the EU's rotating presidency. The aim is to give European policy greater coherence and consistency. The result could give the European Union more power to exert pressure on Israel down the road. ".. a warning to the Israelis: Do more to restart stalled peace talks or face mounting pressure from Europe.' of peace talks and Netanyahu's election in the spring as prime minister. The EU conclusions come as the organization sets out to revamp its foreign policy structure in an attempt to gain added clout on the world stage. Starting Jan. 1, Catherine Ashton, in the EU's newly created position of high representative for foreign af- fairs and security policy, will be in charge rather than the foreign minister of whatever Additional "conclusions" could be even less to Israel's liking. With a more coherent foreign policy leadership, the European Union could coor- dinate moves more closely with the United States and exert greater influence on the international Quartet, all adding to pressure on Israel. While not as significant as U.S. influence, European influence has not been neg- ligible. Eran, who served as ambassador to the European Union from 2002 to 2007, says the Europeans often have served as a bellwether for the rest of the international community. He noted that they were the first to recog- nize the Palestinian right to self-determination in the 1980 Venice Declaration and the first to talk about recognition of Palestinian statehood 19 years later in Berlin. Now, Eran says, the EU is taking the lead on making East Jerusalem the Palestin- ian capital. "If you look at the prec- edents, all those who are against any compromise in the city should be worried," said Ran Curiel, Israel's am- bassador to the European Union. Nevertheless, Curiel insists that if the Europeans want to play a role in Middle East peacemaking, they will have to start taking Israeli con- cerns into account. "They keep saying they want to be a global player. But if Europe wants to be heard, it will have to reach out to Israeli public opinion and show that it understands Israeli dilemmas and sensitivi- ties, and not only those of the Palestinians," Curiel told JTA. Israeli experts such as Eran do not expect EU attempts at economic pressure. On the contrary, with trade volume of $40.3 billion last year with Israel, the European Union is Israel's largest trading part- ner; the United States takes a close second with $36.8 billion. Eran doesn't expect those numbers to change as a result of politics. "Both sides have learned to distinguish between political positions and ongoing trade, and I doubt whether even countries like Sweden would back economic sanctions against Israel," Eran said. The bottom line is that although economic pressure is unlikely, unless Israel is able to revive a credible peace process with the Palestinians, it couldwell find Europe using the Middle East as the place it spreads its new foreign policy wings. The Wandering Jew: Winding down Jewish life in an Arkansas town By Ben Harris HELENA, Ark. (JTA)--As the setting sun cast the West- ern sky in a pastel shade of pink, the last Jews of Helena gathered on a recent Friday night at the home of Miriam and David Solomon to wel- come the Sabbath. Six elderly Jews--nearly all in their 90s--took their seats in the Solomons' living room as David, a Harvard-trained lawyer and dapper Southern gentleman, led a short, mostly English service. When it was over, cocktailswere mixed--'a libation," he called it--and the group passed around a tray of cheese straws, a local specialty. Until three years ago, Fri- day night services were held in the stately Temple Beth E1 synagogue at the corner of Pecan and Perry streets in the center of town. But a declining membership forced the com- munity to part with its beloved building in 2006, gifting it to the state of Arkansas for use as a theater and community center. Now the remaining Jews gather for services in private homes, just as the first Jewish settlers in Helena did nearly two centuries ago. " "We're just going back to the cycle," Miriam said. "We've come full circle." The plight of Helena's Jews is mirrored in scores of com- munities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those that stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood. But the rise of big box retailers such as Wal-Mart-- headquartered on the opposite side of the state, in Benton- ville--helped to undermine the economic foundation of many Southern towns and accelerated an economic downturn that took its toll on the entire population, Jews and gentiles alike. In Selma, Ala., a tiny com- munity is today struggling to save its historic synagogue, which is just blocks from one of the seminal sites of the civil rights struggle, the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In Clarksdale, Miss., a century- old synagogue was sold to a church some years ago. And in Dothan, Ala., the community drew national attention when it offered $50,000 cash incen- tives to attract young Jewish families. "In some ways Helena is really typical," said Debra Kassoff, who served Southern communities for several years as an itinerant rabbi after her ordination in 2003. "You've got all these communities in a fairly long demographic and economic decline." At its peak in the mid-20th century, more than 100 Jew- ish families lived in Helena, a historic town nestled in a crook of the Mississippi River 75 miles southwest of Memphis. Helena then was an important port town, its strategic location attracting both commercial and leisure traffic from the river. Its main commercial strip, Cherry Street, once was dot- ted with saloons and hotels. Jews owned many of the retail shops. Helena elected a Jewish mayor in 1878, and several Jews served in prominent civic positions, on the school board and City Council, and as local judges. Cherry Street today is but a shadow of its former self. Though the city has tried to play up its history as a tourist attraction--Helena had a sig- nificant role in the Civil War and in the evolution of Ameri- can blues music--many of the shopfronts are shuttered and the town is enduring a con- tinuing economic depression. The downturn has exacted a substantial toll on Helena, and not least on its Jewish com- munity. Barely a dozen Jews remain in a town of 6,300. "It makes me very sad, Ben Harris At 93, David Solomon still spends most days at his law office in downtown Helena, Ark. extremely sad," said Mary Lou Kahn, at 82 the youngest of the Friday night worshipers. "It's heartbreaking." But neither Miriam nor Da- vid Solomon are particularly troubled by the impending conclusion of nearly two centuries of Jewish life. Both describe themselves as "real- ists"; the world has changed, they say, and Helena has changed with it. Their three sons have built lives for themselves in stable Jewish communities in the North. "I relate everything to eco- nomics," said David Solomon, who at 93 still drives himself nearly every day to his taw office on Cherry Street, the same location where his uncle ran Solmon's Shoe Store. "People are going where they can make a living. That's it." Solomon is something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he's around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and a real estate issue. "He is an astonishing man," said Doug Friedlander, 33, who arrived in Helena for a two-year stint with Teach for America that turned into five years and counting. "I used to call him the 'Godfather of Helena.'" Friedlander's arrival in 2004 provided an unexpected boost to the community. He is the first new Jewish arrival in memory, and while no one is under the illusion that his presence fundamentally alters the community's fate, his facility as a worship leader has injected a new energy into their gatherings. Friedlander now spends many Friday nights praying and drinking with people nearly triple his age. The relocation from Temple Beth El to the Solomons' living room and the institution of the post-prayer cocktail have had an unforeseen benefit, he said: Worshipers used to dis- perse when the prayers ended, but now they stick around to socialize. "There's something so magically Southern about it," he said. "I just feel like I hit the lottery." The Solomons' benign res- ignation over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena derives, at least in part, from Ben Harris Temple Beth E1 in Helena, Ark., was gifted to the state of Arkansas after the local Jewish community became too small to support it. the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued main- tenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875. Their ritual objects have been donated to other com- munities and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery's upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass- domed ceiling turned over to the Arkansas Department of Public Heritage, the-building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use. By the building's entrance is a quote from Isiaiah, "Thy Gates Shall be Open Con- tinually," and the last Jews of Helena can be reasonably certain that will hold true for a long time to come. "Whywouldn't I be proud?" Miriam asks. "As long as that temple stands, there will be a Jewish presence in Helena, Ark." Ben Harris The last Jews of Helena, Ark., gather for Friday night services Dec. 4 at the home of Miriam and David Solomon.