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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Session III: Europe's multicultural landscape: Where do
Jewish themes fit in?

Between Cracow, London and Manhattan: Viewing Jewish
history through a multicultural lens

Eva Hoffman, writer, London


The Jewish experience in diaspora - particularly the European diaspora -- has often been interpreted as a unique history and fate. This was partly because until recently, and particularly within European nation-states, there was not much of a comparative framework within which to place the experience of a significant, and significantly different, minority. In my talk, I would like to suggest that just as the Jewish diasporic experience can serve as an interesting template for the understanding of contemporary multicultural societies, so the experience of modern multiculturalism can throw an interesting light on Jewish history -- and possibly modify our sense of Jewish exceptionality.

In my studies of Polish-Jewish history, I found that the long, variously hostile, neutral or even amicable relationship between the two groups prefigured many of the problems found in today's multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies; and that some of the intellectual debates, institutional experiments and political solutions attempted during that long coexistence are still relevant today. At the same time, my experience of living in America and Britain, and my observations of the tensions and conflicts that obtain even in these most determinedly tolerant of societies as they try to negotiate questions of "difference" and "identity," brought a very useful perspective to my explorations of the highly contested Polish-Jewish past. In the light of these immediate observations, it seemed evident to me that at least some of the antagonisms between Poles and Jews could be more fruitfully, and accurately seen in terms of cross-ethnic, or majority-minority tensions, rather than as a function of anti-Semitism in its specific and strong form. Antisemitism, of course, was a strong strain of attitude directed towards Jews, and sometimes, its manifestations were unacceptable and unforgivable. But at other times, conflicts between the two groups arose from genuine clashes of interest, from ideological disagreements and - I believe - excessive and mutually embraced separatism.

The problems faced by contemporary multicultural societies challenge us to rethink questions of how best to negotiate sharp differences within a single society. How much is owed to one's tribe, and how much to society as a whole? How can sharp cultural and spiritual differences be contained without exploding into overt hostilities? What are the virtues of preserving one's separate identity, and what of acculturation? On all such issues, I believe, the Jewish minority in Poland faced decisions which are confronted by other minority groups elsewhere; and on all of them, the choices are complex and the answers not evident even today.