I first met David Susskind in 1984, when he headed the CCOJB, the umbrella organization of Belgian Jewry. Everybody knew him - Jews, of course, but also many Gentiles. I was 12 then and newly involved in the left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror. I didn't really understand what being an activist meant. David would teach me just that, and not just me, but five generations of young and old activists.
We were given a specific mission as part of the Jewish community's fight for the removal of the Carmelite Catholic convent at Auschwitz: "They" would have to respect the holiness of Auschwitz, otherwise we Jews would sit in their churches throughout Europe until the convent and its tall cross were removed. This was the order David had given us, and there was no discussion possible. And so we sat for two days in Brussels' Cathedral. The impact and the symbolism of Jews demonstrating in a Catholic church was huge; we felt proud to take part in such a moral fight.
David Susskind - "Suss," as everyone called him - had seen it all. Born in Antwerp in 1925 and brought up in a Yiddish-speaking Orthodox family, he escaped with his sister to Switzerland during the German occupation, but their mother was murdered in Auschwitz. He joined the Resistance in France, and after the liberation, he returned to Belgium, where he built a family and a successful diamond business.
He tried to reconcile two ideals that turned out to be quite irreconcilable: Judaism and communism. As a result he managed to get kicked out of two communist parties, the Stalinist and the Maoist. At the same time he eventually became the voice and face of the Belgian-Jewish community, which he, more than anyone else, was instrumental in reviving from the ashes of the war.
The common opinion among Jews and non-Jews alike was that despite his poor French, spoken in a heavy Yiddish accent, Susskind could have risen to preeminence in Belgian politics if he had so wished. With his unique blend of heart and reason, willpower and bottomless energy, he was in an odd way hugely charismatic and eloquent, and capable of bending to his will friends and foes, humble folk and powers-that-be. He chose instead to devote his strengths to Jewish matters.
Suss could be demanding and domineering, but people trusted him, because he never forgot his mother Mala Lea's injunction when she sent him to his fate in Switzerland: "Be a mensch, my son." Indeed, Suss was the quintessential mensch. For him, fighting for his fellow Belgian Jews meant fighting for all Jews, and combating anti-Semitism was inseparable from combating any form of discrimination, racism and intolerance. Justice is for all or it is for nobody, and working to make the world a better place for Jews only is an absurdity.
For me, as for many others, he embodied the concept of tikkun olam. He was pivotal in extending the Belgian law against holocaust denial to include the prohibition on negation of the Armenian and Tutsi genocides.
His masterpiece was the Centre Communautaire Laic Juif (Secular Jewish Community Center ), a facility different from anything existing elsewhere, even today, in the Diaspora: Jewish and secular, progressive and Zionist. This center was his way of guaranteeing Jewish continuity after the Shoah - a way to remain Jewish, for those who could not identify with religious tradition. Half a century after he founded it, the CCLJ remains one of the largest Jewish Community Centres in Europe and the most important of its humanistic, secular, brand.
This was the base from which he launched his worldwide actions: the first world conference on behalf of Soviet Jewry, in 1971, in the presence of both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin - an accomplishment in itself; the titanic but successful battle for the restitution of Jewish goods stolen during World War II; and the organization in his Brussels home of the first secret encounters, followed in 1988, by the first public conference, between Israelis and Palestinians, as part of his longest obsession: seeking peace between Israelis and Palestinians. As far as he was concerned, Judaism and injustice were incompatible, as were Zionism and occupation.
Susskind's last battle was JCall, the European version of the American organization J Street that he helped create two years ago. This was also the topic of our last encounter, a few months ago. He was already on his way out, an old man both tired and sick. But he was as alert, combative and assertive as ever, talking about the future as if eternity were one of his many attributes.
His message was as strong as in 1984: We must continue and help our Israeli brothers reach a just peace. His motto was Rabbi Hillel's immortal line from "Pirkei Avot," and his cavernous voice still resonates in my ears: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
When he passed away, on November 25 at the age of 86, the whole of the Belgian political elite - for a moment oblivious of the turmoil with which the country has been struggling - attended his funeral, and not a single major media outlet omitted to publish a lavish obituary. Everybody sensed that one of the last giants of European Jewry was gone. This secular, leftist synagogue-goer wouldn't mind me saying: "Yehi zikhro barukh": "May his memory be blessed."
Claude Kandiyoti is a Brussels-based entrepreneur and former publisher of the Belgian-Jewish monthly Contact J.
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