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Re: Confronting the End of European Jewry

Earlier this week, Jonathan Tobin thoughtfully weighed in on Michel Gurfinkiel’s brilliant article at Mosaic Magazine on the paradox of Jewish life in Europe. Having written in the past on similar themes and in a similar vein here at COMMENTARY, I wish to add another dimension to the debate over the future of European Jewry that, in the understandable concern over rising anti-Semitism, sometimes gets lost.

Despite the disheartening vilification of Israel, the biggest threat to long-term European Jewish survival is assimilation, not persecution or even prejudice.

European Jewish demographics since World War II ended show a pattern of decline that can be correlated to the degree of Jewish assimilation into the broader European society. The more secular Jews are, the less children they tend to have.

As Daniel Johnson points out in a rejoinder to Gurfinkiel’s essay, Jewish demographic decline in Britain has now been reversed–mostly because of the Haredi community’s high birthrates, as a reader shrewdly remarks. One should add the Modern Orthodox into that caveat–for they are, as always, the best hope for the long-term survival of any Jewish community.

The fact is, European Jews are very much like their non-Jewish counterparts. They are assimilating into something–and their full embrace of the surrounding culture leads to dwindling numbers of Jews for the next generation as a result of lower birth rates, intermarriage, lack of participation in communal life, lack of Jewish literacy, and the like. Their loss to the community means that communities become smaller over time–and larger religious families are not large enough to make up for those lost numbers.

Is there prejudice in Europe? Plenty. Some of it is a byproduct of European hostility to Israel, which in some ways is a sublimation of no-longer acceptable classic anti-Semitism, and in some ways it is its new incarnation. Some of it is resurfacing from the right, some of it in the East, and some of it will become worse if the economic crisis does not recede. But nobody serious is talking of discriminating against Jews and nobody who is talking about it is being taken seriously.

The worst cases of discrimination against Jews have occurred in the intellectual world–evidence of the illiberal streak still present among self-defined liberal intellectuals and academics. But no one has been denied equal rights, job opportunities or access to welfare on the basis of being Jewish. That would be and will remain unthinkable.

More importantly, the level of security in place among Jewish communities across Europe would be impossible, especially in smaller communities, were it not for the state authorities’ constant commitment to provide or complement security measures. The need for such exceptional security measures reveals a deteriorating environment–but the ongoing public allocation of resources for the protection of Jewish institutions reflects a commitment to pluralism and Jewish existence.

State largesse for Jewish institutions goes well beyond security–it has rescued Jewish heritage sites from decay; supported countless cultural events such as the European day of Jewish Culture; and financed Jewish education; overall benefiting living communities as well as the memory of lost ones.

Being Jewish is a complex business for those who take their identity seriously, and in today’s Europe some of those aspects are more pleasant than others. It is a balance, and both those who leave and those who stay articulate compelling arguments justifying their choice. There has not been a mass Jewish flight from any European country–strong evidence that the picture is not that bleak. But many Jews seriously contemplate moving, or at least take steps to enable their children to move (educating them abroad for example)–a reminder that the picture is not cheerful either.

There are also some unexpected side-effects to this predicament that are strengthening, rather than weakening, Jewish identity in Europe, thus improving chances for Jewish continuity.

More Jewish children attend Jewish day schools than ever before–even if it is just to avoid the chance encounter with prejudice, now far more likely than in the past. And because faith schools are subsidized in many European countries, Jewish education is, unlike in the U.S., very affordable. Tuition is within reach of middle-class incomes and, thanks to financial aid, no Jewish kid whose parents wish in Jewish education is left out.

A separate but correlated development is the mass participation by young Jews in March of the Living/Birthright type programs to Auschwitz and Israel–something sure to strengthen their identity.

The result? Young Jews are more literate than their parents and grandparents ever were in Jewish heritage–and these are secular Jews. The Orthodox were, are and will always remain, well-versed in Jewish tradition. But their secular counterparts were falling by the way sides. Where Jewish day schools exist, that trend has been reversed–because they offer a safe environment, a high-quality education, a sense of belonging, and a way to make friends that provides more chances to find a Jewish partner and less chances to have friends who turn out to be anti-Semites.

Jewish demographers have conclusively documented positive correlations between day school attendance and group programs strengthening collective identity on one hand, and the tendency not to marry out on the other, as they have correlated higher religious observance to lower intermarriage rates. So, children going to Jewish day schools in greater numbers, and then going onto trips to Israel and/or Poland at a critical stage of their formative years, have stronger Jewish identities and a stronger commitment to working for the community, being a part of it and remaining a member into adulthood.

None of this diminishes the validity of Gurfinkiel’s analysis.

The picture is verily confusing–today, it is both harder and easier than in the past to be a European Jew. There are good reasons why many Jews feel that Israel or, to a lesser extent, the U.S., Canada or Australia offer a better chance for a Jewish future. But the numbers of those voting with their feet are still much smaller than those opting to stay. The dwindling numbers, then, are primarily a function of Jews who cease identifying as Jews, less a function of Jews fleeing anti-Semitism.

Just as often, those who are leaving are the least affluent or the most ideologically fervent–their motives have to do less with fleeing anti-Semitism (though hostility plays a role) and more with tackling a combination of material hardship and disaffection with the predominant social values.

I share Gurfinkiel’s alarm at the pathetic, instinctive “Third-Worldist” dislike for Israel that European elites obsessively entertain, but do not see it as an existential threat for Jewish communities as such. The threat comes from a confluence of factors, of which antipathy for Israel is one.

Muslim anti-Semitism is also a growing threat–and it is not enough to live in leafy middle-class suburbs to avoid it. Ultimately, Jews still think that working with local institutions, pursuing interfaith dialogue, promoting civic education, and perpetuating memory are strong antidotes for European society at large.

They have not been entirely wrong so far.

Things might change if homegrown Islamic radicalism grows. Even so, it will not be the Jews’ problem alone. Whether Europeans get medieval against their Muslim minorities at some point remains to be seen–and Jews would not want to be standing in the way (or on the side) of that mob when it happens–but I suspect Jews will be spared by and large.

To the average Western European, Jews are still welcome while on good behavior and mostly left to themselves and able to worship freely and thrive culturally while being equal citizens before the law. Israel is a different story–and for those whose attachment to Israel remains a central feature of their identity, the European intellectual landscape and public discourse will never stop offering solid reasons to leave.


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