Is the continent where most of world Jewry has roots – and where such concepts as liberalism, human rights, nationalism, and even Zionism were born – crumbling beneath us?
Such questions are hard to answer. On the one hand, the Jewish communities of Western Europe are vibrant and flourishing. Paris reigns as the world capital of Jewish gastronomy, with over 250 kosher restaurants, some of them decidedly upscale. London is home to what may be the world’s most cohesive Jewish community. Two years ago, Satmar Hassidim joined forces with Reform women rabbis to fight UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and succeeded, for a time, in driving antisemitism out of the public realm and political discourse. Some 40,000 Israelis have relocated to Berlin in recent years. And overall, for the time being and from an economic point of view, life is still very pleasant in the good old European galut, or “exile.”
Beyond that, but the 21st century has witnessed an unanticipated development in Western Europe. A new study conducted by the London-based JPR – Institute for Jewish Policy Research – indicates that young Jews in France, England, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany are more connected to the Jewish community than their parents are.[i] Overall, the Jews in those places are more religiously observant than they were 20 years ago. Accordingly, the intermarriage rate is trending downward as well. Surprisingly, even Jews who had formerly been unengaged with Jewish life and the Jewish community are reconnecting.
The process currently underway runs counter to the historical trend of Jewish disengagement that started with the Emancipation and the modernity. It also differs fundamentally from the situation on the other side of the Atlantic, as described in the May 2021 Pew study of American Jews. In the United States, most young Jews are less religious and less connected than their parents to Jewish institutions.[ii]
If the European trends are so positive, why are we worried? And why do 45% of young European Jewish adults say they are considering leaving the continent and that they see no future for their children there?[iii]
The decision to emigrate is driven by both push and pull factors. When Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) at the end of the 19th century, 90% of the world’s Jews lived in Europe. After the Holocaust, European Jewry accounted for 35% of the global Jewish population. Today, only 9% of the world’s Jews – 1.2 million – live there.
This is an ongoing trend. According to the doyen of Jewish demography, Professor Sergio DellaPergola, 100,000 French Jews (20% of the local community) have left France over the past two decades, half of them for Israel, half for other countries.[iv]
The logic behind this development is straightforward: the Jews are leaving countries that do not ensure their personal and communal security, and are relocating to places where they can thrive and prosper.
The future of European Jewry is hazy because the future of Europe itself shrouded in fog. The danger of deterioration in the state of European Jewry is not a matter of poorly-functioning communities, but rather of global trends that affect the continent’s Jews as well.
Four overarching trends are changing Europe and could, as a side effect, cause the Jewish communities to decline:
Economic and social deterioration. According to the OECD, Europe’s economy will sink in the coming years from 14% of global GNP to 9% of global GNP. Historians observe that European economic crises have always been accompanied by waves of antisemitism.
Demographic developments and massive migration from Islamic states. Jewish People Policy Institute studies show that the share of Muslims in a given population predicts the local Jewish community’s chances of survival. The Muslim sector is responsible for the largest share of physical attacks on Jews; it is drives leftist politicians to disproportionately criticize Israel (thereby gratifying their constituencies). Right-wing politicians respond to the growing Muslim sector by promoting anti-multicultural policies and laws that limit non-Christian religious expression in the public space. Although such policies on the right are a backlash against migrants, and intended primarily to limit Islam, they also produce laws that – as collateral damage – undermine Jewish communal life. Wearing a kippah has become illegal in several places, Jewish ritual slaughter has been prohibited in seven different countries, and the Belgian parliament is currently debating legislation that would ban circumcision. The more Muslims there are, the shakier Jewish status becomes. The left courts the Muslim vote while the right, afraid of the Islamic threat, tries to impose restrictions on non-Christian religious worship via the legal system.[v]
Rising antisemitism. The seven-decade post-Holocaust grace period has ended. Antisemitism is once again becoming normalized. Three major sources of hate can be identified: radical Muslims (who, again, are responsible for most of the violence against Jews), the radical right (whose adherents desecrate Jewish cemeteries and vandalize Jewish symbols), and the radical left (some of whom identify Jews with the “global forces of oppression”). Although governments want to protect the Jews, there is no guarantee that they will be able to do so. If in the past centuries, governments were the purveyors of antisemitism, today anti-Jewish hatred sprouts among the common people and, ironically, governments try with limited success to mitigate it.
Political destabilization. All of the European countries are now dotted with Muslim immigrant enclaves – places that are like “states with the state.” In a French survey published in April 2021, 45% of the interviewees expressed serious fear and concern about imminent civil war.[vi]
Let us now return to our opening observation about the unique phenomenon of Jews returning to their roots. Although most Jews are choosing to engage with their communities out of a sense of deep connection to the tradition of their forefathers, it appears that external trends unrelated to Judaism are also pushing them inward, sometimes against their will.
What does this mean for the future?
We must exercise prudence when attempting to predict the Jewish future. Jewish history holds many surprising turns and will likely continue to do so. The Jews are an infinitely resourceful people, expert at forging new paths of survival.
Still, should the trends described above persist (economic decline, demographic and political change, growing antisemitism), Europe’s Jewish population may be expected to keep shrinking. A significant number of European Jews will relocate to more hospitable environments – while others will reduce their Jewish profile and hide their Jewishness to escape Jew hatred.
We can expect that those who remain in Europe will adopt the model employed by the South African and Brazilian communities. They will become increasingly insular, based in protected enclaves largely cut off from the rest of society.
Israel, of course, has the option of intervening to some degree. Not in halting current demographic trends or forestalling Europe’s economic downturn, but by encouraging aliyah and improving immigrant absorption – should it wish to do so. As noted, 45% of young Jews are considering leaving the continent. Surveys show that 60% of them see Israel as a preferred destination, but they are held back by anticipated difficulties. Bringing to Israel in the next five years 50,000 French Jews and 50,000 additional educated and resourceful Western European Jews is far from being an unachievable dream. It will not change world history but it will contribute to a better Jewish future.
Should the Israeli government provide the necessary means and resources, the Jewish Agency and other relevant organizations would be capable of getting tens of thousands of young, educated Jews, many with professional qualifications, to immigrate to Israel rather than assimilating or relocating to North America.
For this, two things are required: a government that cares about world Jewry, and the political will to act.
[iii] Experiences and perceptions of antisemitism: Second survey on discrimination and hate crime against Jews in the EU, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), December 2018. https://fra.europa.eu/sites/default/files/fra_uploads/fra-2018-experiences-and-perceptions-of-antisemitism-survey_en.pdf
[v] 2019 Annual Assessment, the Jewish People Policy Institute. http://jppi.org.il/en/article/aa2019/indices/anti-semitismeurope/changes/#.YOp3POgzaUl