Europe's Jewry

The Cultural Dimension of Jewish European Identity

Of all the expressions of Jewish identity, Jewish culture has traditionally been the most legitimate and the most celebrated in post-Enlightenment Europe. Since their political emancipation at the end of the 18th century, Jews have endeavored to contribute their part to the broader society by focusing on the elements of their identity that fit the secular and liberal ethos.

In order to demonstrate their full allegiance to the emerging nation-states, they pushed aside their religious, ethnic and “national” distinctiveness. Culture became the main dimension that Jews presented. It allowed them then – and still allows them today in Europe – to remain connected to their ancestral tradition without being outsiders and “others”. Having adopted this strategy, European Jews faced diverse reactions from the surrounding society that varied, depending on time and place, from tolerance, acceptance and philo-Semitism to complete rejection and social exclusion.

In recent months, much has been written about the Europe’s economic, political, and demographic turmoil and its implication for European Jews.[1] Some analysts are quite pessimistic about the future while others praise what they see as incredible cultural thriving. How can we make sense of this paradox? Could it be that while Jewish culture is celebrated, the other basic dimensions of Jewish identity are desecrated? We will present here the evidence of the cultural renaissance, the facts supporting the discomfort and even the signs of identity crisis among certain sub-groups of European Jewry.

The European Jewish Renewal: Roots and Configuration

The past decade has seen a remarkable growth and revitalization of Jewish life across Europe. New initiatives are emerging in countries across the continent, and people are connecting and reconnecting to Jewish life – particularly in cultural ways. Some experts even speak of a Jewish renaissance in Europe. In the affluent and protected suburban Jewish neighborhoods of West Paris and North London, Jewish life is more vibrant than ever, and every week new families move into them from other communities. Vienna’s Jewish community is also growing thanks to an influx of Hungarian Jews, Berlin’s Jews have launched the Jewish Voice from Germany – a publicly-funded quarterly periodical with a circulation of 50,000 – Budapest’s Jews have opened a vibrant Israeli Cultural Center, and kosher restaurants and centers for Talmudic studies open continuously in European capitals.

Jewish cultural entrepreneurs are creating new realities, focusing on education, arts and culture, and community building, and introducing new ways of expressing Judaism that are inclusive, open and accessible, and reach people who were previously unaffiliated with the established communities. Rather than leaving societal needs to the central Jewish institutions, social entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions, delivering extraordinary results and improving the lives of thousands of disaffected Jews. Young activists, even in very isolated environments and with very little, if any, institutional support, have been responsible for launching a number of new initiatives such as Jewish Web-Radio in Milan, a Jewish-Israeli film festival in Amsterdam, a career advice center in Moscow, a European Jewish-Muslim dialogue conference, and a Holocaust Memorial Day in Romania. Thus, according to the Jumpstart Report writers, Europe is witnessing an unprecedented revival of contemporary Jewish life.[2] As of spring 2010, they estimated that there were 220-260 European Jewish cultural and social initiatives currently in operation. Relative to their respective populations, there were, according to these observers, nearly twice as many Jewish initiatives in Europe (1 project for every 6,400 Jews) compared with North America (1 project for 11,000). The Connecticut-based Westbury Group shares a similar optimism regarding European Jewish revival.

Throughout the world, emerging adults listen to and make music. But music is not only a medium for people – young and old – to express their culture, it is also a metaphor, a mirror for the attitudes and mores of the culture itself. Thus, the young, international contemporary music that today celebrates diversity does not sit well with ethnic and religious boundaries, just as the world-view of Europe’s wider societies do not comfortably accommodate Jewish particularism.

The challenges young Jews face is how to be part of the “cultural mélange” they see as an extremely positive global trend, while at the same time keeping their ethnic distinctiveness. The rather clever response of some young Jews has been to launch what we may call Brand J. In order to position themselves firmly in the heart of roiling activity of the self-identified Jewish cultural, social and political initiatives, they have adopted as part of their brand name the letter “J” or other easy-to-Google common designators that echo their ethno-religious linkage – among them, JDub, Jewcy, JewTube, RadioJ, Jewsalsa and JuMu (music and art), Jhub and JVN (social innovation) and J-Street and J-Call (politics).

There are other initiatives, too, that consciously use Jewish culture as a springboard for connecting Jews to their fellow non-Jewish countrymen. From Amsterdam to Paris, London to Berlin, Jazz’n’Klezmer festivals attract mixed bands of Jews and non-Jews playing and enjoying music together. And across Europe, small groups of activists have launched Jewish cuisine courses, Jewish art expos, and Jewish film festivals.

Yet, when we compare American and European Jewish innovations of this kind, stark differences emerge. The proliferation in North America of grassroots projects that express a creative spirituality and the drive for Tikkun Olam (a paradigmatic Hebrew expression used to describe the Jewish American commitment to social justice, the environment and the fight against global poverty) does not find an echo in Europe.

Europe, of course, is not entirely devoid of such initiatives. The most notable European project of this kind is Limmud, an initiative of Jewish learning and culture that brings together some of the world’s most dynamic Jewish educators, performers and teachers to offer participants lectures, workshops, text-study, films, meditations, discussions, exhibits and performances. Thanks to its professionalism and exceptional spirit, it has succeeded in expanding from London to more than a hundred other places around the world.

However, the gap between the self-confident dynamism and creativity of American Jews and the more hesitant activity of their European counterparts illustrates one of the fundamental differences between being an emerging Jewish adult on the different sides of the Atlantic. Beyond the lack of Jewish institutional backing for startup projects, Europe is different from America in at least the following interconnected dimensions: a reluctance by the general population to accept Jewish exceptionalism; the highly-centralized nature of the Jewish establishment; the Shoah-centered discourse about Jews; and a “Balkanization” of European Jewry caused by national boundaries and linguistic diversity that has led to a lack of connectivity.

All the same, Jewish culture is a constituent part of European culture and its place and visibility seems to be higher than ever. Leading Jewish figures are playing an important role in national debates and the interest shown by some non-Jewish intellectual circles in Jewish culture is impressive. Some writers – Kertész, Benjamin, Levinas, Celan, Jankelevitch, Arendt, Kafka, Singer, and Roth, to name just a few – are the subjects of high-quality publications and intense debates that extend far beyond Jewish circles. Nor are cinema, art and show-business excepted: In Europe as in North-America, many leading comedians and artists, actors and producers, singers and media directors are of Jewish descent.

Indeed, Jewish thinkers and scholars have been prominent on the intellectual scene in Europe for centuries. Their contribution to European culture has consistently been of major importance since the Aufklärung revolution. Without doubt, European intellectual life would have been substantially different without the contributions of Sigmund Freud, Heinrich Heine, Jacques Derrida, Marcel Proust, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Émile Benveniste, Karl Popper, Roman Jakobson, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erich Auerbach, Ernst Gombrich, Boris Pasternak, Arthur Koestler, Saul Bellow, Harold Pinter or Thomas Kuhn.

An area of significant Jewish influence that is closely related to literature is twentieth century linguistics and language-based philosophy and criticism, which has been described by the eminent literary critic George Steiner as perhaps the century’s “most important intellectual achievement outside the physical and mathematical sciences.” Steiner goes on to note that through the work of Fritz Mauthner, Karl Kraus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin, Roman Jakobson, Zellig Harris, Noam Chomsky, and many other Jews, “the language revolution” can be considered to constitute “a decisive interaction between Judaism and the genius of the spoken and written word.”

Even if Jewish intellectual presence is not new to Europe, the renewed interest in Jewish culture we have witnessed over the last decade is exceptionally intense.

Observing the fascination for fiction writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer in Poland or as Franz Kafka in the Czech Republic, we may, however, question the nostalgic dimension of this interest in authors who belong to a bygone era and in populations that no longer have a significant presence in these regions. The very fact that at Jewish festivals in Poland, klezmer recitals and Yiddish theater performances are staged by non-Jews for non-Jewish audiences, illustrates this paradox.

This cultural revival could not have existed without discreet, yet effective, support from public institutions. In nearly every European capital, national institutions promote Jewish cultural events and open state-sponsored Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials. For example, the nine-day “Festiwal Kultury Żydowskiej” in Kraków is held under the honorary patronage of the President of Poland, while Paideia – the Stockholm Institute that offers the most intensive Jewish educational program available in the continent – was established with funding from the Swedish government. The achievements of the 2012 European Day of Jewish Culture (generously supported by public funding) are impressive: 679 activities organized in 260 cities throughout 27 countries gathered near to 200.000 visitors. In Germany alone, regional governments run sixty “Jüdische Kulturtage” all over the country, day-long events at which the Jewish culture is celebrated by the population, Jews and non-Jews alike. Finally, in Prague and in Venice, but also to a lesser extent, in Pest and in Rome, the old Jewish neighborhoods have become “must-sees” in any tourist visit and the local city councils see them as part of the national inheritance.
Jews and the European Idea: Past, Present and Future
However, when we take a closer look at the situation, the acceptance of Jewish identity is not as broad as it might first appear. European societies are selective in their relationship to Judaism. This means that in order to be accepted within the general society, Jews in Europe must adapt to a wider societal ethos in which Jewish communal life, Jewish national identity, Jewish political transnational interests, and solidarity with Israel are perceived as being in conflict with the fundamental values of post-war Europe. Clermont-Tonnerre’s famous statement (1789), “All for the Jews as individual citizens, nothing for the Jews as a nation” may be seen as the organizing principle around which kind of Jewishness is celebrated and which is stigmatized.

Between Assimilation and Distinctiveness

Having experienced the effects of discrimination and racism, many Jews have been at the forefront of advancing humanistic values in their countries. Consciously or unconsciously inspired by the biblical description of the messianic age, many – and among them European political leaders such as Walter Rathenau and Leon Blum as well as the German-born American political scientist Hans Morgenthau – dreamed of a united Europe and sowed the seeds of a wealthy, tolerant and warless continent. Out of the ashes of the Holocaust, the Jewish jurist Rene Cassin drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose principles inspired the founders of the entity that would later become the European Union. The idea of a supranational political entity that could protect minorities from unethical and discriminatory national laws was a blessing for European Jews and many of them worked to advance its establishment. The election of Mrs. Simone Veil as the first President of the European Parliament illustrated this intimate link between the new peaceful Europe and its Jews.

Yet, as we will show, history sometimes deceives, and the space that should have been the most comfortable for Jews has evolved into one that, while welcoming to a certain form of Jewish culture and to Jews who want to assimilate, is not necessarily friendly to faithful Jews who wish to practice their faith in a vibrant communal environment and to transmit their ancestral tradition to their offspring. Jews who do not want to restrict their Jewishness to ethereal intellectual life, who are not satisfied with a nostalgia for a past that does not exist anymore, or who do not subscribe to folklore and “symbolic ethnicity,” encounter difficulties in publicly carrying their Jewishness in today’s Europe, especially in Sweden and in certain neighborhoods of Brussels, Paris and Budapest. Concretely, the place that should have provided an optimally fertile environment for thriving Jewish life is instead a place that tens of thousands of Jews are today quitting for other more hospitable shores.

The discomfort that a significant proportion of European Jews feel is no longer a matter for discussion. According to a large-scale survey on Jewish people’s experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism commissioned by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), Jews all over Europe feel insecure. Although the official results of the survey have not yet been published, an EU representative in Israel recently presented the basic data that the survey revealed:

More than one in four (26%) of Jewish respondents claim to have experienced anti-Semitic harassment at least once in the 12 months preceding the survey and one in three (34%) had experienced anti-Semitic harassment over the past 5 years. 5% of all Jewish respondents said that their property had been deliberately vandalized because they were Jewish, while 7% of respondents had experienced some form of physical attack or threats in the last 5 years.

 In three of the nine states surveyed – Belgium, France and Hungary – between 40 and 50% of respondents said they had considered emigrating from their country of residence because they did not feel safe there.

 The survey results demonstrate that the frequently held opinion that associates expressions of prejudice with groups who hold politically extremist views does not give the whole picture. On the contrary, there is ample evidence to suggest that the offenders are drawn from a broad spectrum of society. 

 The survey results suggest that many Jewish respondents across the nine states included do not report anti-Semitic incidents to the police or to other agencies. 76% of victims of anti-Semitic harassment, 64% of victims of anti-Semitic physical attacks or threats of violence and 52% of victims of vandalism against their property did not report the most serious incident in the past 5 years either to the police nor to any other agency.

Developments that Could Challenge the Future Thriving of Jewish Life in Europe

Against the background of demographic shifts, including the mass migration of non-European populations, recent attempts to restrict the rights of Jews to maintain normative Jewish practices in Europe could be viewed as the latest juridical and political manifestations of a larger identity backlash against multi-cultural policies. While apparently directed mainly against Muslims, this new and vigorous opposition to particularist religious practices affects the status of Judaism and may, in the long term, pose a serious challenge to the future thriving of European Jewish communities.

Even if each discrete restriction on traditional Jewish life appears to be anchored in universal values and to advance general societal concerns, their cumulative effect does not bode well. They include: the recent attempt to ban circumcision (the practice was expressly legalized by the Bundestag on December 10, 2012 but was nevertheless opposed by 75% of Germans based on human rights and medical claims), the threat to the Kosher meat supply (including the long-standing ban on Jewish slaughter in Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland, a more recent prohibition in Poland and attempts to outlaw it in Holland and France; the brand new Swedish ban on Kosher meat imports and the new EU regulation requiring the labelling of meat and meat products derived from Jewish slaughter as “meat from slaughter without stunning” – resting on animal rights claims),”; the abolition of eternal cemeteries (in Switzerland and Belgium, based on environmental interests), the rejection of requests for accommodation in taking public examinations based on the Jewish calendar (in France and Switzerland, based on claims of separation between Church and State), the rejection of requests for non-electric entry access in private condominiums (in France, based on security concerns); the reevaluation of the traditional policy of providing massive public funding to Jewish cultural institutions (in France and other countries, resting on equity and ethnic non-discrimination claims), and more. Taken together, the effect on the daily life of committed Jews within general society is significant.

Celebrating Jewish Culture while Desecrating Jewish Communal Life?

We can identify several elements that have led the promising dream of a Jewish-friendly multicultural Europe to become an environment that celebrates Jewish culture but appears to be more hostile to the building blocks of sustainable Jewish communal life.

A first element that made post-war Europe a problematic environment for committed Jews is linked to its aversion to religion in general and its discomfort with the collective dimension of Judaism, whether ethnic or national. After centuries of bloody nationalist, ethnic and religious conflicts, the famous song of John Lennon illustrates the European pacifist dream that emerged following the Second World War and that mirrored the founding principles for the continent’s new post-war identity: “Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion, too. Imagine all the people living life in peace”. In other words, the less nationalism, the less ethnicity and the less religion we have, the better.

The values that have since become a European ‘mantra’ are: human rights; the rule of law; and pluralistic democracy. This mantra developed from the liberal, democratic world views of the victorious powers and are based on British and French political philosophy. The British contributed their belief in individualism and the rule of law. The French brought their belief in clearly stated universal rights, their commitment to secularism (laïcité), and their political aversion to any ethnic definition of the State. To this they added their fervent post-war belief in the need for historical reconciliation between former enemies. In this context, Jewish exceptionalism is perceived with suspicion.

A second negative element is the legacy of anti-Semitism. Throughout European history, Jews have been the immediate “others” who fulfilled the group-identity mirror needs for the majority and further provided a symbolic reference baseline for all new “others.” This mechanism played a substantial role during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the establishment of modern European nation-states: in most Western and Eastern European countries (except for Italy, where the Catholic Church has played the role of the “other”), anti-Semitism was the common cement of national identities.

In an article dedicated to the analysis of the function that anti-Semitism fulfils in the construction of Western collective identities, Henri Zukier highlights the fact that “The Other”, the outsider, is psychologically constructed as the projected image of the negations and repressions of every society. Once constructed on this basis, and having undergone a process of demonization, The Other becomes an emotionally charged object that may be “manipulated, preserved and called up at will” by the members of the dominant group, and also has the capacity to trigger powerful “mechanical” feelings and reactions.

Psychologist Edward E. Sampson goes even further, asserting that the entire Western project is marked by the construction by dominant groups of “serviceable others”, whose lives are negated through control over how they are defined, as well as by the reality in which they live. Consequently, on the old continent, Jewish belonging is never a trivial issue. Artists, politicians, writers, and movie producers of Jewish ancestry are routinely questioned by the media about their relationship to Judaism, and to Israel. Nicolas Sarkozy’s successor as leader of the UMP liberal party and current French opposition leader, Jean-François Copé, whose mother is of Jewish Algerian descent and whose father is of Jewish Romanian ancestry, illustrates this pressure to disengage from “assigned” Jewishness in order to make one’s way to national political leadership. He felt the need to declare that “[his] community of reference is not the Jewish, but the French.”

Whereas Judaism as a culture is sometimes praised and celebrated, the ethnic, collective, and communitarian dimensions of Jewishness are repudiated. All over Europe, Jews are increasingly encouraged to keep their identity private and to avoid emphasizing their Jewishness. Although this had already been the rule for the last two hundred years, with the demographic shifts and the massive influx of Muslim populations, this expectation of “voluntary amnesia” – to use an expression coined by Franz Kafka – is becoming mandatory in the public sphere.

Pessimistic analysts observe that the 90 percent of world Jewry who lived in Europe at the turn of the 20th century has dwindled to only nine percent today. In their view, what Raoul Hillberg calls “the destruction of European Jews” seems well on the way to fulfillment, bringing the curtain down on 2,000 years of glorious Jewish contribution to European civilization.

Existential Strategies of European Jews and their Identity Implications

Whereas in America, young Jews have integrated their Jewishness softly into their multifaceted identity, European Jews still live according to a binary identity. Like the generation of today’s American Jews’ grandparents, even European Jews who have very little in the way of Jewish ethnic capital and who know little or nothing of Jewish languages, written texts, and cultural expressions, have a sense of being linked – positively or negatively – to their Jewish ancestry. Even if young European Jews do not experience any impediment to their educational, economic, or social mobility, their “invisible distinctiveness” is a key component of their identity.

Not all Jews have chosen to accept this integrative model. What could be seen as the most sustainable and fastest-growing communities are precisely the Orthodox enclaves in London, Paris and Antwerp whose residents live according to the old fashioned model, with its mix of strict observance of religious rules, intensive Torah-study, self-segregation, a close-knit social fabric and intense Jewish spirit. In doing so, they opt to disregard the reaction of society’s majority. They do not concern themselves with pleasing the ethos of their home countries; they simply want to continue the 3,500 year tradition of Hebraism and Jewishness.

In the categorization summarized below in figure 1, this group of population would be considered an ENCLAVE.

However, conscious of this complex context, the largest portion of European Jews has chosen to adopt a discrete Jewish profile, putting aside their commitment toward Judaism, Israel and their fellow Jews and often also abandoning the traditional Jewish commitment to the underdog. In other words, and to use the same categorization, they choose the INDIVIDUALIST positioning, drifting progressively toward assimilation.

In between, a large segment of socially integrated Jews who resent being associated with a fenced-in Jewish identity have adopted the UNIVERSALIST strategy. Since this positioning is the only one that is truly accepted and celebrated in European societies, it is also the one that deserves a more precise analysis.

We can clarify this by identifying archetypes that are variations of this generic model, though of course, in reality, individual situations are more complex and some people can be part of different types at the same time.

The Enlightened: This figure is the traditional and most accepted positioning that emerged after the 18th century. The Jew has to play a role as the liberal, progressive and open-minded intellectual. As such, he is the defender of civil rights for ethnic and sexual minorities and must take part in major societal debates. Jews with this profile can be found in the governmental sphere and in civil society.

The Controversial: Here the Jew plays the role of a deconstructive figure. He challenges the founding national and social myths. As such, he may be invited to important events and is particularly prevalent in the popular media.

The Comedian: An important figure on the artistic scene, he is a bestselling author or a successful comedian or movie-maker. He likes to shine, to charm, to please, to be loved.

The Folkloric: Characterized by a relatively strong Jewish identity, he is willing to play with it in the general society, and even to expose it as an object of fun.

The Limits of the Contemporary European Jewish Identity Profiles

The main question here is the role of culture in the Jewish identity. Though it is one of the main dimension of Jewishness, can we really say that it is sufficient by itself? Our opinion is that Jewishness goes far beyond its cultural aspects. Judaism is not only its “culture” – it is a culture. It is a way of life, a Weltanschaung, a way of perceiving the world and events – a civilization.

Jewish culture is sourced in a 3,500-year history and reveals the human sensibility of a people that has suffered greatly. If it is to give full expression to these holistic dimensions, it cannot be reduced to culture and folklore alone. A culture that is reduced in this way is condemned to die; it certainly cannot compete with dominant cultures that offer new generations of Jews an alternative system of values and behaviors. Reducing Judaism to klezmer, culinary specialties, and the memory of suffering cannot provide the ingredients of vibrant and sustainable Jewish communities. A culture that is restricted to the private sphere and that cannot express itself in interaction with others cannot create sense for the concerned population. Observers agree that sustainable Jewish life is possible when at least three of the six basic components of Jewish identity find expression (see figure 2).

We may thus question the sustainability of the four European individual strategies described above, in which Jewishness is restricted to its “cultural” component. When looking at them more closely, we see that they all have important limits as far as Jewish identity is concerned.

The Enlightened: Among the famous Jewish contributors to general society (such as politicians Ignaz Kuranda, Walter Rathenau, Leon Blum, Mendes France, Bruno Kreisky, Simone Veil, Ruth Dreifuss, Edward Miliband), very few have Jewish offspring. In the European context, their commitment to general society prevents them from being too committed to Jewish communal life. This is not the situation in America where many high ranking civil servants and public officials are committed Jews – committed to the Jewish people, to the State of Israel and to Judaism. They have no need to rid themselves of their Jewishness to be good Americans. European nationalism has a more exclusive dimension that regards Jewish commitment as suspect and offers no possibilities to express it in an integrated mode.

The Controversial: This model of people like the German journalist Henryk Broder is no less problematic in the European context. Today’s prominent underdogs in Europe are Muslim – of whom a significant proportion are antagonistic towards Jews, while the prominent underdogs in the Middle East are the Palestinians. If the controversial Jew wants to remain in his position, he needs to be outspokenly critical of the State of Israel and may find himself in a trap. In this revised version of self-hate, such figures occasionally become “ethnic caution” of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli discourses.

For the comedian and the folkloric Jews, the situation is similar. Their Judaism is considered a negative trait and they lack the positive content that would make them able to provide the young generation with a vision and a valuable life project.

Concluding Remarks

European Jewry is thus at a critical point, possibly a watershed, in its history. Faced with a European model that provides little place for strongly affirmed identities and that the recent demographic shifts have made stricter than ever, they have to make a life choice. They can subscribe to this model and become cultural Jews only. This will allow them full membership in European societies, but it comes at the cost of their own Jewishness. Indeed, as we have shown, an identity based solely on culture has little chance of being sustainable. By accepting the reduction of their Jewish identity to its cultural dimension, the integrated Jews, voluntarily or not, are willing to put it at risk for integration’s sake. They accept being not Jews, but Europeans. As for the Jews who give preference to their Jewishness, they have no choice but to live in the enclave or to find opportunities to live their identity more fully elsewhere.

The decision is thus in the hands of European leaders. If nothing is done, the more practicing Jews will relocate in self-segregated neighborhoods, the more nationalistic ones will relocate in Israel, the more ambitious will seek more promising horizons farther afield, while the masses who do not make these choices will drift toward assimilation.

The real question therefore concerns the possibility of an alternative model that will allow European Jews to remain proud and serious Jews while engaging towards a broader society. Could European leaders change their minds and – like their counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic –build environments that will allow European Jews to “act Jewishly for non-Jewish causes” and follow the ancestral universal biblical commandment of TIKKUN OLAM (see figure 1)? This is the question.

[1] See for example the lively debate other the pages of the Mosaic Magazine in August 2013 that started with Michel Gurfinkiel’s essay “You Only Live Twice”. See also Jonathan Tobin’s article inCommentary “The end of European Jewry” and my in-depth study about European Jewry challenges: European Jewry – Signals and Noise.”

[2], p.7.