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 a question is 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 more than 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 Chassidim joined forces with Reform women rabbis to fight U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and succeeded, for a time, in driving anti-Semitism out of the public realm and political discourse.
Thousands of 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, the 21st century has witnessed an unanticipated development in Western Europe. A new study conducted by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research indicates that young European Jews are more connected to the Jewish community than their parents are.
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 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.
If the European trends are so positive, why are we worried? And why do 45 percent of young European-Jewish adults say that they are considering leaving the continent because they see no future for their children there?
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 percent of the world’s Jews lived in Europe. After the Holocaust, European Jewry accounted for 35 percent of the global Jewish population. Today, only 9 percent 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 percent of the local community) have left France over the past two decades, half of them for Israel, half for other countries.
The future of European Jewry is hazy because the future of Europe itself is 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.
Three overarching trends are changing Europe and could, as a side effect, cause the Jewish communities to decline: economic and social deterioration, massive migration from Islamic states and rising anti-Semitism.
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, experts at forging new paths of survival.
Still, should the trends mentioned above persist, 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. As noted, 45 percent of young Jews are considering leaving the continent. Surveys show that 60 percent 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.
Dov Maimon is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). He leads the Institute’s activities in Europe and was the author of the 2015 Israeli government’s Action Plan for bringing the developing mass migration of French Jews to Israel.
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